According to independent digital publication Groundup, on June 11, 2022, a prison warden at the Mangaung Correctional Centre in Bloemfontein, South Africa, sent an email to the South African Deputy Minister of Correctional Services, Phathekile Holomisa, with the question. “Are you aware that the inmate who ‘allegedly’ burnt to death at Mangaung Correctional Centre was supposedly assisted to escape by the Mangaung Correctional Centre & Department of Correctional Services officials at the prison to escape?” he asked.
The prisoner in question was Thabo Bester, infamously known as the “Facebook Rapist”. He was serving a life sentence for murder and a series of rapes, a sentence passed in 2012. Bester lured women by promising them international modelling gigs via the social media site, after which he robbed and raped them at knifepoint.
On May 3, 2022 at around 3 a.m., an officer at the maximum security correctional facility where Bester was incarcerated reported smoke coming from Bester’s cell. A mattress had been set alight in the cell in which Bester had been isolated and a body was found beneath it, burnt beyond recognition.
At the time, the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) announced that the body found in the cell was indeed that of Bester, a “fact” which was widely repeated by South African media. Even the BBC reported the supposed death of Bester.
“We are able to confirm that the inmate in question [Bester] passed away on May 3, 2022. As required by law, an inquest docket was opened and there is cooperation with authorities in that regard,” said DCS spokesperson Singabakho Nxumalo at the time.
Suicide or murder?
Initially, Bester’s death was thought by police to likely be a suicide by self-imolation. However, a post-mortem report confirmed that the body found charred in the cell, which to that point was believed to be Bester’s, had succumbed to blunt force trauma injuries to the head and not the fire itself. Stab wounds were also identified on the body.
According to a source who spoke with GroundUp, they allegedly spoke to Bester a few days before he died in which they observed him being “uncharacteristically happy” and even mentioning that he would be “going away soon”, an utterance the source found odd as Bester was serving a life sentence.
After the fire, SAPS Free State spokesperson Brigadier Motantsi Makhele, confirmed that DNA samples were taken from the body after the fire, and also said it was “still to be confirmed” whether the body was indeed Bester’s.
After the post-mortem report, which noted a “strong smell of accelerant (paraffin)” from the body’s trachea and bronchi, the police docket relating to the matter was changed from suicide to murder.
A lot more was not adding up
There remained a number of gaps in the story about Bester’s supposed demise on that fateful morning of May 3, 2022. To start with, the charred body’s height at the time of the autopsy was 1.45m, but in a police mugshot, Bester stood taller, at just over 1.7m.
Additionally, a source told GroundUp that before the fire broke out, a prison official placed Bester in a corner cell by himself. However, that cell was rarely ever used as it was difficult for CCTV cameras to see into it.
The CCTV cameras pointing to the exit of the prison were apparently not at the correct angle at 2:59:50 a. m., seconds before the smoke was first reported. However, at the edge of the frame of footage captured on a CCTV camera that night, two people could be seen hastily exiting the prison.
Perhaps, the most intriguing piece of the alleged demise of Bester was the photos from June 2022, almost two months after his supposed death, which show a man who looks like the convicted rapist and murderer shopping in Sandton City, Johannesburg.
All this evidence was shared by GroundUp with the relevant authorities, but no follow-up investigation was conducted at the time.
Running multi-million-rand scams from prison
Even during his incarceration, Bester continued his scams right from his maximum security prison cell. Bester, calling himself “Tom Motsepe”, posed as the chairman of 21st Century Media, a scam event and digital media company, which was made to look like a subsidiary of 21st Century Fox.
The company had luxurious offices in Sandton and employed more than 30 staff who were apparently given brand-new laptops at resumption.
Assuming the identity of “Tom Motsepe”, Bester’s company hosted a glitzy launch at the high-end Hilton Hotel in Johannesburg. So brazen was Bester that he made an appearance during the event via video call, in which he made the attendees sing him a “happy birthday” jingle.
The attendees, who were prominent South African entertainment industry personalities, were made to believe that he was in New York while in actual fact, he was sitting in a prison cell just 400 kilometres away.
Tom Motsepe’s profile on his website claimed that he owned 33.5% of Viacom, 12.9% of 20th Century Fox and “went on to occupy” UBS Financial Services in Switzerland.
According to former employees, Motsepe, as the managing director of the company, ran daily operations which included putting together a scam event purporting to have Halle Berry and Taraji P. Henson as special guests. M-Net channel 1Magic was the official media partner for the event.
The end, or just the beginning of the saga?
On Saturday March 26, South Africa’s department of correctional services issued a statement confirming that the body found charred beyond recognition on May 5 2022 was not that of Bester, meaning that he had indeed escaped from prison that fateful early morning. The department also issued a manhunt for him and either suspended or dismissed officers who were on duty on the morning Bester escaped.
The revelation by the DCS that Bester had indeed escaped leaves more questions that it answers. Firstly, whose body was found charred beyond recognition in Bester’s cell? According to the autopsy, the body had head and stab wounds. Who inflicted those? How did Bester escape from his cell, let alone an entire maximum security prison, which is the second largest private facility in the world, without notice? Who aided and abetted his escape?
Additionally, Bester escaped from prison in May 2022. Why did it take almost a whole year for the DCS to figure out his escape and issue a manhunt? Were it not for the exposé by GroundUp, would Bester’s escape have been “figured out”? Where is Bester now? Last, but definitely not least, how did Bester’s “Tom Motsepe” alias manage to run an entire 30-person team company from a maximum security prison, without detection?
Between June and September 2022, only months after his escape, an Instagram user alleges that Bester had gotten into contact with her, inviting her for auditions for a fake Netflix show, a similar modus operandi he had used to lure and sexually assault women before his eventual arrest.
Bester’s story not only exposes the incompetence and corruption of South Africa’s public institutions but also shows the role that social media and digital platforms can play in aiding criminality yet also curbing and exposing it.
Bester used Facebook to lure women to assault them, and he also used Twitter, as well as access to internet services to run a well-coordinated scam right from his cell in a maximum security prison.
As attention now turns towards the manhunt for Bester, it remains to be seen the role that social media and the internet in general will play in finding him. Will it, like during the quest for the truth behind the circumstances of his “death”, do a better job than the authorities?