Robbing Banks in South Africa with Police Captain Andre Stander

Stander Mugshot

Johannesburg. Late 1983. A blue Cortina XR6 Interceptor cruises the Braamfontein business district in the dry heat of a South African afternoon. It pulls up near a policeman who stands with a shotgun over his shoulder. Two well dressed men exit the car. One has blond hair in tight curls and a thin horseshoe moustache. The other is dark with thick rimmed glasses. They walk past the policeman and head towards a bank.

The policeman ignores them and scans the traffic. Brigadier Manie van Rensburg, head of Robbery and Homicide, has ordered every policeman in Johannesburg to be on the look out for the Stander gang, a trio of escaped prisoners who have been robbing banks since August, sometimes four a day. The policeman with the shotgun knows what to look for. Screeching tires, slammed brakes, waving guns. He is ready for them.

Bank Robbery, South African Style

The two men enter the bank. The blond man scans the cashiers, a row of young women behind open desks. He selects the prettiest and approaches her. He smiles. She smiles back.

‘Can I help you sir?’ she asks.

He points a revolver at her.

Outside, the policeman is still scanning the traffic. The Stander gang had better not try anything on his watch. The pump-action shotgun strap hangs heavy on his shoulder in the sun.

Inside the bank the cashier is shoving wads of cash into a bag with shaking hands. The blond man continues to smile as he holds the revolver. His friend stands nearby with his hand in his pocket. It is calm and efficient. Other bank staff look across, unsure of what is happening. The cashier fills the bag and pushes it over the desk to the blond man.

‘Thank you,’ he says.

He and his friend walk quickly out of the bank. Inside someone presses a silent alarm linked to the local police station. The two men walk past the policeman and climb into the blue Cortina. They drive smoothly off and merge into the traffic. Within a minute Andre Stander and Allan Heyl are gone.

The first police sirens sound in the distance. Employees emerge from the bank and stand, confused and scared, outside. The policeman takes the shotgun off his shoulder and slowly begins to realise something has gone very wrong.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Andre Stander never had much choice about being a policeman. His father was Major-General Frans Stander, a legendary figure in the South African police force. No matter how much the teenage Andre protested, the Major-General refused to accept his son did not want to follow in the family tradition.

At sixteen Andre, then a lozenge faced boy with a shock of light hair and a rebellious cigarette permanently stuck to his lower lip, gave the old man his opportunity. The teenager failed his matric, the High School graduation exam. It was hard to fail. In 1963 a white Afrikaaner living a privileged life under apartheid was expected to sail through. Black South Africans were second class citizens by law, condemned to inferior education, medical treatment, and employment prospects. Whites like Stander lived on a honeycomb. They did not fail their matrics. Stander was always contrary. Or perhaps he was not as smart as he thought he was.

Whatever the reason, the Major-General had the excuse he needed to get Stander into Pretoria Police College. His father’s name carried weight among the instructors and when Stander, an unenthusiastic student, graduated top of his class it raised a few eyebrows. He joined the regular police force and rose quickly through the ranks. The Major-General had got his way.

In the late 1960s Stander married Leonie, a good-looking blonde. The marriage was troubled and in 1972 they divorced. He took up with Pat Amos, a student teacher, but had broken up with her by the time she had his baby. She named their son Ernie. Convinced by his friends to do the decent thing Stander went back. He held his son in his arms, looked into his eyes, and felt nothing. Stander left and never saw Ernie again. Instead he got back together with Leonie and they remarried.

By 1977 the marriage was in trouble again. Stander was now a thirty-one-year-old Police Captain in Johannesburg’s Kempton Park Criminal Investigation Department. He had done well in his career, although jealous colleagues put this down to his father’s influence. Fellow policeman Chris Swanepoel had little respect for Andre’s abilities.

‘Sure he was a captain of the police but was he a brilliant detective? Rubbish, I say! When we were in the force together he couldn’t even catch a cold…’.

For his part Stander was contemptuous of his fellow policemen, regarding them as stupid, brutal, and incompetent. He was good at masking his emotions. No-one he worked with, not even best friend Carl van Deventer (a Bureau of State Security – BOSS – secret agent), realised the arctic scorn he felt for everyone around him.

A South African police officer in the apartheid state, a man whose relationship was falling apart, a man who worked a job he hated. A man like a lot of other men. Then one day the firm outline that is Andre Stander blurs and turns to smoke. He becomes an enigma, a puzzle without a solution. Why? Because Stander decides to rob a bank.

He gave out the morning assignments to his staff as usual then drove to Jan Smuts airport. He flew to Durban and hired a car. He put on a disguise (a wig and false beard) then drove to a bank. South African banks in the late 1970s were open plan with little security. The cashiers each sat behind a desk whose drawers were loaded with cash. There were no glass partitions. Perhaps a security guard half asleep at the door.

Stander approached a cashier, sat down, and quietly pulled a gun on her. He asked her to fill a bag with money. Terrified, she did. Stander took the money, left the bank before anyone realised what had happened, got in his car, and drove back to Louis Botha airport, peeling off his disguise on the way. Then he flew to Johannesburg in time for an afternoon’s work. It was that easy.

A Taste for Luxury

No-one knows exactly how many Durban bank robberies can be pinned on Stander (there were other men with disguises and guns doing the rounds) but he flew in to hold up banks regularly for the next three years. He got away with around 100,000 rand. A white middle manager in a large company earned perhaps 2,000 rand a month at this time. Stander was rich. He opened a souvenir shop in Durban with his friend Carl van Deventer. Unknown to van Deventer he used it launder the stolen money. He bought a large house in Pomona, Kempton Park where he lived alone after Leoni left him for good in 1978.

Stander escaped detection for so long because he knew police procedure, knew how long it would take them to respond to an alarm, and knew exactly how they would investigate the crime. The only concession he made to modifying his tactics after the first robbery was to steal cars rather than hire them. Nothing happened to make him change his opinion of the police as stupid and incompetent.

He enjoyed the robberies, picking out the prettiest cashiers to rob, and getting a thrill from the power of pointing a gun.

‘He used to watch the faces of his victims,’ said van Deventer. ‘He was laughing up his sleeve when he committed his robberies. There was an element of sadistic bullying.’

At a party in late 1979 Stander, drunk, told van Deventer about the robberies and asked him to take part. He claimed he had a stolen car parked at Jan Smuts airport. When his friend refused Stander laughed off the confession as a joke. A troubled van Demeter approached his senior officer in BOSS. They investigated the car and found wigs, fake beards, a balaclava, and a false number plate in the boot.

The car was staked out. On 3 January 1980 Stander visited the vehicle to remove some items and caught a flight to Durban where a bank was robbed. He was arrested in the Jan Smuts arrival lounge on the return trip with 4,000 rand and a revolver in his suitcase.

On 6 May 1980 he was found guilty of fifteen counts of robbery at Durban Supreme Court. He got seventeen years, to be served at Zonderwater maximum security prison.

Broers Behind Bars

Why did Stander do it? After the trial he told his family he had snapped after duty at the 1976 Tembisa riot when Black South Africans in the township, north of Kempton Park, attacked police. He had shot an unarmed man (to others he would claim to have shot many more that day) and the horror of the moment unhinged him.

It was a convincing story. The late seventies was when the previously monolithic apartheid system began to crack. The Black Consciousness Movement was gaining strength among South Africans, the Soweto riots had grabbed the attention of the world after police fired on a student protest, and black activist Steve Bilko became an icon when he was murdered in custody. By 1980, when Andre told the story, intelligent onlookers could see twilight approaching for white rule in South Africa.

Stander was lying. He was not present at the Tembisa riot.

‘He was supposed to have shot 22 people’, said van Deventer, ‘but I never heard about it. Don’t you think he would have told his best friend about it at some time or other?’

The new jailbird was a charismatic, cold blooded charmer with the ability to tell people what they wanted to hear. As a corrupt policeman Stander should have suffered at the hands of both guards and prisoners but instead became a popular figure. The prison guards, brutal symbols of the apartheid regime, liked him. The other prisoners enjoyed his company.

In 1980 George Allan Heyl was a troubled, aggressive twenty-eight-year-old three years into a sentence for robbing five banks in Pretoria. “The most negative, self-destructive misfit alive”, in his own words, came from a modest background. A good all-rounder at school, Heyl started a teacher training degree but dropped out. He hated apartheid, society, South Africa, and himself. By the mid-1970s he could not control his inner rage and began to steal cars. He soon moved on to other crimes.

‘I saw a bank with one teller in it,’ he said. ‘The more I saw myself robbing the bank, the more it became a reality. I finally robbed the bank and because I was not caught, I tried it again. Justifications such as “I didn’t hurt anyone”, “I was not caught”, “I need the money to survive”, make the wrongdoing seem like the right thing.’

In 1977 he was caught and sent to Zonderwater. Three years later he met Stander. The ex-police captain flattered the younger man.

‘I’ve heard all about you,’ he told Heyl. ‘I’m delighted to meet South Africa’s most notorious.’

Heyl hated apartheid. Stander claimed he did too. He also claimed to share Heyl’s admiration for Bob Dylan and the Rote Armee Fraktion, the German Marxist terror group. Heyl saw in Stander an older, more confident version of himself.

‘I hated the South African system,’ said Heyl, ‘and, as we were both bank robbers and both set on a campaign of defiance, we were ideal company’.

Heyl thought he had met a soul mate but observers felt Stander psychologically dominated the Pretoria bank robber. Even Heyl had to admit Stander was ice cold.

‘He was calculating. He was, I think, beyond emotion’.

They became a trio with the addition of Patrick Lee McCall, a nervy and balding thirty-year-old car thief and bank robber with an impulsive streak. They talked constantly about escape.

Come On Allan, Let’s Go!

In the late summer of 1983 Stander and McCall began to complain about back pains. On 11 August they and five other prisoners were escorted to physiotherapist Amelia Grobler’s consulting rooms near Cullinan. In the waiting room Stander And McCall attacked the three guards, took their revolvers, and stole Grobler’s car keys. Out the door and gone. The pair rolled up at a nearby farm and took the owner and his teenage son hostage. The farmer was forced to call the police.

A lone officer turned up in a van and was over powered. Stander stole his uniform and forced him into the back of the van with the other hostages. With McCall riding shotgun they drove off and hijacked another car, driven by Nakkie Fouche. She went in the back of the van and the pair drove off in her Opel.

Stander and McCall spent two months holed up in Johannesburg avoiding the police search, although they ventured out once to rob the United Building Society and got away with 13,000 rand. They hid in a Holiday Inn posing as gym enthusiasts with squash racquets and sports bags before Stander rented a house on Sixth Avenue, Houghton, a wealthy part of town. He hired servants. The last place the police would look for escaped convicts was among the rich.

On 31 October they headed to Olifantsfontein. After the escape Heyl had been interrogated and knocked about by the guards. He knew nothing. The prison authorities eventually accepted his innocence and allowed him to resume his routine, which included studying for a trade qualification.

‘I was doing a test at the Olifantsfontein trade test centre,’ Heyl said, ‘and I heard Andre saying, “Come on Allan, let’s go!” I looked up and saw the five guards lying face down with Andre and McCall standing over them with their guns drawn. We ran out, jumped into the Cortina, and drove off with me in the back.’

Stander and McCall gave Heyl three weeks of luxury at their safe house in Houghton, enjoying good food, servants, and alcohol. One morning Stander walked into Heyl’s room and tossed a black wig and false moustache on the bed.

‘Are you ready to start work, Allan?’ he asked.

The three escaped prisoners went back to robbing banks. Over the next two months they would hit twenty banks, on one occasion four the same day, netting over 500,000 rand. The raids were quick and clean with no violence. The three would enter a bank, select a teller and quietly order her to fill a bag with money before confidently strolling out. At least once the security guard held the door open for them as they left, unaware of what had happened.

‘There were rules: no shouting, no flashing guns, no planning and no designer violence,’ said Heyl. ‘In fact the outstanding feature of all the robberies was that they went off so calmly that they were actually mundane. The object of the exercise was not to terrorise people, but to basically get in and out as quickly as possible, because we were in the process of robbing three or four banks a day.’

The Stander gang (or ‘Hopper Gang’ for their technique of hopping from bank to bank) found themselves on newspaper front pages day after day. The public began to cheer them on. Outlaws, bandits, three men against the world. Stander’s fake horseshoe moustache, caught on a security camera, became a real life fashion in Johannesburg. The gang were an embarrassment to the government. Brigadier Manie van Rensburg was put in charge of a special task force to stop them. Stander and his friends, Van Rensburg told the press, were on borrowed time.

Safe Houses

The gang lived in luxury. They had their house in Houghton with servants and a line of expensive cars (most stolen) in the garage. Stander was fond of yellow Porsches. They acquired another safe house in Linmeyer and later a third back in Houghton. They ate in restaurants every night, shopped in upscale stores for clothes and toiletries, and filled their kitchens with champagne. High class prostitutes trotted in and out of the safe houses. Stander, in particular, had an inexhaustible appetite for women.

The police briefed journalists that in October, not long after his breakout, Stander lured a teenage model to the Kyalami Ranch Hotel, Johannesburg, on the pretence of being a photographer, and raped her. Some journalists, like Chris Steyn, a rare female hard-nosed crime reporter, thought this a smear to counter Stander’s growing popularity and refused to run the story. Others believed it and did. The public did not care and continued to see the gang as heroes making fools of the establishment.

On the inside things were becoming shaky. Stander barely escaped arrest on several occasions, once jogging through a police stake out in the early morning and another time having to run from a restaurant when he was recognised by a fellow diner. McCall was twitchier than ever. In a raid on the Potshot gunshop in Randburg he shot and wounded the owner Marlene Henn, a severe fortysomething with a blonde beehive. Stander and Heyl started to carry out raids without him. When he did come along the tellers found McCall more frightening than Stander and his revolver.

‘These two men came in,’ said Trix Style, a teller at the Trust Bank in Benoni. ‘One came towards me and the other one walked around the office and came into my cashier’s cage and stood behind me. That was McCall. Stander put a big sports bag on the counter, took out a revolver and pointed at me and said “Don’t push any buttons or anything”. So they must have known exactly how the alarm and security system worked. Strangely enough I wasn’t scared of Stander, who openly pointed the revolver at me. But McCall, who was standing behind me with his hand in his pocket, who I realised probably also had a gun, I was scared of him.’

The gang could still operate with panache. In January they robbed a bank directly below van Rensburg’s task force HQ. But they could sense time running out. The police released a good quality set of security photographs from a recent raid and the gang found their faces all over South Africa’s newspapers. Heyl acquired a fake German passport and spent hours practising the accent. Stander obtained a bundle of forged Australian documents. The gang agreed South Africa was too hot for them and decided to try their luck in America.

They bought a yacht, the Lilly Rose, in Cape Town and plans were made for Heyl and McCall, along with a hired crew member, to sail it to Miami. On 27 January Stander flew to Florida to make berthing arrangements using a fake Australian passport in the name of Peter Harris. Heyl saw him off at the airport.

When he returned to the Houghton safe house a servant told him the police had been there shortly before asking for a ‘Mr Stander’. One of the call girls had recognised the gang from newspaper photographs and turned them in. Heyl drove off and phoned McCall to warn him but his fellow bank robber shrugged it off as a routine house to house enquiry and refused to abandon the hideout.

In the early morning of 30 January 1984 police stormed the property. Stun grenades flew in through the windows. McCall, naked, ran through the house firing at the police then fled upstairs. They found him in a linen cupboard off the hallway. He had shot himself in the head rather than go back to jail.

Don’t Go To Fort Lauderdale

Heyl shaved his hair, sharpened his German accent, and booked a seat on a South African Airways jet to Greece where he went into hiding. Stander was in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, his gang disintegrated and the money running out. In South Africa the police had discovered the other safe houses (where photographs of the girl they claimed Stander raped turned up) and seized the yacht. No going back. Stander rented an apartment and bought a used orange Mustang from gas station owner Tony Tomasello.

On 10 February he was stopped by police after running a red light. He produced a driving licence in the name of Peter Harris and claimed to be a forty-one-year-old Australian author. The policeman recognised the license as a fake and Stander was briefly arrested before being freed on $100 bond. He gave them his real address. The Mustang was impounded. That night Stander broke into the impound lot and stole his car back.

In South Africa the police had discovered from the Lilly Rose’s hired crewman that the yacht’s planned destination was Florida. They passed Stander’s details to the American police and a photograph of the bank robber appeared in Florida newspapers the day after the red light incident. The Fort Lauderdale PD failed to connect him with ‘Peter Harris’. The penny only dropped when Tony Tomosello contacted them on 13 February and said Stander, who he recognised from the newspaper, had just left his Mustang at the gas station to be resprayed.

The police staked out Stander’s apartment block. Tomosello was reluctantly dragged along. It got close to 10.30 at night and Stander had still not shown. Patrolman Michael Von Stetina was getting tired and bored on the perimeter of the stake out when a sunken-cheeked blonde man on a bicycle rode up. It was Stander.

Von Stetina recognised him and called out. Stander dropped the bike on the road and ran. The patrolman, shotgun in hands, chased him. Stander fell over and got up with his hands in the air.

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘I give up’.

Von Stetina told him to get down the ground and moved in for the arrest but Stander suddenly grabbed the shotgun. In the struggle the gun went off and the South African gained possession. There was a confused chase which ended with Von Stetina backed against a fence and Stander aiming the shotgun. The policeman drew his .38 service revolver and shot Stander four times.

Stander spent his last minutes bleeding out face down in the middle of the road, hands cuffed behind his back, lit by a searchlight on a police car. He died before the ambulance arrived.

Stop the Violence

Von Stetina got a death threat by letter the day after Stander’s death. He ignored it. Tomosello, who had a family, was less calm and sought police protection while he waited for the South African government to cough up the $64,000 reward it had promised him. The gas station owner was convinced Stander, who told him he was meeting someone at Shooters nightclub the day of his death, was in Florida with Allan Heyl.

Heyl was actually sunning himself on the Greek island of Hydra when he heard the news of Stander’s death. Money was running short for last man standing. He travelled to England where he robbed a company payroll of 4,000 rand and headed for Spain. The Costa del Crime was not to his taste and he returned to England where he set up home as ‘Philip John Ball’ with a girlfriend in Surrey. An informer led the police to his door in early 1985 and Heyl got ten years in a British prison. In the mid-1990s he was extradited to South Africa and imprisoned on charges of armed robbery.

Heyl returned to a country that remembered Andre Stander. In 1990 the hard rock band Jack Hammer recorded ‘Don’t Go To Fort Lauderdale’, a sympathetic song about the bank robber. Zambian singer Robin Auld performed ‘The Ballad of Andre Stander’ live.

As apartheid crumbled in the mid-1990s and multiracial elections were held for the first time, the one time Police Captain was still the most famous bank robber in South African history. In 2003 an American crew under director Bronwen Hughes set up in South Africa to make ‘Stander’, a big budget movie about Andre starring Thomas Jane. Informed in part by Heyl’s version of events and the new atmosphere of the Rainbow Nation, the film showed Stander as a tormented anti-apartheid activist and Iggy Pop fan who took to crime because of his disgust with the system. The rape accusation and cold manipulation did not make the film.

Even in death Stander cast a shadow. In October 1992 his former wife, now Leoni Venter, committed suicide in Pretoria afer a long depression. In March 2008 Marlene Henn, the gun store owner who survived McCall’s bullet, was murdered in a home invasion.

Allan Heyl was luckier. Released from prison in May 2005 he forged a new identity as a motivational speaker. ‘Whatever you visualise you will realise’. He has made a career for himself and occasionally appears in the media to comment on crime.

‘We must stop the violence,’ is his mantra.

He is clear eyed about the media’s love affair with the gang in their heyday.

‘The fact that Andre was a former police captain suited the romantic notion of good-turned-bad against bad. And that’s where sensationalism became hysteria as never before or since.’

The dead man himself remains an enigma. Stander gave different justifications for his crime spree to everyone he met. In Heyl’s eyes Stander turned on society because of his disgust with apartheid. Brigadier Manie van Rensburg believed his quarry was motivated only by a love of money and luxury. To his family he was rebelling against the police career that had been forced on him. A hero? A rebel? A rapist? A former policeman who robbed banks and died in the middle of a Fort Lauderdale street waiting for an ambulance. A bad kêrel.

This piece was originally written for my brightreview.co.uk webpage. If you want to investigate Stander some more then journalists Paul Moorcraft and Mike Cohen wrote Stander: Bank Robber (amazon.co.uk or amazon.com), a short biography, in 1984. Chris Steyn-Barlow (her married name) wrote Publish And Be Damned (amazon.co.uk or amazon.com) in 2006, an account of her time as a crime reporter that includes some interesting pages on Stander. SA author Rob Marsh wrote a history of the gang on this website about crime in Africa. The 2003 movie Stander (amazon.co.uk or amazon.com) gives a sanitised version of events but has been well reviewed. 

For more warlike weirdness, you can buy my  books in paperback or ebook:

Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World  [or amazon.com]

and

Franco’s International Brigades: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War [or amazon.com]

 

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