Arandis resident and former bank manager Engelborg Strauss was found guilty by Swakopmund Regional Court magistrate Vicky Nicolaidis yesterday and sentenced to an effective prison term of eight years for the theft of N$1,16 million from Standard Bank, allegedly used to pay for the services of a witch doctor.
Strauss was sentenced to 10 years in prison, of which two years are suspended for a period of five years. The trial of Strauss and Amalia Akwaake, a resident of Ondangwa and co-accused on charges of theft and money laundering, continued at Swakopmund this week.
Both Strauss and Akwaake were charged with the 2021 theft of N$1,16 million and money laundering. The money has still not been recovered. Strauss pleaded guilty to theft but not guilty to money laundering, while Akwaake pleaded not guilty to both charges.
The case was separated, and Akwaake’s matter was postponed to next month for legal aid. She is still out on bail.
In a plea statement to the court, Strauss admitted to stealing the money from the bank’s vault, taking N$800 000 in a box and leaving it at a bridge under the instruction of the witch doctor, named ‘Mama Lala’.
A few weeks later, Strauss paid N$306 000 into the bank account of Akwaake, also under the instructions of Mama Lala.
Strauss claimed she was under the impression that ‘Mama Lala’ was a traditional healer who could help her out of her financial struggles.
After performing some magic rituals, but failing to be able to sacrifice a cow, ‘Mama Lala’ wanted money instead.
Strauss realised she had been scammed after ‘Mama Lala’ started threatening her job and family.
During a previous bail application, Akwaake also noted to the court that she had been involved with the witch doctor to turn her bad luck into good luck.
It was about the same time when Strauss was in contact with ‘Mama Lala’.
At the time, Akwaake related how she and Strauss’ paths unintentionally crossed – as directed by ‘Mama Lala’. She, however, also told the court that she too was threatened, and realised that she was being scammed.
Akwaake said she withdrew the money deposited by Strauss from the Bank Windhoek branch at Oshakati, believing it was part of a plan by ‘Mama Lala’ to rid her (Akwaake) of bad luck.
As for the N$800 000, Akwaake denied involvement with its disappearance, though she admitted to withdrawing the N$306 000 as instructed by Mama Lala.
The prosecutor at the time of Akwaake’s bail application, however, suggested that Akwaake could be ‘Mama Lala’, which she denied.
During the judgement yesterday, Nicolaidis acknowledged that Strauss was under severe financial strain and resorted to “dubious means” to address her situation by seeking a traditional healer on Facebook.
The court also acknowledged Strauss’s brutal honesty and the fact that she did not ultimately benefit from the crime.
“The court does have sympathy with you in that,” said Nicolaidis, who emphasised that the true victim was the bank, and none of the stolen money had been recovered.
She also stressed that such crimes on financial institutions have far-reaching impacts as these institutions have to take measures to recover their losses, which can even result in job losses.
She said theft from financial institutions is increasing in Namibia, thus eroding the economy.
According to her, the bank put Strauss in a responsible position of trust, and that the theft was a betrayal of that trust.
Strauss asked her employer for forgiveness, and asked the court for mercy in its sentencing.
Tanya Klazen defended Strauss. Beata Mwahi represented the state.