A man serving a life sentence for murder and rape who escaped from a top-security prison with help from guards by faking his own burning death was brought back to South Africa early Thursday after going on the run with his girlfriend.
The couple were arrested in Tanzania last weekend.
State broadcaster SABC showed video of Thabo Bester being driven from Johannesburg’s Lanseria Airport in a police vehicle with bars across the windows. Heavily-armed police put the girlfriend, celebrity doctor Nandipha Magudumana, into a separate white van at the airport.
Magudumana was expected to be charged with murder as part of the elaborate jailbreak plot, which involved getting a dead body into the prison where Bester was incarcerated to help him stage his own death in a fire and escape.
A prison guard and Magudumana’s father already were charged with murder in connection with the body of a man found burned beyond recognition in Bester’s cell. The unidentified man died of blunt force trauma to the head before the fire, police said.
Police and officials from South Africa’s Ministry of Justice confirmed Bester and Magudumana were back in the country and said more arrests were expected.
Bester was convicted on one count of murder and two counts of rape and sentenced in 2012. He escaped from Mangaung Correctional Centre in Free State province nearly a year ago, when he was formally declared dead by suicide after the fire in his cell.
Details were only made public and pieced together in the past three weeks. Critics allege officials intentionally covered up the story.
Lawmakers held an hourslong parliamentary hearing Wednesday into security failures that played a role in the breakout. They questioned senior officials from the prison and British private security company G4S, which has a long-term contract to run it.
Three prison employees, the night supervisor and two guards who worked in the security camera control room, were fired due to suspicion they helped Bester escape amid the confusion of the predawn blaze in his cell on May 3, 2022.
Although one was charged with murder, lawmaker Glynnis Breytenbach said she suspected more guards and officials were bribed to get the body into the cell and help Bester escape.
“How many palms were greased?” Breytenbach asked during the hearing. “Are you honestly telling us this escape of Hollywood proportion was done with the assistance of only three people?”
The prison and G4S officials conceded under questioning that a TV cabinet big enough to possibly hide a dead body in was brought into the prison in an unauthorized vehicle hours before Bester broke out around 4 a.m. the following morning. Neither the cabinet nor the vehicle was searched.
They also said top prison officials gave Bester permission to be transferred to a single-occupant cell three days before his escape. The cell was situated next to a fire exit, which he’s believed to have used to flee.
Lawmaker Xola Nqola said it was “not a coincidence” that Bester was moved to that cell.
An internal investigation by G4S found the prison’s security camera recording system had a “power interruption” around the time of the escape.
Bester was a renowned criminal known as the “Facebook rapist” for using the social media site to lure his victims to meetings. He was found guilty of murder for stabbing his girlfriend, a model, to death in 2011 and raping two other female models.
For months after Bester’s escape, he and Magudumana, whom police identified as his “accomplice,” lived in a mansion in a wealthy suburb of Johannesburg, driving luxury cars while running a company that allegedly defrauded businesses out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to media reports.
Authorities only announced publicly last month that Bester did not die in his cell and had escaped after South African news organization GroundUp reported that the charred body found in the cell wasn’t Bester’s, according to findings from the autopsy.
The news and heightened public interest in the case appeared to have spurred Bester and Magudumana to flee the country. It also produced heavy criticism against authorities for failing to warn the public that a dangerous criminal was on the loose.
The parliamentary hearing focused on the initial prison failures and continued Thursday. More hearings were scheduled on what police, the Department of Corrections and South Africa’s Ministry of Justice knew about Bester’s escape and when they found out about it.