A tall man wearing a fake wig and a beard parked his hired car and walked towards the bank. He pushed through the door and walked in, right past the guard and towards one of the cashiers. It was a cold mid-morning in Durban, and the bank was not yet as busy as it would be in a few hours.
Banks in 1977 were nothing of what we know them today. Cashiers sat behind desks with drawers full of cash. The only security was the bored guard at the door whose experience with robberies was perhaps nil. Andre Stander knew this, and he knew how long the police would take to respond to a call of such a crime. He was the police after all.
Andre Stander was then the incumbent Police Captain Johannesburg’s Kempton Park CID. He hated being a cop, in fact; he had never wanted to be one. He had only joined the police because his father, Major General Frans Stander, had insisted on it. The older Stander was a legend in the police force. He used this influence to push his son into the Pretoria Police College and to have him graduate top of his class. The younger Stander, a recent divorcee and working a shit job he didn’t like at all, was actively hunting for a thrill.
An hour or so before making his way into the bank, Andre had landed at the Louis Botha airport in Durban with only a gun and a plan. Thus begun a story of incredible contradictions.
Once seated, the man across the counter pulled a gun on the cashier and handed her a bag. He was well on his way to the airport by the time the bank realized that they had just been robbed. By that afternoon, Andre was back in his Johannesburg police office investigating crimes. The previously bored and docile police captain had found a new high, and it was just about to become the centerpiece of his life.
Andre Stander made many such trips for the next three years. He netted an estimated 100, 000 rand over that time and series of bank robberies remained unsolved. Some sources suggest he may have raided some banks in his home city and then gone back to investigate his own crimes as the captain. Most of his bank heists, however, were carried out in Durban and other cities. Most of the subsequent crimes matched that first one except for one detail; he stopped hiring cars and started stealing them. He also brought in a new criterion, that of only robbing the prettiest cashiers.
With the loot, he bought a large house and opened a souvenir shop. He was getting cocky, and it was just about to ruin his seemingly perfect double life. He wanted more money, but for that he needed a second man, a partner in crime. One night in December 1979, a drunken Stander invited his business partner van Deventer to join his bank robbing spree. Van Deventer was not amused at all. He was an undercover agent with the Bureau of State-Security (BOSS), one of the most fearsome arms of the apartheid security apparatus. He promptly notified his superiors, and the Bureau launched a stake out of a stolen car parked at the Jan Smuts airport parking lot.
The stake-out lasted throughout Christmas and New Year celebrations in 1979/1980. It seemed that Stander was on a break, or perhaps van Deventer had misheard him. Then on 3rd January 1980, the police captain made a stop at the vehicle to pick his costume. He then flew to Durban to commit his first bank robbery of the new decade. BOSS operatives did not bother chasing him down to Durban. Instead, they waited for him as he made the transition between his two contradictory lives. As soon as he appeared in the arrival section of the airport the same day, he was arrested. He had 4000 rand in his bag and a revolver, the smoking guns needed to nab him for his crimes.
Stander was found guilty of 15 bank robberies and sentenced to a total of 75 years imprisonment running concurrently, bringing the sentence down to 15 years. But Stander had no intention of serving out his sentence. The ever-charming disgraced police officer had a plan. In prison, he met George Allan Heyl, a 28-year old man serving a sentence for five bank robberies in Pretoria. Heyl suspects Stander played him. They then met the third cog in the wheel; a 35-year old fellow prisoner called Patrick Lee McCall. The gang was now complete, and the bank robberies could commence again. But there was the small matter of the prison walls.
On 11 August, 1983, Sander and McCall were shipped to a physiotherapy session after they both complained of back pain. There, they turned on their guards and took the physiotherapist’s car. They went underground for a few months and then reappeared and launched a bank robbing spree. They stole so much money that they rented an uptown house and hired servants to wait on them. They frequently engaged the services of call girls, a guilty pleasure that would eventually become their undoing.
After settling, they went back to the prison and freed Heyl in a daring raid. The gang was now free, and South African banks were in big trouble. Within two months, the three escapees launched over 20 bank robberies, raking in more than half a million rand. They were known in some circles as The Hopper Gang because they sometimes robbed three or four banks a day. The gang that was more popularly known as the Stander Gang became the stuff of legend in South Africa. Part of it was due to the non-violent nature of their crimes as a manifestation of their three rules:”No flashing guns, no planning, and no designer violence.” Their exploits became the centerpiece of their story, and they became folklore heroes.
The South African police launched a propaganda war and a manhunt for the Stander gang. The taskforce was led by the capable Brigadier Manie van Rensburg. To show just how badass they were, the Stander gang robbed the bank right below the van Rensburg’s taskforce’s headquarters. As usual, they then melted into the city and simply disappeared not to be seen until their next heist. Their photos were plastered all over the newspapers, and the police planted stories of rape and violence to battle their seemingly ‘clean’ brand.
Hunted, the trio devised a getaway plan. Stander would fly to America and the others would travel via a yacht to Florida. The seemingly perfect plan began to disintegrate almost as soon as Stander landed in Florida. A call girl recognized her former customers in the media and notified the police who quickly raided one of their safe houses. Heyl narrowly escaped capture because he was not home at the time, and he warned McCall to go into hiding. The older bank robber refused, claiming it was a false alarm. He shot himself in the safe house in early 1984 to avoid capture as the police raided the building. Heyl fled to Greece and lay low.
Investigations revealed Stander was in Florida and an international manhunt was launched. Stander was first arrested for running a red light and could have gotten away had he not stolen his own car from the police lot. He took the car back to its former owner to be repainted, and the man recognized him from the media. He called the police and a cop who was in the vicinity responded. Stander died a few hours later on the wet driveway to his apartment block after a scuffle with a policeman.
Heyl, the last man standing, went to England and robbed a company payroll to keep up his lifestyle. He then fled to Spain where he was arrested in 1985. He was extradited and jailed for 20 years. Upon his release in May 2005, the former bank robber became a motivational speaker.
The man who had started it all, Andre Stander, still retains a legendary status in South Africa. He might not have made a capable police officer but he made quite the efficient bank robber. In fact, one of his police colleagues once said of him “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…”
One Story is good
Till Another is Told.