Dramatic ‘take down’ apprehends Joburg’s serial arsonist
On the second day of Sukkot, members of Community Active Protection (CAP) were doggedly tracking the notorious Johannesburg arsonist after a vital breakthrough in the case lead them to his elusive whereabouts.
“Hashem works in mysterious ways,” said CAP Chief Operating Officer Sean Jammy, without giving away too much as the case is sensitive and still under police investigation.
This week, Alfred Maphutha, 36 – allegedly South Africa’s first ever serial arsonist – is due to appear in the Randburg Magistrates Court charged with murder, robbery, and at least 24 counts of arson.
He had been out on parole for a 2014 charge of housebreaking and robbery while these crimes were committed, and is expected to apply for bail.
He is believed to have terrorised Johannesburg residents for at least two years, randomly breaking into and setting fire to homes in the northern suburbs during the middle of the night, most often while occupants were fast asleep.
In some cases, he would burgle homes without setting them alight.
Maphutha was arrested on 11 October, after a multidisciplinary team consisting of the Serious and Violent Crimes (SVC) Gauteng operations team, Counterintelligence Investigations head office, K9 Unit, CAP Security, and Fidelity Specialised Services acted on information about his location.
Fidelity Security had received information from a source regarding his whereabouts via its specially set up tip-off line after offering a reward of R100 000 for information. Around the same time, CAP independently received separate updated information through other means, and both companies corroborated information, alerting and working with the police to set about locating and apprehending him.
“We received information on the morning of 11 October, and after verifying the information, deployed our special operations teams,” said Jammy.
According to CAP, their information led them to the Hillbrow area within a 600m radius between Clarendon Place and Blanket Street on the eastern boundary and between Goldreich Street and Jager Street on the western boundary.
A CAP field tracing unit and covert special surveillance team was deployed to the area on foot and in vehicles armed with fresh photographic images to assist them in identifying him.
“It’s almost impossible to locate a single man on the streets of Hillbrow,” said Jammy, “We tried many things, but eventually we spotted him on foot at about 17:00,” he said.
CAP and the police followed the alleged perpetrator. He walked from Hillbrow via Empire Road and Barry Hertzog towards Emmarentia, where he was eventually apprehended near the old Emmarentia Synagogue and arrested by police at about 18:00. According to police, “the team executed a tactical take down, and arrested the suspect”.
“There were no shots fired and no injuries to report,” said a police report.
“This is a highly complex case of many moving parts,” said Jammy.
“For the past two years, CAP has worked relentlessly to identify, trace, and now arrest the suspect that has become known as ‘the arsonist’. We’re immensely proud of our teams and grateful for the opportunity to be able to do this work,” he said.
“What stands out for me is the sheer terror he created in our community. Young children were scared to sleep at night, one in particular had nightmares after her friend’s home burnt down. People were driving around at night looking for the guy, just doing their bit to try and find him,” said Jammy.
Insiders say the alleged arsonist is intelligent, and there seems to be a correlation between the frequency of incidents and the increased amount of media attention he received.
“He seemed to set more and more fires the more publicity he received,” said one insider, who wished to remain anonymous.
“He also started out small, setting fires to empty houses, and progressed to homes with occupants,” said the insider.
It’s understood that several psychological profiles have been conducted, which will be made available to the court.
Meanwhile, residents have breathed a collective sigh of relief following the man’s arrest.
A husband and wife are still reeling from the trauma of witnessing their house go up in flames in the middle of the night in April, and are grateful every day to be alive, believing that their lives were in danger.
The husband, who wishes to remain anonymous, told the SA Jewish Report this week, “It was the most terrifying and harrowing experience of our lives. There was a real possibility that I may have died in the flames if confronted by the arsonist downstairs, and this thought terrifies me daily.”
The couple said there was pandemonium and chaos as they tried to escape.
“There was a sense of poetic justice seeing him arrested on the very same day that extensive repairs started on our home,” he said.
One Jewish Johannesburg homeowner, who wishes to remain anonymous, told the SA Jewish Report that she was “relieved and grateful” that the man had been arrested.
She said he allegedly set fire to her upmarket home in January while her tenant was asleep alone in the middle of the night with her dog. The incident had left them all rattled, initially thinking it was caused by an electrical fault but realising only afterwards when it was pointed out to them by CAP that it was the work of the alleged arsonist.
“My tenant awoke to the smell of smoke soon after discovering a fire in the study and lounge area. She managed to escape with her dog, but the damage to the house was extensive, taking six months to rebuild,” said the homeowner.
She said video footage placed the arsonist in the house at midnight. He set fire to the house only at about 04:00.
“He can be seen from video footage walking around the house. He looked into the fridge, walked into the laundry, and for a while went off camera.”
She said he set fire to sofas in the study at about 04:00 using an accelerant. “We suspect this because there was a burnt-out bottle of whiskey in the ashes,” she said.
“We’re beyond grateful to CAP for being there for us through this entire ordeal,” she said.
Jammy told the SA Jewish Report, “We’re incredibly grateful for the teamwork displayed by all role players, especially the SAPS Gauteng SVC unit. We understand the public’s thirst for details, but the most important thing is that the legal process is respected and that justice is served.”