Ben and the Bomb

A Tale about Pious People

J. Francois Barnard – 15 July 2014

It is with reluctance that I am telling this tale. It is both comic and tragic. Comic in the sheer audacity of it all, and tragic as it ruined a family. I do not tell this from mere hearsay. It was a personal experience for me. Quite unbelievable, you might think, and I would agree. Yet I was there and felt the shockwaves and the pain. But let me not get ahead of myself.

The highlights of this tale played off between 2000 and 2008, but actually, it all started much earlier. Perhaps in the 1970s, when Ben was still a young man.

life08Ben was a churchgoing man. And that is where I met him during the early 1990s. We were the pioneers starting a small church in our area. Ben had a cell group at his home, which grew rapidly. As cell groups grow, you split them up, starting new cell groups, and that is how the church grows.

My cell group was perhaps the third or fourth group formed under the leading of Ben and his wife and the auspices of the church. Between 1994 and 1998 it divided up a few more times. That made Ben and his wife our “area shepherds.” As I said: Ben was a churchgoing man.


He worked for a businessman in our church. As a draughtsman, he used CATIA on an IBM RISC 6000 computer drawing 3D-models. My IT-business supplied the drip-feed computers for the CNC-machines, and Ben’s 3D-models took shape as the milling machines would cut the patterns. The business grew rapidly, and Ben was well remunerated.

On a personal level, somehow, Ben and his wife suffered from some confetti-allergy. No, I cannot say who was at fault. All I could see was that the seven-year itch hit them badly. I do not know how many times they divorced and remarried over the years, but by 1999 the itch reappeared. By then, both their beautiful children were already out of the nest. This allergy was just one of the contributing factors to Ben’s demise.


But let’s return to the church.

Any fast-growing organization experiences growing pains. The church too. They say if you find the perfect church, please don’t join it! It won’t be perfect any longer.

People make a church. People with their problems and poor self-esteem. The manipulators, swingers, narcissists, psychopaths, and sweet old ladies. You name it, and they all have been to church.

One day, someone prophesied in our church. It was a warning that the church was about to be shaken. The tragic thing about this prophecy was that leaders of the church did not recognize it when it happened! Now, whatever you think of prophecies, and whether you are comfortable with it or not, the long and short of this tale is that the epicenter of the quake that hit the church was with Ben, our churchgoing man.


The global recession of 1998 hit us all hard. Ben’s employer too. They wanted to restructure their business and lay some of the staff off. But it would cost them dearly to lay Ben off, so they found a flimsy excuse to fire him without severance pay. He could have fought it in labor court, but that is not what church people do. You do not take your brother to court.

So, Ben went into construction. He would do civil drawings on AutoCAD and take on small building projects. Financially they suffered. Under these circumstances, the seven-year itch was back, and he and his wife split up.

When you break your arm, you keep it in a sling close to your body for support. But not in this church. When Ben and his wife split up, the pastor decided to amputate this wayward limb and forbade anyone to have contact with them.

But those were only the foreshocks hitting the church. On the horizon were dark, foreboding storm clouds of a hurricane forming. The church did not know that a combination of a huge seismic event and a tropical cyclone was about to shake them as the prophecy foretold.


It was January 2000 when I got the call. “Ben is in the Lyttelton Police cells. He tried to rob a bank!”

I could not believe it. It must be some mistake. I drove to the Lyttelton Police Station and found him in the cells.

“Brother,” he said, “I messed up!”


My largest client at the time was in Lyttelton too, just around the corner from the police station. I could visit Ben regularly in the cells while he was awaiting trial. One day, I was held up in traffic and could only reach the police station after the visiting hours. I asked an officer to take some snacks and cold drinks to him, but the officer invited me in and locked me up with Ben in his cell.

Ben shared his cell with three other men. The layout of police cells is quite different from jail cells. You enter the cell via the bathroom. I kid you not. Yes, the bathroom with two showers on either side. Adjacent to the left and right of the bathroom are two bedrooms. There is absolutely no privacy. The prisoners sleep in bunk beds – one at the bottom and one at the top. In each bedroom is a stainless steel toilet.

Ben’s roommate was a young student who killed his whole family while high on drugs. “He doesn’t sleep at night,” said Ben. Not that sleeping would be easy. Every hour the guards made their rounds to check if no one has attempted suicide.


Before 2000 I never knew anyone behind bars. But strangely, within six short months, I knew no less than five people who found themselves within the penitentiary system.

One flamboyant man from Melville was out on parole. Billy, also in the IT-industry, was in the Baviaanspoort jail. Ben, together with two other members of our holy congregation, were awaiting trial. One molested a girl, the other evaded tax, and Ben was our bank robber.


Ben’s robberies started in 1999. Later, when a friend and I visited him in Baviaanspoort’s maximum-security jail, he told us about it all. His first robbery was the Sinoville Post Office, walking distance from his home. Not that he walked. His getaway car was an old beat up utility truck — the same one he used daily to do construction work. He disguised himself. He had a full beard, and he covered his bald head with a beanie and stuck a Band-Aid over his nose. He walked into the empty post office just before closing time and asked to speak to the postmaster. With a soft and calm voice, he told the postmaster that this was an armed robbery, and he showed the Glock pistol he stuck into the back of his pants. He added that he had never done this before. He asked the postmaster to suggest as to how they should get the money from the cashiers into the grocery bags.

The postmaster got the fright of his life.

He suggested that they should go to the cashiers and tell them that this was the man from head office, and they should put all the cash into the bags. Ben collected the cash, got into his utility truck, and drove home with about R50,000.

The detectives at the Sinoville Police Station suspected from day one that Ben was their robber on the loose. His was the only utility truck in the area that fit the description given by the post office staff. But something threw them off. Someone else was also robbing businesses in Kempton Park, about 70 kilometers away. This bearded robber also wore a beanie and a Band-Aid over the nose. And no, Ben never knew about that.

Ben noticed people going through his trash and found it strange as they did not look like the homeless looking for food. The detectives were building a case against him, yet, he went on and robbed the Villeria Post Office.

Meanwhile, he went on doing his regular construction work for people, and sometimes he could not pay his wages. One morning between 7 and 8 a.m., he led a Christian businessmen’s meeting, playing the guitar and singing worship songs. When Saambou Bank opened at 9 a.m., he robbed them.

“What did you do with the money?” I asked.

“I blew it all!” was his simple reply.

By January 2000, about a week before his last robbery went wrong, Ben came to my house and asked me to order a three-button Logitek mouse for him. It was the only type of mouse he could use with AutoCAD. As I handed it over to him, I could smell alcohol on his breath.

“Did you hear? Ben is frequenting the casinos north of the city!” a gossip told me.

I did not think much of it. If Ben could drink, he could gamble too, and who am I to judge him? Little did I know that I could add “robbery” to the list of his carnal sins.


By the end of that week, Ben had his master plan ready for ABSA Bank in Lyttelton. With his regular disguise, he walked into the bank and calmly told the cashier that the bag he held in his hand had a bomb in it. He handed her another bag to fill up with cash.

Unbeknown to him was that all the banks in Pretoria were informed of his disguise, and the security guards called the police. Within three minutes, the police were all over the place and pushed him to the ground. There he spilled all the beans and confessed all his robberies to them.

He was, after all, a churchgoing man!


Ben traumatized the staff of two post offices, three Saambou Banks, and one ABSA Bank and took money that did not belong to him. He was wrong and admitted it as such. I could have researched all the court documents before telling you this tale. But I knew that I would have encountered the mudslinging, truth, and lies as he and his lawyer tried to get him a lighter judgment. In the end, the judgment was based on anti-terrorist legislation, because he made a bomb threat. The Judge sentenced him to 22 years in jail.


Ben came to his senses while sitting in the Baviaanspoort maximum-security jail. He had remorse for having disappointed so many people. He wanted to make amends and wrote a letter to the church. He gave it to me and requested that somebody would read it to them. But that was not to be. The pastor was furious that I went against his specific instructions not to have contact with Ben. That his instructions were not exactly scriptural, did not occur to him.

After 26 years in this denomination, I left it. I had enough. Another church welcomed my family.


life09I wish I could tell you that I did the noble deed of visiting Ben regularly after his sentencing, but I didn’t. At first, the authorities restricted his visits to one per month. I did not want to take his family’s visitation opportunities away. Later, we could visit him more often after the authorities transferred him to a medium-security jail.

Ben led church services in jail. He played guitar and led them in worship. He could speak English, Afrikaans, and Zulu, and the other inmates loved him. He had favor with the warden and the guards. They utilized his skills to teach others.

After eight years, the parole board released Ben at first just for a weekend. He visited his daughter and later wrote me a letter about it. He could not believe how quiet their house was. The jail was always noisy. For the first time in eight years, he could wake up to the singing of birds. The authorities subsequently released him on full parole.

His family spoilt him with food he never had in jail. He wanted to barbeque every day and loved lamb chops — may be too much of it. Eighteen days after his release, Ben had a heart attack and died. He was approximately sixty years old.


I will always remember that funeral in Centurion. The pastor started: “We are here to celebrate forgiveness!” Ben’s dynamic son brought a tribute to his dad and had us laughing and crying.

In attendance were Ben’s family and some friends of his daughter who only saw him twice after his release. An officer of the Department of Correctional Services also attended. He told me about the significant impact Ben’s life had on the inmates.

Then there were some of the old church people too. The pious people. They never visited him in jail, but when he died, they circled like vultures.

Ben’s life and death touched us all. He never justified his wrong deeds. He had remorse and wanted to repair the damages done. But he was gone before he could do so.