Mom’s R1m win in drugs cash probe

Estelle Ellis

A MOTHER’S windfall of more than R1-million at the Boardwalk Casino in Port Elizabeth has landed her in an international legal battle.

Authorities in both South Africa and England are trying to seize the payout which they claim was won using money her high-flying son made through selling drugs.

However, Noeline Vermeulen, 58, claims the R300 she used to gamble with on that day was money she made from selling a cupboard.

Vermeulen also claims that when she won the R1330549 on January 31 2005 she was unaware of her son Otto’s criminal activities and thought he had made his millions as a labour broker.

In papers before the Port Elizabeth High Court – which also go into detail about her son’s lavish lifestyle with his fake Portuguese passport, Swiss bank accounts, expensive vehicles and luxury homes – she said that on that day her ex-husband had given her R300 for a cupboard he had sold on her behalf.

“I went to the casino to gamble. I did not intend to go, but I had a hunch. I went there dressed very casually.”

She described how impressed she had been by her son’s lifestyle when she visited him in London which, according to police statements, included a luxury home in a high-end suburb, a Swiss bank account, a Lamborghini sports car and a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

Otto travelled to Croatia, Ireland, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Hungary and Geneva using a fake Portuguese passport.

“At no point prior to his arrest in the UK did I know about his illegal activities,” Vermeulen said in papers before the court.

“I visited him twice and it appeared to me he was doing extremely well. I had no reason to believe he was involved in anything illegal, let alone drugs.”

She said she had dealt with the money he had sent to South Africa on his instructions and had been told she could keep the R20000 a month rental from properties as “a salary”.

British detective Anthony O’Sullivan said in his statement that in May 2005 Otto had been spotted leaving a flat in London with Australian Timothy Jones. Both were detained and close to 2kg of cocaine, thousands of pounds, three cellphones and a set of keys were found in Otto’s possession.

Police also found drug- packaging equipment, close to R500000 in pounds and varying amounts in other foreign currency in the flat.

The keys led detectives to a safe deposit box at Harrods where they found R1.78-million in cash and a post-it note reading “Marco 120000”.

Otto pleaded guilty to drug charges on May 27 2005 in London and was sentenced to six years in prison.

The court also ordered that he pay back £750000 (R9.9-million) to the state to forfeit his “proceeds of crime”.

Three days after his arrest, Otto’s mother closed his Swiss bank account and transferred the remaining money to her Swiss bank account.

With the cooperation of justice officials in South Africa, British authorities started seizing Otto’s property and bank accounts in London and South Africa.

However, they could not find enough to satisfy the forfeiture order.

An SA Revenue Service (SARS) investigation revealed that large sums of money had been brought into the country and was held in family trusts and property, and that the income Vermeulen had declared to the tax man had not warranted her “being able to gamble away more than R1019198”.

After serving less than three years of his sentence, Otto was released and deported to South Africa in January 2008 and came to live in Port Elizabeth.

In November that year, he was killed in a motorcycling accident.

The search for his missing millions, however, did not stop and when authorities found out that his mother had R747927 of her jackpot winnings in an investment account, they had the money frozen, claiming she was laundering money on her son’s behalf.

Port Elizabeth Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU) head Advocate Willie Kingsley said in an affidavit that Vermeulen had “no other means to literally gamble away vast amounts” but to use her son’s proceeds of his drug operation.

But Vermeulen said she had not gambled away all her own money as the AFU was claiming, adding that she had “only gambled with R1000 at a time”.

She said she had become the scapegoat “for my son’s illegitimate acts”.

“I was a very proud mother at the time, believing that my son, who came from a very difficult and poor background, had managed to achieve so much in the UK through sheer hard work,” she said.

A new date will now be set for the court to hear evidence on the origin of the money that won the jackpot.

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