JOHANNESBURG – The assassination of Dr Robert Smit, and his wife Jeanne-Cora, on November 22 1977 is perhaps South Africa’s greatest unsolved political crime.
It is an assassination that stands at odds with most apartheid-era killings because it was a hit carried out against an up-and-coming National Party politician, apparently on the orders of someone at the top of the Afrikaner establishment. And unlike most other political crimes from that era there is still no certainty as to who was responsible. Or, what the actual motive was.
It is a fascinating case about which it is very difficult to write with any conviction. Very little primary material about the murder is available – with the police docket still kept hidden from public view. As a result it is hard to be sure of even the most basic facts of the case.
The secondary material meanwhile is awash with misreporting, red herrings, dead ends, conjecture, rumour and suspicion. Researching the case means slowly making ones way through this fog of disinformation and denial. Trying to get to the truth over three decades on is like trying to hit, from a great distance, one blurred and fleeting target among many.
The following long essay is a preliminary effort to try and make sense of the case. It deals with the basic facts, why the case is so important, and the recent claims as to who was responsible. It then goes on to analyse the ‘lost theory’ of the murders.
The facts of the case
Robert Van Schalkwyk Smit had enjoyed a rapid rise through the Afrikaner establishment. He had attended Pembroke College, Oxford, on a Rhodes Scholarship, received a doctorate in economics from the University of Stellenbosch, and in 1967 had been appointed deputy secretary of finance. He had gone on to serve as South Africa’s ambassador to the International Monetary Fund in Washington DC between 1971 and 1975 (James Sanders, Apartheid’s Friends, 2006). An archivist at the IMF says that according to their records Dr Smit “was appointed as Alternate Executive Director on Jun 5, 1971 and completed his term of service as Alternate Executive Director effective October 31, 1974.”
He had returned to South Africa where he had taken up a position with Santam International. He was standing as the National Party candidate in the Springs constituency, just outside of Johannesburg, in the national elections scheduled for November 30 1977. It was expected that he would take up a high position in government after the poll, possibly even as finance minister.
He and his wife had rented a house in Selcourt, Springs, while their two children stayed on in their Pretoria home.
Robert Smit had spent the day of November 22 at his election office in Springs. He had had lunch with friends and spoken to the journalist Rita Niemand in the afternoon.
Smit’s receptionist Sarah Lombaard later testified that she took a call from a man at 3.15pm. “He told me that he would like to speak to Dr Smit about politics and whether it would be possible to see Dr Smit tonight. He also said that he was living near Dr Smit. I told him I did not know whether Dr Smit had an appointment but would put him through to make arrangements. At the start of the conversation the caller told me he was MacDougall.” In his diary Smit recorded “McDougal – 8pm”.
At 6.10pm Jeanne-Cora was driven home by the couple’s driver, Daniel Tshabalala. She sat down to watch television while he made himself a meal in the kitchen. He later told the inquest “I left at about 6.50pm and Mrs Smit saw me to the door. She locked it after me.” (Sunday Star, July 21 1985)
At 7.14pm (some accounts say 7.40pm) Jeanne Cora Smit phoned Lombaard, asked if Dr Smit was still in the office, and when told that he was, told her tell Dr Smit that “his guests are waiting for him.” It seems that as she put the phone down she sensed something behind her and instinctively put up her hand. She was shot in the back of the head at close range, then in the chest and in the right thigh.
Lombaard conveyed the message to Dr Smit who left soon afterwards. Smit walked out of the offices with a Springs town councillor, Danie Joubert. In a statement to the inquest he said Dr Smit had been carrying two attaché cases. He said he saw Dr Smit’s car pull away just before 8pm.
When Robert Smit walked through the door of the house, sometime later, he was shot in the neck from a few paces away, and collapsed to the ground. He was then shot, from close range, in the head, back and chest. Robert Smit and Jeanne Cora were shot with two different calibre guns: a 0.32 (7,65mm) and a 0.38 (9mm.)
Based on the initial post mortem results, and a neighbour who claimed to have heard gun shots at 11.15pm, it was initially thought that Smit had arrived back home (and been killed) close to midnight. But later press reports suggested that this may have been a red herring, and Smit was actually killed sometime between 8pm and 9pm.
The bodies were discovered by the Smits driver, Tshabalala, at about 7am the following morning. The investigating officer, Lieutenant Gerhard (Gerrit) Viljoen of the East Rand Murder and Robbery Squad, found Dr Smit’s body in the passage and Mrs. Smit’s in the lounge.
Apart from the gunshot wounds Robert Smit had been stabbed once in the back, and Mrs Smit 14 times with a stiletto. The letters “RAU TEM” had been written – in red spray paint – across the fridge and kitchen walls.
The following year some reports claimed that the killers, or (presumably) their accomplices, had returned to the scene of the crime at least two hours after the shootings. It was then that RAU TEM had been sprayed on the walls, and the bodies of the Smits stabbed. (The Star November 17 1978) If this is true, it is conceivable that the spray paint and stabbings were a half-baked effort – after the fact – to make a clinical assassination look like the work of a deranged maniac.
In the press there were two interpretations of whom Smit was planning to meet that night. In the early afternoon he told Niemand that he was going to meet a group of anti-Nat voters whom he hoped to persuade to vote Nationalist.
However, in an interview with Rapport (June 24 1979) Robert Smit’s brother, Iaan, said that an individual, who had been working on the campaign, told him that at midday on November 22 Robert Smit had told him: “Oom, I tell you, vuilgoed are coming to visit me [tonight]” (not Prog voters.)
Iaan explained to the newspaper that when his brother spoke of “vuilgoed” (rubbish) he meant undesirable foreign elements that had settled in the Republic – from Scandinavia, England, America, Hungary and from the former Portuguese colonies in Africa (post April 1974.) Iaan also said that ever since his Oxford days Smit had used ‘McDougall’ as a kind of fictional name – a reference to a ‘Van der Merwe’ like character.
There were suspicions at the time that foreign assassins had carried out the murders. Yet, as Iaan Smit commented in his 1979 Rapport interviews, even if the killers were foreigners, they would have had to been recruited, and assisted, by people inside the country. “There is no doubt that the murder was well planned, and the murderers were professional and well acquainted with the area. Apart from the graffiti on the walls they left no tracks.”
The mysterious Mark Benza
In the immediate aftermath of the killing there was some suspicion that a Czech Canadian scientist businessman called Mark Benza may have been involved in some way. He was briefly detained and questioned by the police before being allowed to leave the country. There were a number of reports published at the time about Benza. These related the following:
On September 7 1977 Robert M Edmund, CEO of the Edmund Scientific Company, of Barrington, New Jersey had handed Benza a letter of introduction ahead of his trip to South Africa. It was addressed to the South African “Department of Commerce” and said that Mr Benza had the right to manufacture and sell various products of the company in the Republic.
It seems that Benza arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, on September 9 1977. He moved into the luxury Ponte Building, in Berea, on September 15 claiming, on the lease agreement, to be President of the Edmund Scientific Africa Corporation. However, in the business cards he had printed in South Africa he claimed to have been the President of the Enercon Corporation.
On September 29 he met up with Emmerentia Liebenberg, a close friend of Robert Smit, who happened to live in the same apartment block.
Liebenberg was the widow of CR Liebenberg the Joint Managing Director of Spectro Beherend Ltd (formerly Spectro Research Laboratories). He had died suddenly in April 1977. She was the sister-in-law of Tommie Muller, the chairman of Iskor and brother of Hilgard Muller, South Africa’s foreign minister between 1964 and 1974.
[In a later article in the Weekend Post Geoffrey Allen wrote that there were rumours, which Liebenberg publicly denied, that Smit and her had been having an affair, “even that he intended to divorce his wife to marry [her] but had peremptorily cancelled that plan to avoid scandal” (November 25 1989).]
On October 5 Benza sent a telegram to the Edmund Scientific Company saying that all was going well. It was sent from the Voer-Sentraal Kooperasie in Pretoria to which Liebenberg’s father, Frans van Wyk, was attached. This was the last Edmund Scientific heard from Benza.
Benza was introduced to Robert Smit by Liebenberg in early November 1977. According to Beeld (December 5 1977) the two men met in Pretoria to discuss “overseas financial matters.” Shortly after that meeting Benza showed Liebenberg a scale model of his newest invention – an engine that was driven by solar energy.
There were various inconsistencies in Benza’s account of himself, which raised the suspicions of his acquaintances. Jesus Guardiola, a restaurant owner in Ponte with whom he had discussed a possible business arrangement, told Rapport (December 18 1977) that Benza was a person who could not be trusted: “He lied about too many things. First he said he had never lived in South Africa. Then he said he had just lived here for three years before.”
Liebenberg told Beeld (December 5 1977) that she grew suspicious of Benza when she came across a document suggesting that, contrary to what he had told her as well, he had previously lived in South Africa. She tipped off the security police, through a friend, and they met with and spoke to Benza on November 18 1977.
Liebenberg later told Rapport (November 23 1980) that the first she heard of the murder was when she was driving with Benza in her car in Johannesburg on the morning of November 23 1977. They saw newspaper posters along the side of the road and she had cried out: “Mark, Robert was murdered!” Benza had allegedly replied: “It’s a good thing he’s dead. He talked too much.”
After the murders Benza was questioned by the police and his passport was taken. A police spokesman told Beeld (December 5) that “he did not make a great impression with his knowledge of overseas financial matters. Indeed, it was very limited.” The newspaper stated that the passport was returned, and he was allowed to leave the country, after it was established that Benza’s fingerprints did not match any of those found at the murder scene. Beeld said that it was rumoured that Benza was now in Brazil.
A short while later the Sunday Times journalist Neil Hooper managed to trace Benza to his home in Calgary, Canada. Hooper was also able to speak to Benza’s then girlfriend Gloria. In an interview published in the Sunday Times on December 11 1977 Benza denied having had any connection with Edmund Scientific. He confirmed that he had lived in South Africa between 1967 and 1970 after fleeing Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Asked what he did during that time he said: “I was working. Any kind of work, and on spectroscopic work on a spectroscope.”
He had met with Dr Smit, and other businessmen, as he was “exploring for money” to support his solar energy business. He added that he planned to return to South Africa (in February 1978) to continue his campaign to introduce a solar powered car to the republic. He also told Hooper that on hearing of the murder of the Smits he had actually remarked: “Well, everybody has to go at some stage.”
According to Stephan Terblanche of Rapport Benza’s two former employers – Edmund and A Wettberg of the Alberta Gas and Trunk Line – knew little of his background. He studied at a Communist school in Czechoslovakia and then fled the country for “political reasons.” He then came to Canada. He had also visited various black African states. (December 18 1977)
While the newspapers were clearly still intrigued by Benza, the police weren’t. A police spokesman told Die Transvaler (December 12 1977) that the investigation into Mr Benza was completed more than a week ago. “Benza had nothing to do with the murder.”
Nothing more would be reported about Benza for the next few years.
There were reports soon after the murder that Robert Smit had stumbled across wrongdoing and that this could be why he had been murdered. In the Sunday Express of December 18 1977 Kitt Katzin reported that police were considering the possibility that Robert Smit had been murdered “shortly after he uncovered a foreign currency racket and made it known he meant to expose the swindlers.” An investigating officer told the newspaper: “There is the chance that he stumbled across some vital information and was about to topple someone’s empire.”
Over the following year there were a number of similar reports. According to The Star (June 1978) the British publication Euromoney had claimed that IMF officials say “rumours about the murder of Dr Robert Smit have been circulating in Washington for more than five months. The general rumour is that Dr Smit, while he was in Washington as South Africa’s IMF representative, become suspicious about certain monetary transactions and the activities of some officials but had not been able to properly investigate his suspicions. On his return to South Africa he is rumoured to have begun a personal investigation which is said to have uncovered the so-called capital evacuation scheme. This, the rumours hold, led to his murder and murder of his wife….”
Then on November 12 1978 the Sunday Times ran a report headed “I’ll spill the beans said Smit.” Emmarentia Liebenberg told the newspaper that, five weeks before the murder, Robert Smit had told her that he had decided to approach a senior cabinet minister about a matter that would “rock the nation” and “go right to the top.”
A follow up report in The Star (November 17 1978) quoted G.P. Croeser, a friend and colleague of Smit, as saying that at Smit’s final campaign event mutual friends had told him “that Dr Smit had mentioned that he was going to expose something once he was elected and reached Parliament.”
In his 1979 interview with Rapport Iaan Smit said that at the end of September 1977 he had visited his brother in Springs to see how the campaign was going. In a discussion on the political situation Robert said that “Things are not right. There are things on the go that are improper (onbehoorlik) and that will shock our people. I am sorry, but at the right time I am going to go public with them.”
The murder of the Smits preceded, and may have precipitated, many of the damning revelations about the misuse of funds by Eschel Rhoodie’s Department of Information (most famously to set up The Citizen newspaper.) It was a scandal that was to bring down the three most powerful men in the country: Prime Minister John Vorster; Dr Connie Mulder, the leader of the National Party in the Transvaal; and chief of the Bureau for State Security (BOSS), General Hendrik van den Bergh.
As reports emerged of wrongdoing by Rhoodie’s department, and that Smit was murdered because he was investigating internal government wrongdoing, a lethal net of suspicion fell upon Vorster, Mulder, Rhoodie and Van den Bergh. In his self-exculpatory 1983 book Rhoodie complained “Some newspapers barely troubled to hide their conviction that… Robert Smit and his wife… were murdered because Dr Smit had discovered that the Department of Information had clandestinely transferred millions of dollars of state funds into secret Swiss bank accounts. At Pretoria’s post Menlo Park High School [which Rhoodie’s children attended], the children whispered that General van den Bergh had instructed ‘Boss’ to kill Dr Smit when he discovered the secret.”
In his foreword to Muldergate – Mervyn Rees and Chris Day’s 1979 account of the Info Scandal – Allister Sparks noted that the scandal had “shattered the image of leadership in the eyes of the traditional patriarchal Afrikaner nationalist volk. The fall of the father figure John Vorster and his heir apparent, Connie Mulder, the discovery that some respected figures lied and others cheated; the shattering of the self-image of a stern, upright, incorruptible people, have all added to a national trauma.”
One could add that what had done most to destroy the nationalists’ confident sense of self was the thought that someone, high up in Afrikanerdom, had sanctioned the brutal murder of two of their own. It is difficult to measure the impact of unarticulated suspicion on political events. But, arguably, the Smit murders were one of the blows that cracked the Afrikaner monolith.
After the end of apartheid, and the revelations of government sponsored hit squads, there was hope that the Smit Murders would soon be solved. In 1997 a former member of the security police, Roy Allen, was named as the chief suspect in the case. In an interview with Beeld at the time he denied the charges saying: “I am no murderer. I was at the time in the security police. But I was never a member of the so-called Z-squad or Z-Section as we called it. I was a member of the N-Section. Nothing that we ever did came close to murder.”
He said that he had been dating Robert Smit’s secretary at the time and the two men had spoken a few times about “this and that.” Allen stated that “my personal belief is that no one in the security forces at the time would have taken Smit out. He was a white, Afrikaans speaking, prominent soon-to-be member of the government. But I would not go so far as to say that the regime was not involved.”
He added that the murder looked as if it had been carried out by a foreign hit squad. The advantage of the method, Allen noted, is that foreigners come in, do the job, then leave, and no tracks are left linking the hit to those in the regime who ordered it.
In 2006 Beeld reported that according to high level intelligence sources the Smit murders had been carried out by three members of the security police and taskforce: The late Dries Verwey, Phil Freeman (who had used “Mr McDougall” as a pseudonym in the 1980s) and Allen. Allen had by then moved to Australia and he once again vehemently denied the allegations.
The newspaper stated that the motive for the killings was to silence Smit after he threatened to go public about highly secret overseas bank accounts which the regime was using to pay various front organisations.
Then in 2009 R.W. Johnson linked the late Taillefer ‘Tai’ Minnaar – and apparently an associate of Allen and Freeman – to the murders. In his book South Africa’s Brave New World Johnson, citing an impeccable source, wrote that “Minnaar became remorseful about the hit in his later years, saying that his orders had ‘come from the very top’ but that he now regretted the whole dirty business.”
Minnaar (born 1939) had worked undercover in Cuba in the mid-1970s, alongside the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He had been handled out of South Africa’s Washington embassy. In a 1984 interview in the Star he had described himself as an old friend of General van den Bergh (with whom he had worked at BOSS). By late 1976 he was back in South Africa and was working as an instructor at the intelligence service’s Rietvlei headquarters.
The lost theory of the Smit murders
Little attention was paid to Johnson’s claim after the book came out, with Minnaar simply joining the long list of named suspects in the Smit murders. However, there is an intriguing overlap between Minnaar, with his links to Cuban exiles in America dating from the mid-1970s, and what could be called the ‘lost theory’ of the Smit murders. This theory constitutes the most complete explanation of who carried the hit, and why. Curiously, it disappeared from public consciousness very soon after it was reported on in South Africa.
On February 24 1980 the Sunday News Journal of Wilmington Delaware published an article by the journalist Joe Trento on the way in which foreign intelligence services had recruited individuals from within the Cuban nationalist movement in the United States to carry out assassinations (see here).
Trento wrote that in the mid-1970s the CIA had assisted in the recruitment of a hit-team of CIA-trained Cuban-exile terrorists by South Africa (BOSS) and Pinochet’s Chile (DINA). According to Trento’s sources the CIA had provided introductions for operatives of BOSS and DINA “to leaders of the Cuban nationalist movement [CNM] in Miami and Union City, New Jersey.” Initial recruitment by DINA had been conducted by Antal Lipthay, a Hungarian-exile who posed as journalist on his travels to the United States.
These Cuban-exiles in the United States, along with Italian fascists in Europe, would provide a network which DINA, under the direction of Manuel Contreras, used to carry out a series of assassinations against opponents of the Pinochet regime. These killings formed part of the “third phase” of “Operation Condor” -whereby political opponents of various right-wing Latin American regimes were hunted down and killed in Europe and the United States.
John Dinges (The Condor Years, 2004) writes that a small group from the CNM – Guillermo Novo, Jose Dionisio Suarez and Orlando Bosch – had travelled to Chile in December 1974 where they had cemented ties with DINA. In early 1975 Michael Vernon Townley, the Chilean American who was one of DINA’s main assassins, travelled to the US where he met up with a young operations man from the Cuban Nationalist Movement, Virgilio Paz. Paz and Townley would work closely together on a number of operations over the next few years.
According to Trento (1980): “The known victims of the hit team include: Former Chilean Gen. Carlos Prats and his wife, Cora, killed in an October 1974 bombing in Buenos Aires; Chilean Minister of Defence Oscar Bonilio, blown up with five other people in a helicopter in Chile in March 1975; Ronni Kapen Moffit and Orlando Letelier, who died in the September 1976 Washington car bombing… Another couple, Chilean exile leader Bernardo Leighton and his wife Ana, were seriously injured in an unsuccessful assassination attempt in Rome in October 1975.”
In addition to these rivals and opponents of Pinochet the hit team had killed a “South African economist and his wife, who were shot to death in their South Africa home in November 1977.” The Sunday News Journal investigation, Trento wrote, had shown that the killing of the Smit had been “carried out by members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement under orders of elements of [BOSS]. These BOSS officials did not want Smit releasing details of whom the South African Information Ministry had paid off abroad.”
The pictures of Dionisio Suarez, Michael Vernon Townley and Virgilio Paz published in the Sunday News Journal on February 24 1980 and republished in The Star February 26 1980
According to the newspaper while working as South Africa’s representative to the IMF Smit had lobbied “the World Bank to loan money to his government. His long time friends and associates asked Smit why a loan was needed since more than $70 million was already deposited in U.S. accounts in the name of South Africa. Smit, who had the reputation of being impeccably honest, had discovered an unprecedented scandal. According to CIA and State Department sources, Smit discovered the names of more than 20 American politicians, including U.S. senators, rightwing-journalists, and publishers who had received payoffs and bribes. Some of these people were known to be supporters of the Pinochet regime in Chile, which is said to have close ties with South Africa. Both governments had a strong interest in keeping their names secret.”
Townley and Paz had travelled to Europe in September 1975 where they had linked up with the Italian fascist leader Stefano Delle Chiaie (alias “Alfredo di Stefano”/”Topogigio” (the doll)/”Alpha”) in Rome. On October 5 1975 the exiled Chilean Christian Democrat leader, Bernardo Leighton, and his wife Ana, were shot on a Rome street. Both miraculously survived, though Ana was not able to walk properly again.
According to Trento’s CIA sources Paz was the suspected shooter in the Leighton assassination attempt. BOSS agents had allegedly helped prepare and send the communications in which “Zero” – the terrorist organisation to which Paz was affiliated – took credit for the assassination attempt on Leighton. Paz “was given a West German passport by BOSS agents and South African Ministry of Information officials provided Paz and Townley transportation out of Rome through the South African airline, investigators have recently learned. Townley apparently travelled under an American passport; using the name Kenneth W. Eynhart. According to CIA officials working in Rome at the time a report was sent back to CIA headquarters in Washington detailing Chilean, Cuban nationalist and South African involvement in the murder attempt.”
According to the Sunday News Journal’s sources Paz was also the suspected trigger man in the Smit killing. The same Brigadier Berretta handgun was used in both incidents. “The bullets recovered from the surviving couple in the Rome assassination attempt matched bullets recovered from the body of Mrs. Smit, according to a report on the incident filed from the Rome CIA Station.”
In March1978 the FBI had managed to identify Townley as the key suspect it was searching for, for the 1976 murder of Orlando Letelier in Washington DC. Townley was extradited from Chile and agreed to turn state witness against his co-conspirators. However, in terms of the plea-agreement he would only have to testify about the Letelier assassination (not any of the other operations he had been involved in.)
Paz and Dionisio Suarez, who were also implicated in the Letelier murder, went on the run. (They were only tracked down and arrested by the FBI in the early 1990s.) Trento wrote that Ricardo Canete – a protected witness in the Letelier case- had told the Sunday News Journal: “Last year I brought Krugerrands to the FBI that the [Paz and Suarez] had been using as currency in Manhattan. I was told at the time that the boys were bragging that the coins had been given to them by BOSS.”
I managed to contact Trento, who is now president of the Washington DC based Public Education Center. Trento said that he had come across the Smit angle after running an earlier story on the Cuban Nationalist Movement. He had been contacted by a high level CIA source who told him that he was missing a trick – and that was the murder of the Smits in South Africa. A major source for the article was James Jesus Angleton, the former head of counter-intelligence at the CIA, who had been instrumental in setting up BOSS in South Africa. Trento said that he had been told at the time, though he couldn’t remember the source, that the hit had been set up using a solar energy company as a front. Trento said that he had found it strange that he had not been contacted by South African law enforcement agencies after the story had been run.
The Star’s strange reporting
The Sunday News Journal story on the Cuban-exile connection to the Smit murder was extensively reported on in The Star (Johannesburg) on Monday February 25 and Tuesday February 26 1980. What is curious about The Star’s reports are that they included various claims that were not in the original Journal article.
Trento’s article directly linked only Paz to the Smit case, though it was suspected that Townley would have played a role. On the Monday The Star ran a report – with no by-line – which made a series of hard factual assertions. These were that both Suarez and Paz were suspected of being the trigger men in the Smit killings; that “the investigation has also revealed that Townley is in fact the ‘Czech’, Mark Benza, who was questioned by the South African police on suspicion of using a false passport shortly after the Smit murders”; and, that the “The gun used to shoot down Chilean ex-Minister Leighton… was a 7,65mm calibre. It was a 7,65mm calibre bullet that killed Mrs Smit.”
On the Tuesday, The Star – by-lined The Star Bureau New York – elaborated on these claims. The newspaper stated that: “With their investigatory report on the Leighton shootings, the CIA included greatly enlarged photographs of the bullets removed from their bodies. The photographs were examined by CIA and FBI ballistic experts in Washington – and it is these, according to Justice Department officials that led to later comparisons of the bullets removed from the Smits’ bodies [provided by Pretoria CIA operatives after the South African Police had reported the Smit murders to Interpol]. They found, that the slugs removed from the Smit’s bodies were fired from a gun used in the attack on the Leightons.” This claim was attributed to the Sunday News Journal.
The Star also repeated its claims that Townley was Benza and that Suarez had been involved in the assassination. It stated that “FBI officials said Townley, who frequently operated under the alias of ‘Marc Benzer’ or (Benza) entered South Africa ahead of the two designated Cuban nationalist killers, Paz and Dionisio Suarez, and left after them… Suarez is thought by the FBI to have been responsible for the mutilations of Mrs Smit. But Justice department officials have said they believe Townley may have played a dual role – both that of ‘spotter’ and as a joint gun man.”
The article further claimed that “FBI investigators” believe that “Paz and Suarez escaped with German and Swedish passports and Townley with a forged Czech passport identifying him as ‘Marc Benza’. He is reported to have been questioned while leaving Jan Smuts Airport and released. ‘The people in Pretoria probably didn’t know what was going on and left the inquiries to the CID, who certainly had no idea how right they were in picking up Benza’, said a source in the Justice Department.”
A normal reader would have assumed that these claims came from the Sunday News Journal investigation. Yet, they were not present in the original article. And Trento says that they did not come from him.
Some, maybe all, of these additional claims were false. As Beeld noted in a rebuttal story on the Tuesday (February 26) the Leightons and Mrs Smit had not been shot with a 7.65 mm calibre handgun. In reality they had been shot with a 9mm calibre weapon. The newspaper also stated (correctly) that Benza and Townley were two different people. On his return to Canada Benza told an associate that there had been a “misunderstanding” in South Africa and his passport had been briefly taken from him. (He died in the early 2000s.) On the Friday The Star quoted FBI officials as saying that “there was no way Suarez could have been in South Africa at the time of the Smit killings because he was sitting in a Washington district jail at the time for a contempt-of-court offence” (February 29 1980).
One explanation for the presence of these additional claims was that The Star had its own sources in the FBI and US Justice Department. However, on the Friday (January 29 1980) the newspaper said that it had had to run its own investigation into the Sunday News Journal claims as the newspaper “would not name its high level sources it quoted in the CIA, FBI, State Department and Justice Department.”
According to Harvey Tyson, The Star’s editor at the time, the discrepancies between the report in the Sunday News Journal and those in The Star were probably a result of “the normal practice of checking, and adding local or Star Foreign Service copy to an overseas report on a local issue.” However, he was unable to remember this specific story, or who the journalist was who contributed the additional information.
The Star proceeded to publish various denials from the FBI. Some of these were convincing and others were not. The Star quoted special agent Carter Cornick as saying that “we can be reasonably sure” that neither Suarez nor Townley were in South Africa at the time of the Smit murders. The claim about Suarez was credible (see above), but about Townley perhaps less so.
No mention was made in the article as to whether Paz could have been in South Africa.
FBI documents, declassified in 2000, place Paz in New Jersey at the beginning of September 1977 and the end of November 1977. A report from the Bureau’s Newark, New Jersey office – dated October 5 1977 – described “Virgilio Pablo Paz Romero” as an “enforcer” of the Cuban Nationalist Movement. As of September 7 1977 his home address was 4800 Kennedy Boulevard, Union City, New Jersey, and he was employed by Centre Ford (general manager, Nicholas Ligouri) in North Bergen, New Jersey. FBI agents interviewed Paz on the morning of September 7 1977 about a bomb that had gone off in Washington DC that morning. Paz had been highly uncooperative.
A further Newark FBI report from January 1978 said that it was suspected that Paz had made a call from Roy’s Chevrolet, where he was then working as a car salesman, to Venezuela, on the night of November 29, 1977. The suspected recipient of the call was Guillermo Novo Sampol, a fugitive from justice who was reputed to be the leader of the CNM in the New York Metropolitan Area (which included Union City, New Jersey.)
There is no record of Paz’s movements in between those two dates.
The above survey has been mostly based on secondary sources. Without being able to drill down to the rock of primary material it is not possible to make firm judgments about the crime. If there is a tentative conclusion that can be drawn it is that it is important to look again into possible foreign involvement in the killing. There are three reasons for this:
Firstly, members of the South African security services would have had to be involved in recruiting the hit team, facilitating the operation and (perhaps) even the clumsy efforts to obscure the true nature of the crime. But it has always seemed unlikely is that they actually killed Robert Smit and, more particularly, his wife. By contrast DINA and the CNM had no compunctions about taking out targets along with their partners. Indeed, this seems to have been their preferred modus operandi.
Secondly, as far as I can establish, the local investigation has essentially run its course. There are strong suspicions about who was involved. But these suspicions have not been hardened into provable fact. It does not seem as if the possibility of DINA/CNM/Condor involvement has been properly explored. The 1980 Sunday News Journal article opened up an important new line of investigation, but it was not followed up by the police. As Trento commented in an email: “The thing I can’t get my head around is why the SA authorities did not contact me just to see if they could move the case” (one possible reason for this was the apparent misreporting of his article by The Star.)
Thirdly, there always was an international dimension to the case. It seems almost common cause that Smit came across some kind slush fund overseas, that he planned to expose it, and this is what got him killed. However, the actual motive behind the killing has not been properly established. What was it about the way that this money was being used that so outraged Smit that he wanted to go public? And why was it regarded as so important that he be stopped from doing so, that there was resort to murder?
If a foreign hit squad was involved then there could have been as many as three groups involved in the assassination. There would be the South Africans who called in the hit (and perhaps tried to ‘clean up’ afterwards). If the usual Operation Condor methodology applied, a first team would have been dispatched by DINA (or whoever) to locate and survey the target. Once the location and surveillance operation was complete, this team’s mission would have been terminated. A second team would have then been dispatched to “carry out the actual sanction against the target” (Dinges, 2004 pg 194).
If this was how the assassination was worked then understanding the role of an individual suspect would require a grasp of how the whole thing fitted together.
Since 1980 a lot of information has emerged about DINA, the CNM and Operation Condor. However, in the primary and secondary sources that I was able to access very little seems to have come out about the relationship between BOSS and these organisations. In his 1980 book on the Letelier assassination, co-written with Saul Landau, Dinges writes only that Canete had done specialised jobs for BOSS.
Material has emerged that is at least indirectly relevant to the Trento thesis of CNM involvement in the Smit murders. In the Condor Years (2004) Dinges writes that it is now established that Townley and Paz set up the Leighton assassination attempt, and were in Rome at the time of the attack. However, while Paz/Zero were allowed to take the credit, the actual trigger man was Pier Luigi Concutelli an associate of Delle Chiaie. A Beretta 9mm handgun was used in the attempt.
It seems that the possibility of a South African slush fund located at Riggs Bank in Washington DC, and used to finance who knows what wrong-doing, is not implausible either. In August 1975 DINA’s head, Manuel Contreras, had travelled to the US to meet CIA deputy director Vernon Walters at CIA headquarters in Virginia. In September 2000 Contreras told Lilian Olivares of Chile’s La Segunda that “‘Walters proposed that we take on a lobby of North American senators, to get them to stop harassing Chile in the international arena.’ He said Walters suggested he contact five unnamed senators from both parties, ‘who would be paid $2 million a year so that they will act in favour of Chile.’ Contreras said he took the idea back to Chile, but it was never implemented.” (Dinges, 2004)
The truth about the Smit murders remains elusive. In the above account of the facts of the case, and the theories around it, there are certain interesting ‘coincidences’. For instance, Minnaar had Cuban connections. And Trento’s CIA sources suspected Cuban-exiles of involvement in the killings. These may be significant, or they may mean nothing at all. However, if there is information out there that could show these ‘coincidences’ to be provable linkages – then the crime would be very close to being solved.
John Dinges and Saul Landau, Assassination on Embassy Row: The Shocking Story of the Letelier-Moffitt Murders, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1981)
John Dinges, The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents, (New York: The New Press, 2004)
R.W. Johnson, South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country Since the End of Apartheid, (London: Allen Lane, 2009)
Mervyn Rees and Chris Day, Muldergate: The Story of the Info Scandal, (Johannesburg: Macmillan South Africa, 1979)
Eschel Rhoodie, The Real Information Scandal, (Orbis SA: Pretoria, 1983)
James Sanders, Apartheid’s Friends: The Rise and Fall of South Africa’s Secret Service, (London: John Murray, 2006)
Joseph J. Trento, The Secret History of the CIA, (Basic Books: New York, 2001)