Three biggest names in illegal perlemoen trade behind bars
It took six years, but the three biggest names in the Eastern Cape’s illegal perlemoen trade are now all behind bars at St Albans Prison
From a businessman to a high-school dropout to a jack-of-alltrades father who went from rags to riches – each one of them is serving sentences of between 18 and 25 years.
But as one judge put it, had the likes of Julian Brown and Morne Blignault been cautioned by the stern sentence handed down to their predecessor Peter Roberts six years ago, they may have avoided the same fate.
The men, all from vastly different walks of life, had each headed their own criminal enterprises, and for years had managed to escape justice as their pockets were lined and their wealth increased with a collection of flashy cars, jewellery and paid-up homes.
Their employees, meanwhile, struggled to make ends meet – and for the likes of Blignault and Roberts, their illegal actions spilt over into their family life.
The seriousness of the offences did not trouble them, perhaps because up until Roberts was sentenced to 18 years behind bars in 2013, perlemoen-related offences had carried nothing more than fines, suspended sentences or, at best, very brief terms of imprisonment.
Previous brushes with the law and the fines imposed on members of the three syndicates appeared to have lulled them into a false sense of belief that imprisonment for perlemoen poaching was the last resort of the sentencing court.
Ironically, for each of them, their involvement in racketeering was inadvertently uncovered from a single, run-of-the-mill perlemoen bust.
For Roberts, it all started in October 2005 when a traffic officer on patrol duty along the road near Graaff-Reinet signalled to an oncoming motorist that he or she should stop for a routine check.
The vehicle, a Golf, was searched and a substantial quantity of perlemoen found.
The driver was arrested and two cellphones seized. One of the numbers on the phone belonged to Roberts, marking the start of the investigation.
As retired judge Dayalin Chetty explained, racketeering is the illegal trade – in this case of perlemoen – over a period of time.
When two or more offences were found, an enterprise was accordingly proved.
And this is exactly what senior state advocate Martin le Roux successfully managed to prove in each case.
Le Roux, a specialist organised crime prosecutor, said there was a public misconception that people such as Blignault, Brown and Roberts had been punished too harshly for perlemoen poaching, but perlemoen was just the predicate offence, or the building blocks of the enterprise.
Le Roux said it was the charge of racketeering that carried the hefty punishment.
But even after Roberts learnt his fate, Brown and Blignault continued on their paths.
Judge Mandela Makaula had remarked that Brown was not deterred, but instead carried on with his underhanded dealings.
Blignault and Brown’s fates were sealed in similar manners – stemming from one perlemoen bust. An in-depth investigation then uncovered the planned and ongoing poaching, preparing and transporting of perlemoen to an international market.From forcing his employees to undergo lie detector tests to domestic violence, the court learnt how Blignault had ruled his multimillion-rand empire with an iron fist.But on Thursday, the grip was finally loosened when Blignault, 47, learnt his fate, receiving the harshest penalty of the trio – an effective 25 years.The investigation into Blignault dated back to July 2013, ironically the same year that Roberts was sentenced, when police attached CCTV cameras to a warehouse in Coega, where the processing of the perlemoen took place.Brown, 32, who it was argued had headed the most lucrative syndicate – having acquired a fleet of expensive vehicles and 34 expensive watches – was ultimately reduced to tears when he was sentenced to 18 years in prison.Roberts, with charges dating back to 2005, was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment in March 2013. It is understood he is now eligible for parole.Blignault’s first wife, Marshelle, was sentenced to 12 years in jail. Their son, Morne Jnr, narrowly escaped jail with a five-year suspended sentence.