Greg Mercer, Record staff
WATERLOO â€” More than two years after he was released from a South African jail, a Waterloo man accused of fraud in a high-profile battle over a US$3.5-million diamond is still fighting for justice.
Dennis Van Kerrebroeck, a former standout rugby player who graduated from St. David Catholic Secondary School, spent 28 months in a Johannesburg detention centre before he was deported back to Canada.
Van Kerrebroeck’s saga reads like an international thriller. A Canadian-born mining entrepreneur, he was arrested â€” he calls it a “kidnapping” â€” in an affluent Johannesburg suburb in February 2011 without a warrant, and held in a notorious, violent and overcrowded prison.
While he sat behind bars awaiting a trial that never came, arguing he was the victim of a diamond insurance scam and a corrupt legal system, he says Canada’s foreign affairs department did little to intervene.
His troubles revolve around his connection to a rare 143-carat diamond that was the subject of a federal court battle in New York. That precious stone, sold at auction by Christie’s for almost US$3.2 million, was discovered by the Higgs Diamond mining company in 2008 in a diamond field outside of Hopetown, South Africa.
How Van Kerrebroeck, 37, wound up in a South African jail, accused of trying to swindle the owners of this rare, flawless diamond, is a complicated, twisted and bizarre tale.
Diamond deal goes sour
In September 2009, Van Kerrebroeck and his company Belgo-Nevada offered to buy the diamond for $3.3 million, according to court records. With experience exporting gold through a Belgium-based business, he said a contact in South Africa told him about the diamond and “begged” him to help sell it.
His accusers claimed the Canadian produced a Proof of Funds letter that said he had $4 million in an escrow account in the United States. The letter was signed by an escrow agent named Jennifer Hunt â€” who investigators later learned was not a real person.
Accompanied by Adrianus Vriend, a man who was supposedly a representative of Higgs, Van Kerrebroeck flew the diamond from Geneva to New York. That’s where things get complicated.
Prosecutors alleged the Waterloo man, who has dual Canadian-Belgian citizenship, tried to defraud Higgs by claiming the diamond was held up by customs paperwork. Instead, court records alleged he took the diamond to a different New York dealer, Taly Diamonds, where he sold it for $1 million.
That dealer cut and polished the rough diamond into a 68-carat gem, while court records allege Van Kerrebroeck left for Toronto. Higgs Diamond claims that’s when it began to realize the contract it had from Van Kerrebroeck was not going to be honoured.
The Waterloo man, meanwhile, offers a very different account of what happened.
“I did nothing wrong,” he said in an email. “I’m an innocent.”
Van Kerrebroeck, vigorously fighting these accusations, says he learned the diamond was illegally exported to Switzerland before he became involved â€” making him an unknowing scapegoat in a scheme to claim an insurance payout for a “stolen” diamond.
He alleges the men behind the scam used him to get the rough diamond to the U.S., get it cut to increase its value, and planned to collect on the insurance money after they contacted the authorities. He says he was seeing dollar signs and didn’t realize until it was too late he was being used as a fall-guy for the whole scheme.
Van Kerrebroeck said Vriend, the man he thought was a representative of Higgs, actually came with him to the New York dealer, and then joined him in travelling to Toronto. Higgs, meanwhile, denied in court filings it even knew Vriend was acting on their behalf.
The story grows murkier from there. Investigators in Nevada soon discovered the company that provided the Proof of Funds letter had provided the forged documents, a regular practice for their clients.
A legal battle over the ownership of the diamond erupted, with Higgs, Taly Diamonds and Van Kerrebroeck all laying claim to the precious stone. In March 2010, U.S. customs officers seized the diamond as the courts tried to settle the dispute.
Van Kerrebroeck said he now wishes he’d never seen the diamond in the first place.
“I thought I could make some money. But if it seems too good to be true, it probably is,” he said.
Van Kerrebroeck travelled back to South Africa nine times after the diamond deal fell apart. In February 2011, while pursuing a gold mining venture in the country, he was suddenly arrested, and charged with theft and fraud.
He says his arrest came just days after a falling out with Sandile Zungu, a wealthy South African businessman with ties to the mining sector. He says he believes police, in a country where corruption is widespread, were acting on orders to punish the Canadian.
“I was kidnapped at gunpoint, and then beaten for the passwords to my phones and computers,” Van Kerrebroeck said in an email.
He says investigators built a “fabricated and fictitious” case against him, while the men who he alleges orchestrated the real diamond scam back in 2009 walked free.
After sitting in jail for 28 months, Van Kerrebroeck signed a plea deal in 2013. His signature meant he was convicted of fraudulently creating documents and forging signatures in the diamond deal. An earlier theft charge against him was dropped.
“I only signed the document to escape South Africa’s corrupt kangaroo courts with my life,” he said. “This entire case made by these South Africans is a fraud. They are liars, thieves and criminals.”
He provided documents that appeared to prove the diamond was exported illegally. His former lawyer, Nardus Grove, argued his arrest was unlawful and said South Africa never had any jurisdiction over the case, since the sale happened in the U.S.
Grove argued it was Van Kerrebroeck himself who was being defrauded.
“Evidence has been obtained that indicates that the police responsible acted in a corrupt and unlawful manner,” Grove said in a letter from May 2012. “The Complainant fraudulently entered into an agreement with Mr. van Kerrebroeck to sell the diamond. The Complainant was not authorized to do so.”
Denied bail because he was a foreigner, Van Kerrebroeck remained in custody for almost 2 Â½ years while he awaited his release. He says the investigating officer, a man named Colonel Fernando Luis, suggested he should bribe his way out of the problem.
Van Kerrebroeck says that same officer, working for a special anti-corruption unit, was actually a paid enforcer for South Africa’s diamond cartels.
Andre Austin, a retired Lieutenant-Colonel with 32 years of service in the South African Police Service, backs up Van Kerrebroeck’s story. He was working as a private investigator when he was contacted by the Canadian to help prepare his defence.
“It’s clear to me that Dennis did not commit a crime,” Austin said by phone from Pretoria. “The only thing the police had to do was an investigation. Base your ‘facts’ on facts. Get something.”
Instead, much of the case against Van Kerrebroeck’s release came from the statements of another inmate, who gained his freedom in exchange for giving false information against the Canadian, he said.
Austin says his involvement in the case has cost him dearly. He was arrested two days after meeting Van Kerrebroeck at the detention centre, accused of stealing a case file â€” which he strongly denies â€” and lost a subsequent civil suit against the Minister of Police and several high-ranking officers.
He was ordered to pay the police service’s legal fees, and worries he’ll lose his house as a result.
“They’ve ruined me. I’m astonished with what has happened,” Austin said. “I really think Dennis did not think a police official in South Africa would act the way they did.”
A plea deal for freedom
Back in Canada, meanwhile, Van Kerrebroeck’s family started a Facebook campaign to push for his release. They lobbied the foreign affairs department to intervene on his behalf, and its staff in Pretoria raised the issue with South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation.
But nothing happened.
Van Kerrebroeck says he spent his days behind bars reading the Bible, and crafting his own legal defence on an old BlackBerry phone that was smuggled into jail.
“It’s ironic that I’m a guy from Waterloo and it was a BlackBerry that basically saved my life,” he said.
The former professional rugby player was finally deported back to Canada in July 2013. He insists he was coerced into signing the plea deal by his lawyer. The lawyer, Grove, did not respond to requests for an interview.
Van Kerrebroeck alleges his lawyer told him his life was at risk if he remained in jail. Zungu, the prominent businessman, had already called him an “enemy of the state” in a newspaper interview.
The Canadian feared Luis, the investigating officer, was acting on orders from someone who wanted the diamond case pinned on him.
“I never pleaded guilty to anything, nor did such ever meet my mind. Nardus placed a document in front of me and said ‘sign this, and you can leave and go home,” Van Kerrebroeck said in an email.
“I said forget it â€¦ He then told me that if I did not sign it (they) will kill me â€¦ I signed the document without being allowed to read it.”
While he’s been portrayed as a scam artist, Van Kerrebroeck argues he’s the victim of a sophisticated diamond smuggling operation, aided by a corrupt legal system that he says extorted him for money.
While he sat in jail, his family back in Canada wired at least $500,000 in purported legal fees and protection money to keep him safe behind bars, according to his brother, Ian Van Kerrebroeck.
All that time in jail exhausted his mind and his body. The once-burly, six-foot-three rugby player had withered down to almost 180 pounds by the time he was free.
After his release, Van Kerrebroeck says he tried to bring legal action against those who put him in jail. But he insists rampant corruption among South Africa’s police and judicial services has protected those people.
“I opened many cases against all these criminals in South Africa. Nothing happened. The case file was stolen and never assigned an investigating officer,” he said.
Today, Van Kerrebroeck is hesitant to talk publicly about his story. But he insists he’s seeking justice, and has filed a formal complaint with the South African law society against Grove.
Van Kerrebroeck, now living back home in Waterloo, is still angry about what happened to him. He hopes to convince American authorities to take a second look at the original diamond case, and wants a U.S. federal grand jury to examine what he calls fabricated evidence against him.
Canada’s federal government, he said, abandoned him while he sat in a foreign jail on questionable charges.
“The government doesn’t even listen to any of their own treaties. They don’t care, they don’t do anything. A bunch of corrupt people in a banana republic were extorting me for millions of dollars,” he said.
Jocelyn Sweet, a spokesperson for the now-renamed Global Affairs Canada, said the federal government is aware of Van Kerrebroeck’s case but declined to comment, citing privacy concerns.
Van Kerrebroeck first went to South Africa in 1998 to play as a flanker for the Durban Crusaders rugby club. After attending Western University, he later returned to the country hoping to find success in the mining business.
He admits he was initially caught up in the “gold rush” atmosphere of South Africa, but now regrets ever trying to make a buck there.
Today, his focus is on a new business venture developing technology to prevent credit card fraud. But he says he still can’t move on from the ordeal that stole 28 months of his life.
“I just want to see justice,” Van Kerrebroeck said. “I want to see these people pay for the crimes that they have committed. They need to be incarcerated.”