Durban – To some he was a hero, a man who looked after his family and the poor. To many others, Nithia Chinnasamy was a feared thug, a drug lord who wreaked havoc before he was jailed for life 16 years ago.
Chinnasamy, head of the notorious Nithia’s Gang that struck fear into those who crossed its path, mainly in Phoenix, in the 1980s and 90s, had known since his childhood days that his death would be violent, said one of his acquaintances.
So when the gangster, who “lived by the sword”, died in a hail of bullets on Monday morning, shortly after being released on day parole from the Boksburg Correctional Services, it did not come as a shock to those close to him.
Chinnasamy, 48, was shot multiple times by two men wearing police uniforms, while in the passenger seat of his friend’s Toyota Corolla, which had been parked in Silverbush Crescent in Dalepark, Brakpan.
According to reports, 18 bullet cartridges from two guns were found – eight cartridges were from an R5 rifle and 10 from a 9mm pistol.
A burnt Renault, believed to be that of the killers, was found nearby at the corner of Plumbago and Bottlebrush streets.
Police could not yet confirm if it was a random shooting or a hit.
“I cannot say if he was targeted. We are still investigating the motive,” said Brakpan police spokesman Captain Joep Joubert.
“At this stage, we do not know if the men who were wearing police uniforms were police or bogus cops. We are investigating.”
Joubert said Chinnasamy was granted day parole on July 1.
This meant he stayed at the Boksburg Correctional Services facility at night and was released in the mornings.
Chinnasamy had been fitted with a tracking device to restrict his movements.
Joubert said a friend had picked him up and taken him to his home in Silverbush to pick up something.
“The friend got out to open the front gate, while the victim stayed inside. According to an eyewitness, a Renault (arrived) and two occupants, wearing police uniforms, opened fire at the car.”
A businessman who knew Chinnasamy from his childhood days said his enemies had probably wanted to exact revenge.
“I am not surprised nor am I shocked that he was executed,” said the man, who requested anonymity.
“It is said that if one lives by the sword then one will die by the sword. That is exactly what happened to Nithia.”
He said the “evil deeds” of Nithia’s Gang in the 1980s and 1990s had left a trail of misery. “They beat a man to pulp after they attacked him with a baseball bat. The evidence in the Durban High Court by (the man’s) friend sealed the fate of Nithia and his co-accused. During their reign of terror, Nithia called the shots and his gang members followed his instructions to the letter.”
In 2000, Chinnasamy was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 10 years for murder, attempted murder and kidnapping.
The murdered victim was 19-year-old Phoenix resident, Sagendran Claude Arran, whose friend panel beater Hansraj “Don” Deepchund was in a witness protection programme. He had given evidence against Chinnasamy and 10 others.
The accused were also charged with the attempted murder of Deepchund. All of them had pleaded not guilty.
Arran and Deepchund were brutally assaulted by various members of the gang with pickaxe handles, baseball bats, a fire hose and other weapons on June 14, 1998. Unconscious, they were dumped in a bush. Arran died shortly afterwards.
Deepchund had testified: “When I awoke, I realised I did not have my trousers on… I was dazed and did not know where I was.”
He said he had been traumatised by the incident and for months had lived in fear.
Four other gang members were also sentenced to life and 10 years.
Chinnasamy, Rashid Shaik, Renesh Singh, Gerald “Mole” Govender and Somagan “Stars” Govender were found guilty of the murder of Arran.
Judge Alan Magid at the time said Chinnasamy had orchestrated the “brutal, vicious and concerted” attacks on the two victims.
But there was more to Chinnasamy than his criminal ways, said one old friend.
He said he had played with Chinnasamy in the dusty streets of Springtown before his family relocated to Phoenix 35 years ago and got to know him well.
“It would be fair to say that there was a good, bad and ugly side to (him),” he said. “Nithia was a shrewd character. He also did good but that was for his own benefit. He threw poor residents, who were in arrears with their electricity bills, lifelines by settling the debts. He did so to win them over and so that when police conducted raids they would keep their mouths shut.”
He said Chinnasamy had accumulated his wealth as a mandrax drug lord.
“Mandrax was the popular drug during that era. Sugars (straws) and other drugs came later. But his incarceration has done little to beat the drugs scourge in Phoenix. Drugs continue to be a menace in this sprawling suburb.”
When a POST team visited Chinnasamy’s home in Greenbury, Phoenix, on Monday, a small white tent had been erected in a cramped space outside the family’s small flat.
Chinnasamy’s son, Owen, said he felt “very sad” about his father’s death. “He was my life. He never left us hungry and provided everything for our family,” he said. “We are trying to stay strong.”
Deepak Panday, the author of The Kings of Durban, a book about the early Indian underworld from 1860 to 1960, said he had known Chinnasamy from when he was a youngster growing up in Greenbury.
After hearing about his death, a shocked Panday said: “Phoenix has lost a son, brother, husband, father and for me, a dear friend.”
He said different people had different interpretations of who Chinnasamy was. “He was either loved, respected or feared.”
Panday, 34, who intends writing a third instalment of the book, which would include stories of his interactions with the members of Nithia’s Gang, said growing up in the “gang-infested streets of Phoenix” built one’s character.
“And this rough and tough soul had a dream and passion to make it big by any means necessary.
“Yes, many may label him a thug or a hoodlum for his alleged actions, brought forward in a court of law, but for me, who was 16 when I met him, he was hero-worshipped.”
Panday said he had met Chinnasamy several times and that the he had advised youths to stay away from trouble on the streets “and to not get mixed up in grown-up business”.
He said that three weeks ago, he received a surprise call from Chinnasamy, who had asked for a copy of his book.
“We chatted for about 15 minutes and he had told me a lot of people were willing to pay for his story.
“But he said people liked to do things for the wrong reasons and never agreed to any proposals.”
Before Chinnasamy was jailed, he had run a feeding scheme for the poor in Greenbury and surrounding areas, said a moulana who had known him: “Every month, Nithia prepared breyani for the poor. He also assisted in settling the water and electricity arrears of residents.”
He said Chinnasamy’s incarceration was a “loss to the poor”.
However, a retired policeman felt differently.
“Nithia grew up in Sorrel Road in Springtown. He was a humble child and his family were good, helpful people. How things went wrong in terms of how he became involved with drugs and the murder conviction, I don’t know,” said the man, who requested anonymity.
“When he was in Springtown, he was clean, but when he settled down in Phoenix, things changed.”
He had his own theories on why Chinnasamy was killed.
“Someone could have eliminated him to possibly take over that trade, or saw him as a threat in the drug game.”
He said it could also have been a revenge killing.
Chinnasamy had a reputation of being a “big time gangster”, he said. “People feared him because he had a string of (gangsters) behind him. Yes, he helped people by paying their utility bills, because that’s the norm with gangsters in Phoenix who live in flats. They give money to keep people quiet, so these people alert them when the police come around.”
Another policeman said: “If you ask anyone in Phoenix, they know who he was.”
Retired police captain Gopalan Gounden, whose investigations led to Chinnasamy’s conviction, declined to comment.
Timeline of a lifer
Chinnasamy began serving his life sentence at Westville Prison in July 2000.
In November 2001, Chinnasamy was suddenly transferred to the Ncome Prison in Vryheid, apparently without any reasons.
He said in an affidavit that the move would had a severe effect on him as his wife, Shamilla Krishanlall, would not be able to visit him.
His children were aged 6 and 4 at the time.
Chinnasamy said that after two months at the Ncome Prison he was once again suddenly transferred to the Pietermaritzburg Prison without reason.
He had remained there for about three months, until May 2002, when he was transferred to the C Max Prison in Kokstad.
He had accused Gounden, the investigating officer, of colluding with the Department of Correctional Services in punishing him.
Chinnasamy said that while in Kokstad Prison, privileges and rights previously allowed to him, including visitational rights, had been revoked.
He said the only reason he received for his transfer was “security reasons”.
“I was never regarded as a security risk during my period in Medium B and no efforts were made to subject me to additional security.
“The security at Medium B is certainly more than sufficient to safely detain long-term prisoners such as me,” Chinnasamy said.
Chinnasamy said his detention at Kokstad Prison was highly prejudicial to him because he was detained in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and only allowed one hour out of the cells under close supervision.
He was permitted visitors only twice a month, restricted to half an hour a visit.
Further, prisoners were allowed to read only the Bible and no other reading material was provided or allowed.
He was also not allowed access to radio, television or written media.
Chinnasamy said as a result, he had been cut off from the outside world.
The KwaZulu-Natal provincial head of prison services at the time, Ndusumbuso Eunah Norelela, said the privileges Chinnasamy claimed he had were unauthorised and a breach of prison service orders.
“Information was received by the head of the Westville Prison Medium B from an inmate that Chinnasamy had indicated that he intended escaping from prison if his appeal against his conviction and sentence failed. Due to the sensitive nature of such information and the fact that it would endanger the informant, Chinnasamy was considered a security risk.”
Gounden said he had received information that plans were being made by Chinnasamy to kidnap one of his children.
“We learnt that he wanted to torture my child and then kill me as well.”
In March 2003, Chinnasamy was transferred from Kokstad Prison back to Westville Prison.
He had brought a successful application against the minister of correctional services in the Pietermaritzburg High Court.
The State opposed the application, saying he had been transferred from Westville Prison to Kokstad because police received information that he intended escaping by paying prison officials.
They also said plans were being made in prison by Chinnasamy to kidnap and torture one of the investigating officer’s children and to kill the investigating officer himself.
Represented by advocate Jimmy Howse (instructed by attorney Shashi Marajh), Chinnasamy then applied to the high court to be transferred from Kokstad Prison to the Westville Medium B Prison, alternatively to the Umzinto Prison, or to be transferred to a facility where his spouse and next of kin could have reasonable access to him.
He also asked that rights and privileges that he enjoyed in Westville Medium B, to which he was entitled, be restored.
The late KwaZulu-Natal Judge President Judge Herbert Msimang granted the order because Chinnasamy had not been given a hearing before he was transferred from Westville Prison.
In April 2005, at a graduation ceremony at Westville Prison, Chinnasamy, a student at the Teamwork Bible College, received a diploma in theology.
He reportedly earlier told the college principal, Pastor Sigamoney Gopaul, that the college had changed his life.
“He said he was happy to have found God,” Gopaul said.
In 2014 Chinnasamy was transferred to Boksburg Correctional Services to prepare him for parole.
He was on day parole (allowed to leave the prison in the morning but having to return each evening) for about a month when he was killed on Monday morning in Brakpan.