THE GREAT TRUST BANK ROBBERY

1971

In a daring raid on 28 April 1971, a security van containing over R240 000 was taken from outside the Commissioner Street branch of the Trust Bank in Johannesburg. At the time, it was the biggest bank robbery in South African history and one which the South African press was comparing to the biggest robberies of them all: the theft of over R7-million worth of German national gold reserves by American military personnel and German civilians in 1945, and the Great Train robbery in Britain, in 1963, which netted R5-million. But, what is perhaps even more amazing about the crime is that it was planned and executed, not by professional thieves, but by two complete amateurs. Derek Whitehead and Willem Antonie van der Merwe, both aged thirty, were painting contractors who decided to rob a bank in order to solve their firm's financial difficulties. When the two robbers finally counted their loot, they were surprised to discover just how much money they had stolen.

In 1968, Whitehead and Van der Merwe became partners in a painting business. For over a year, the firm did well until about the middle of 1970, when things took a turn for the worse. At first, the idea of robbing a bank was simply a joke, but when things got to the stage where they couldn't pay their domestic accounts, it was no longer a laughing matter. “We were absolutely desperate,” Whitehead would later admit.

At the beginning of 1971, the two men decided that their best option was to sell their houses in Johannesburg, buy ground on the Garden Route, and build holiday cottages together. With this plan in mind, Whitehead and Van der Merwe drove to Knysna to look at plots. It was while they were travelling to the coast that it suddenly occurred to them how easy it would be to break into some of the small town banks that they passed. The idea quickly took root and by the time the two men returned to Johannesburg, they had already made serious plans. In March of the same year, they acquired cutting equipment and tools and an accomplice by the name of Gilbert Mthembu and set out once more. This time their destination was Uniondale in the Cape Province.

Around dawn, the three of them smashed a window at the back of the Uniondale branch of the Volkskas Bank and entered the building. Then, realizing that it would soon be daylight and that the locals would be up and about, they reluctantly abandoned the attempt and set out for Knysna.

The next day, they considered a renewed attempt but couldn't pluck up sufficient courage to break in and decided to head back to the Transvaal. En route they stopped at Aberdeen and attempted to rob the Volkskas Bank there. While Whitehead kept watch at the front, van der merwe and Mthembu entered the bank through a back window. Fifteen minutes later they were back at the car. As it turned out, the safe was made of carbon steel and was resistant to cutting torches.

Back in Johannesburg, the Trust Bank repossessed the cars Whitehead and van der Merwe were using, and the two men finally decided to close down their business. Ironically, it was while van der Merwe was discussing the situation with a bank official at the Hilibrow branch of the Trust Bank that the idea of stealing a security van first occurred to him. He saw some money being brought in and was amazed at the security firm's negligence in that its vehicle was left unattended outside the bank for over fifteen minutes.

For some days after that van der Merwe followed the security van. “We noticed that the van regularly called at the Fox Street branch after being at the Reserve Bank,” Whitehead explained. “We knew that if we obtained keys to the van it would be simple to drive off with it as it was left unguarded in front of the bank.”

The problem was how to obtain the keys to the vehicle, but this proved much easier to solve than either of them expected. After giving the matter some thought, the two men decided to cause the van to break down, follow it to the garage where it was sent to be repaired, and try to obtain duplicates there.

On the night of 25 April, they went to the Trust Bank building where the van was parked, unguarded, and poured two gallons of oil into the petrol tank. They followed the van the next day, but the oil apparently had no effect. That night they returned to the Trust Bank building. This time they added water to the fuel. “The following day we followed the van,” Whitehead explained. “It broke down as a result of the water and it was taken to a local garage for repair.” At first they tried to get imprints of the keys, but were not successful. Van der Merwe then managed to steal the keys, which were kept in the van at the garage, have copies made, and return the originals with no-one any the wiser.

It was of this advanced stage of the operation that Whitehead decided to tell his wife of their plans, as they needed a third vehicle in case the security van was intercepted. “I suspected something was in the air when Derek told me not to worry because they had a plan to get some money,”Jeanette Whitehead admitted, “but I never expected it was going to be unlawful.”

A blazing row followed, but Whitehead was determined to go through with the plan. In the end, his wife agreed to drive their car a fawn Mercedes behind the security company's van.

Her job was to remain nearby throughout the operation in case the two men required a getaway car. Van der Merwe and Whitehead had false number plates made for the Mercedes and hired a Volkswagen kombi from a local garage. The kombi was to transport the money transferred from the security van.

On Tuesday, 27 April 1971, they set out early in the morning to carry out the robbery. Derek Whitehead drove the kombi, while Jeanette Whitehead and van der Merwe followed in the Mercedes. On this occasion, however, the security personnel only stayed inside the bank a few moments and the plan had to be aborted. They tried again the next day. At the second attempt, the whole operation went off as smooth as clockwork: van der Merwe stepped out of the Mercedes, strolled over to the security van, let himself in and drove off.

On a patch of open ground a few blocks away from the bank, the money was swiftly transferred to the kombi. Mr A. Smith, an alert employee at an adjacent warehouse, witnessed the whole scene. “I immediately became suspicious when I saw a red kombi and a fawn coloured Mercedes driving around the security van,” Mr Smith said. “And I managed to get a good look at the woman who was driving the Mercedes. She was a white woman in a red pill-box hat.”

After abandoning the security truck, the three robbers drove to Parktown where they loaded the money into van der Merwe's car and abandoned the kombi in the northern suburbs. Later that evening, they dumped the money boxes in the Vaal River near Vanderbjl Park. Whitehead packed the money into a space above the ceiling of his caravan and set off for Knysna with his wife and four children. They arrived in Knysna on Saturday, 1 May, and booked into the Brenton-on-Lake Hotel. Three days later, they were joined by Van der Merwe and his wife, Marlene. The couples immediately split up again. The Whiteheads moved to Brenton-on-Lake holiday resort, and the van der Merwe's booked in at the Leisure Isle Hotel. On Sunday, 9 May, Tony and Marlene van der Merwe headed for Bloemfontein to visit Marlene's parents

At the time of the robbery, the police had little or nothing to go on. Furthermore, the raid had been carried out with so much speed and precision, that they believed they were dealing with a team of professional bank robbers The fact that the robbers had been able to drive the van away with a set of duplicate keys was seen as highly significant and indicated an 'inside job'. However, the more they questioned the employees of the security firm, the more the police became convinced that they were not involved.

The police then broadened the scale of their inquiries to encompass anyone who was even remotely connected to the crime. They soon realized that duplicate keys had been obtained while the van was at the garage. Slowly, a picture emerged. After almost two weeks of intensive investigation, a tenuous link connected van der Merwe to the crime and the police wanted to question him. However, when they called at his house, they found it locked. Neighbors believed he had gone to Bloemfontein with his wife to visit his in-laws.

By this time the police had established that van der Merwe and Whitehead were in serious financial difficulties; that van der Merwe resembled the man seen driving the security van; and that his Mercedes was similar to the one used in the robbery. Mr Smith had seen a fawn Mercedes when the money was transferred. On 10 May, the Brixton Murder and Robbery Squad asked the Orange Free State police to be on the lookout for Whitehead's Mercedes.

On Thursday, 13 May, van der Merwe was spotted at a Bloemfontein roadblock. He was tailed to the house where he was staying and later arrested. Shortly afterwards, he made a full confession. That evening, a police van with a police dog and handler from Knysna quietly drew up next to the Whitehead's caravan and spent the night on guard.

The Whiteheads were arrested at 3 a.m. on Friday morning at the Little Switzerland Hotel in the Drakensburg where they were staying. They had arrived at 4.30 p.m. the previous day. A team of CID detectives from Johannesburg, the Orange Free State and Natal were involved in the swoop. After the arrest, the Whiteheads were taken to Bloemfontein for questioning and Jeanette Whitehead was taken to Johannesburg where she appeared briefly in court. A team of twelve detectives was flown back to the caravan park in two army helicopters.

That some Friday afternoon, Derek Whitehead and Willem Antonie van der Merwe were driven back to Knysna in a police car. Together, they unlocked the caravan and showed the detectives where the money was hidden. Sackfulls of money, mostly R10 notes, were removed from the ceiling of the caravan and stacked in the boot of the police car. Of the R240 000 stolen, all but R1 538 was recovered.

Derek Whitehead and Willem van der Merwe were remanded in custody pending trial. Jeanette Whitehead was granted bail of R1 000.

The trial of the Trust Bank robbers opened at the Criminal Sessions on 14 June 1971. All three accused pleaded guilty to the theft of R241 000 from the Trust Bank on 28 April 1971. After a two-day trial, the judge, Mr Justice M.E. Theron, delivered his verdict. He first postponed the passing of sentence on Jeanette Whitehead for three years, out of consideration for her children, and she was released. “No doubt my leniency in this regard will be criticized,” he said, “but I am prepared to face such critics. My tender feelings for her young children have persuaded me to deal with Mrs Whitehead as leniently as possible.” The judge also added that he accepted that Mrs Whitehead had 'passionately pleaded' with her husband to give up the scheme, 'fearing for his safety'.

A deeply distressed Mrs Whitehead was then taken from the court by an official.

Mr Justice Theron then turned his attention to the two men. They stood condemned, he maintained, for the 'cold, calculated and ingenious way they had set about a scheme which might have been successful'.

He also pointed out that Whitehead and van der Merwe had not acted on the impulse of sudden temptation, but had carefully planned the whole operation in detail. The fact that they were in a poor financial state was no excuse. “It is my duty,” Mr Justice Theron concluded, “to impose a severe sentence because the likelihood of hauls from financial institutions is a temptation and an evil which has to be stamped out.”

Hushed exclamations rose from the capacity crowd when he sentenced each of the two men to fourteen years in prison.

Gilbert Mthembu was arrested by the police following van der Merwe's and Whitehead's full confession relating to the robbery and the events which led up to it.

In September 1971, the Appellate Division upheld the appeal of Whitehead and Van der Merwe against the severity of their sentences. The sentences for both men were reduced to 10 years.

In September 1971, Van der Merwe, Whitehead and Gilbert Mthembu appeared at Graaff-Reinet Regional Court in connection with their attempted robberies of Volkskas Banks at Uniondale and Aberdeen. The two men received additional one-year jail sentences.

Derek Whitehead and Willem Antonie van der Merwe were released on parole on 14 June 1975, after serving only four years of their jail sentences.

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