Alex Eliseev: His name is Louca
In an unusual show of diplomatic prowess, South Africa has brought Lolly Jackson's alleged killer, George Louca, home to face the music. And it only took four years. The extradition is set to send ripples across the underworld. Is Louca the missing puzzle piece in the grand unravelling?
A few minutes before George Louca was led up into the dock, coughing loudly as he climbed the stairs, four members of the police's uber-elite Special Task Force spilled out into the courtroom from the holding cells. Without saying a word, they split up into pairs and positioned themselves on opposite sides of the room. The two near the public entrance actually stood back-to-back, like they do in the movies when the enemy is attacking from all directions. They were dressed in full camouflage, even if it didn't do much good against the brick walls.
Members of the Special Task Force, in case you aren't familiar with them, are the guys who get sent in to diffuse hostage situations, take down terrorists or to storm a house full of armed robbers (as was the case with the Jeppestown Massacre). They are the elite of the elite and don't roll out for just any underworld riff-raff. In fact, in all the cases I've covered, I don't ever remember seeing them guarding courtrooms. Their chiselled chins and poker faces are wasted on such petty errands.
So the only conclusion one can reach from their presence is that: a) George Louca is under serious threat and b) whatever he has to offer is worth protecting.
Louca, or "Mr Smith", fled South Africa after Lolly Jackson was gunned down in early May 2010. First he went off the radar and then got himself arrested and spent two years fighting off extradition attempts from inside a jail. He wasn't very successful and lost not only his legal battles but also some weight.
Eventually, on 8 January this year, the Supreme Court in Cyprus rejected Louca's final appeal and, a month later, the government of that country gave the thumbs up for him to be flown home. A local Interpol team was dispatched and on Sunday, Louca stepped out of an airplane in Johannesburg.
On Monday, he made his first court appearance at the Kempton Park Magistrates Court. Ironically, he was in the same courtroom where Czech fugitive Radovan Krejcir is busy fighting his own extradition battle.
Louca is now facing a wall of charges including murder and money laundering. Two old cases of being in possession of stolen goods worth around R1.8 million (from 2006 and 2007) have also caught up with him. His back is firmly against the wall and he has few options left. To fight these charges would take a mammoth effort, a fat piggy bank and months, if not years. To go down in silence would mean a long stretch in jail. To try to get back to Cyprus (without Interpol on his back) would require setting foot out on the streets of Jo'burg, where bombs go off and remotely-controlled cars fire hidden shotguns.
In all probability, Louca will be inclined to strike a deal with the state and turn state witness.
The question, then, is how much does he know? The allegation is that he was the middleman, so to speak, in an international money-laundering scheme which involved Lolly Jackson and Radovan Krejcir. It's likely he knew a lot more than just the financial shenanigans and may have valuable information around the underworld networks which stretch all the way from Johannesburg to Cape Town. He also probably knows a whole lot about the policemen - some of them very senior - involved in these networks. All that makes him a dangerous man, at least in the witness stand.
The timing of Louca's return is interesting. The Krejcir crackdown is in full swing, with a special police team (appointed by police chief Riah Phiyega herself) investigating him and his associates. Krejcir is in jail, having been refused bail. His assets have been frozen. Many of his friends are dead. If not on the ropes yet, he has certainly taken some heavy punches and is about to face the fight of his lifetime.
As we've said before, this feels like the grand unravelling, the beginning of the end. And Louca's arrival could prove to be the final missing piece of the puzzle. If he is, we should see a sensational trial, which may just tie up most of the loose ends and explain all the dead bodies, starting with slain German businessman Uwe Gemballa.
Sean Newman, who worked with Lolly Jackson and his family, was in court. He believes Louca is now in a "last chance saloon" and no lawyer will be able to help him beat the charges. Newman doesn't believe Louca pulled the trigger, but he certainly believes the Cypriot knows who did, and can lift the lid on a "dark and murky" world.
"There's a very big crackdown on the way and this is a major piece of the puzzle we've been waiting for," he says. "It's a hell of a feeling to see him standing in that dock, to know that he is here and that we may finally get the answers."
The Hawks aren't ready to discuss any deals yet - at least not with journalists - but say that Louca is co-operating with detectives.
"It's too early to be saying that, but we are saying we are confident we have the main man into the murder of Lolly Jackson," says spokesman Paul Ramaloko. "What he decides to disclose to us is really up to him, but we are happy about the level of co-operation he has displayed from the time he arrived… and we hope he will keep the same spirit as the case proceeds."
Deals like the one Louca would need to cement with the National Prosecuting Authority are always excruciating to predict, especially in the post-Kebble era. They happen behind closed doors, drag out as lawyers and prosecutors dance around the issue of sentence and are sometimes only revealed in the eleventh hour. But however long the wait, it will be worth it.
Alex Eliseev is an EWN reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @alexeliseev
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.