‘Conman’ in brazen court escape

Fraud suspect Mark Michaels disappeared minutes before he was due to appear in the Port Elizabeth Magistrate's Court
Fraud suspect Mark Michaels disappeared minutes before he was due to appear in the Port Elizabeth Magistrate’s Court

A Cape Town man who allegedly defrauded a Port Elizabeth car owner and two hotels over four days is on the run after his Houdini-like disappearance minutes before he was to appear before a magistrate.

The alleged con artist simply left the dock and brazenly walked out of the North End court unchallenged.

Mark Michaels, 30, of Rondebosch, allegedly defrauded the owner of a VW Golf who was selling it for R350 000, as well as bilking two beachfront hotels after running up bills totalling R35 000.

Michaels was held in custody after his arrest on Friday, but escaped from the dock at the Port Elizabeth Magistrate’s Court, where he was due to face three counts of fraud, later the same day.

In the first instance, Michaels had booked himself in at the Boardwalk Hotel on February 27.

Police spokeswoman Colonel Priscilla Naidu said Michaels had wanted two rooms and two presidential suites for three nights, at a cost of R28 000.

He claimed to have paid via an electronic funds transfer (EFT).

But as he did not have proof of payment, he was only given two nights in normal rooms.

When staff insisted he produce his identity document, he said he would ask his wife to bring it at a later stage.

“The next morning, [hotel staff] confronted him about the issue of the ID and payment,” Naidu said.

“It was at this stage that he did a disappearing act.”

Boardwalk Hotel, Casino and Entertainment Complex general manager Mike van Vuuren said he would follow up the matter today.

In relation to the VW Golf, Naidu said the owner – who did not want to be named – had placed an online advert for the sale of his vehicle last month.

On February 28, three weeks after the advert appeared, Michaels responded, asking to see the car.

“The two of them agreed to meet at the Humewood police station,” Naidu said.

“He looked at the vehicle and was interested. He then created the impression that he had transferred the R350 000 via EFT and showed this [on his] phone.”

The vehicle owner realised a day later that the money had never been transferred.

Michaels then resurfaced at the Protea Marine Hotel in Marine Drive after making a cellphone booking.

“He created the impression that he was a father making a R7 000 booking for his son,” Naidu said.

However, his name was flagged by an online system hotels use to notify other establishments of people who have not paid their bills and hotel staff immediately alerted the police. Michaels was arrested in his room. He was then taken to the court, where he managed to walk out undetected on Friday.

Court officials, who did not want to be named, said they were baffled by his escape.

“After he was brought from the holding cells, Michaels sat calmly on the bench in the dock with three other inmates, waiting for their names to be called,” one official said.

A group of warders from Correctional Services was sitting behind those in the dock.

When a court orderly called Michaels’ name, he was nowhere to be found.

Naidu said police would conduct an internal investigation to establish how Michaels had escaped.

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