Clemence Manyukwe News Editor—
POLICE investigating a helicopter crash and subsequent burial of the wreckage near West Nicholson on May 4 have arrested two people. South African nationals Lawrence Botha and Pieter Schalk Marais, who are both employed by the pilot of the ill-fated chopper, Frikkie Lutzkie, 52, were arrested on Thursday on yet to be specified charges.
Meanwhile, Lutzkie, whose great-grandfather moved from Russia and settled in Vereeniging near Johannesburg, yesterday told Chronicle he would not be coming to Zimbabwe until Botha and Marais were freed.
Lutzkie, who runs a safari business at the government-owned Doddieburn Ranch, says he crashed on May 4 — not May 5 as previously thought — and buried the wreckage at the property.
The South African businessman and his wife, whom he was travelling with, escaped unhurt but left before talking to authorities.
Police and other state agencies have since launched a probe into the accident that has seen Botha, who is a farm manager at Doddieburn, and Marais, who works for Lutzkie in South Africa, being detained.
Yesterday, Matabeleland South provincial police spokesperson Inspector Philisani Ndebele said he was in Gweru and referred questions to police headquarters in Harare.
National police spokesperson Senior Assistant Commissioner Charity Charamba said she was not aware of the arrests and referred Chronicle back to Matabeleland South police.
Lutzkie, speaking exclusively to this newspaper from South Africa, confirmed his employees’ arrest.
He said: “They’re keeping them without charge at Beitbridge Police Station, but they’ve done nothing wrong. They had taken them to Beitbridge to see if their passports are stamped. They’ve been in the country legally, so there’s no case.”
Lutzkie, who revealed plans to move permanently to Zimbabwe once the “trouble” was sorted out, claimed he informed the authorities about the accident on May 8 after returning to South Africa – he says because there were no communication facilities at the ranch since it is located in a remote area.
Lutzkie said if he had not buried the wreckage, there was danger of an explosion, putting the lives of people in the vicinity at risk.
The South African businessman said his actions were in line with the country’s Aviation Regulations.
“To protect the wreckage as required by aviation laws, I buried the unrepairable helicopter on the site. The fear in a scenario where the wreckage of an aircraft lies unprotected is that some of the local people, especially children, may tamper with the electrical system, fuel tanks or the helicopter’s moving parts,” he said.
“Tampering with the wreckage may lead to injury or death to local children or curious local people. There’re possibilities of explosion, electrical shock or other injuries if lay people or children tamper with the wreckage of an unprotected aircraft, for instance should somebody smoke or make fire close to the wreckage. The aviation fuel may ignite or explode easily.”
It is not the first time Lutzkie has been involved in a helicopter accident and failed to inform authorities. In May 2012, he was apparently returning from a 10-day hunting trip at Askham in the Kalahari when his R50m Augusta A119 helicopter’s engine allegedly failed over the Northern Cape, forcing him to crash-land in the Severn area, about 70KM from the McCarthy Border Post near Botswana.
The helicopter, which was uninsured, was discovered camouflaged with branches and smeared with mud. South Africa’s Civil Aviation Authority said it was informed of the crash three days after it happened — by the police and not Lutzkie himself. “I’ve millions of rands worth of property and vehicles and nothing is insured. It’s my prerogative,” he told South African journalists at the time.
Lutzkie supplied Chronicle with a letter purportedly e-mailed to Transport and Infrastructural Development Minister Dr Obert Mpofu notifying him about the accident. He said the e-mail was sent on May 8 — but a copy he supplied to Chronicle bears an April 8, 2014, date.
The letter, which was sent to an alleged e-mail account of the minister ([email protected]), which Lutzkie says he found through an internet search, reads in part: “I have made a decision to bury the helicopter (tremendous explosive fire hazard) to protect children from nearby village and innocent by standers.”
Lutzkie said days after the crash, his workers informed him that authorities arrived at the farm to inspect the crash site — but he could not return to Zimbabwe as he was testifying in a court case in South Africa.
“I think he (Dr Mpofu) received the e-mail because immediately after I sent it, that is when investigators immediately went to the farm,” he added.
But Minister Mpofu said yesterday: “That’s nonsense. I didn’t receive anything. I don’t even know that e-mail address. That’s total nonsense.”
Lutzkie said he requested Marais, who was on holiday at the farm, to keep him posted about developments. But investigators seized Marais’ passport before he was arrested, together with Botha.
Lutzkie claimed the helicopter — an MD500 valued at R800,000 — crashed when he was inspecting the farm’s fence. He had flown to Zimbabwe to meet an American national who was hunting at the 30,000-hectare ranch where he claims to have invested nearly $2 million.
The businessman reportedly acquired 100 percent shareholding in the venture in July last year after Botha, who co-owned it with Hunting Essentials, was in need of capital.
Lutzkie denied he was in the country illegally saying he landed at Beitbridge and went through the necessary procedures, including the stamping of his passport and filling the paperwork for the helicopter’s Temporary Import Permit. The businessman said he and his employees had not violated any of the country’s laws and expressed fears that the matter may hurt Zimbabwe’s tourism sector.
“I’m very concerned that any more adverse publicity about this incident may jeopardise the good work that I’ve put into the farm and Zimbabwe’s tourism for the past few months. On Wednesday, May 28, a group of 12 people from Russia, including the owner of MTN Russia, will be arriving on the farm,” he said. “They will fly in with a Boeing 737 private jet and spend two weeks on the farm for a hunting trip. The financial benefits for Zimbabwean hunting tourism, the economy and the local people in this remote area of Zimbabwe are apparent and should not be jeopardised by inaccurate reporting.”
Lutzkie said he would only come to Zimbabwe after Marais and Botha’s cases had been resolved — betraying his own fears of being arrested.