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A Murder in Namibia

How two bungling American assassins travelled over 7,000 miles to settle a grudge, and then turned their trial into a nine-year circus.

· 14 min read
A Murder in Namibia
Marcus Thomas (left) and Kevin Townsend in court in 2022.

I. The Crime

For more than 12 years, two black American citizens have been locked up in an African jail, even though they had not been convicted of a crime. That summary of events may sound like a terrible miscarriage of justice has occurred—that two men have been wrongfully detained in a place where basic rights do not exist. The reality is altogether more bizarre. Copious evidence of guilt ought to have ensured a straightforward trial and conviction in 2014. Instead, the legal process has been beset by twists and turns, an escape attempt, missed court dates, a social-media intervention by American hip-hop celebrity P. Diddy protesting alleged injustice, COVID restrictions, and a litany of legal challenges and obstructive delays. On September 6th, 2023, the case was finally concluded and the inevitable verdict was delivered at last.

Namibia is a Southern African country about the size of Texas, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa. The majority of the population is black, and most of their ancestors migrated there from East Africa in the 16th century. In the 1880s, it became a German colony following the Berlin Conference, and during World War I, it was occupied by South Africa. It remained under occupation until 1990, when it became an independent country. Since then, Namibia has become one of Africa’s top tourist destinations—politically stable, free (according to Freedom House), and relatively safe (at least when its crime statistics are compared to those of neighbouring South Africa).

The story of this extraordinary criminal case began on January 7th, 2011, when the lifeless body of a 25-year-old white Namibian man named Andre Peter Heckmair was found slumped behind the wheel of a Toyota Land Cruiser on a quiet street in Namibia’s capital, Windhoek. Heckmair had been slain with a single gunshot to the head. It is unlikely that he even saw his assailant before he was shot. But what looked—at first blush, anyway—like a professional execution rapidly unraveled. The police quickly determined that the murder was in fact the work of two inept amateurs who had traveled over 7,000 miles to settle a grudge. Within hours of the crime, the suspects were apprehended and taken into custody.

At the time of his death, Heckmair was studying in Switzerland, where he lived with his Swiss girlfriend, Christine Brühwiler. The previous year, the couple were in New York, where Heckmair was then living and working, and it emerged that Christine had a jealous ex-boyfriend named Marcus Kevin Thomas. It remains unclear exactly when Thomas dated Brühwiler or for how long, but after the murder, Namibian police discovered that Thomas used a photograph of himself and Brühwiler as his laptop’s desktop wallpaper. In August 2010, Thomas broke into Heckmair’s New York apartment to confront the couple and was subsequently arrested. In jail, he met Kevin (sometimes spelt Kevan) Donnell Townsend.

On December 27th, 2010, Thomas and Townsend entered Namibia and checked into the Cardboard Box Backpackers guest house before moving to Room 5 of the African Sky guest lodge in Windhoek West. The two Americans had begun their journey together weeks before, after Thomas put up $10,000 to bail Townsend out of prison. The pair then traveled to Helsinki in Finland, where they mailed a gun silencer and two gun barrels to Namibia, declaring the items as spare parts for furniture on the customs documentation. When they arrived in Windhoek, they purchased a burner phone and set about trying to find Heckmair.

The two men had arrived with very little information regarding their quarry’s whereabouts—they only knew that he was in Windhoek visiting his family, who owned a restaurant called the Cattle Baron Ranch in the Maerua Mall. So they staked out the food court, hoping to intercept Heckmair there. When he failed to show up, the two men became impatient and began to ask random mall shoppers if they knew where they could find him.

Heckmair and his family began receiving text messages telling them that two Americans were looking for him. Although Thomas and Townsend were two black men in a majority-black country, they made very little effort to appear inconspicuous. The burner phone and SIM they purchased would never be recovered, but the cell-phone salesman remembered Townsend’s tattoos, the two men’s unusual accents and condescending manner, as well as remarks they made comparing Namibia’s colorful currency to “Disney money.”

According to witness testimony at their trial, Thomas and Townsend were also searching for a handgun. Namibia has fairly strict gun-control laws; no one is able to walk into a gun shop and take possession of a firearm the same month, let alone the same day. So they asked around until they were introduced to Simon Muliokela on New Year’s Day, 2011. Under their respective aliases “Mr. Cash” and “Mr. M,” Townsend and Thomas told Muliokela that they wanted to buy a 9mm pistol to match the silencer and barrels they had already ordered. Muliokela was not able to obtain the type of gun they wanted but offered to sell them a 7.65mm pistol instead for N$1000 (at the time, about $140 USD). On January 3rd, the two men handed Muliokela a N$500 down-payment in exchange for the gun and ammunition—ostensibly for “self-defense”—with a promise that they would pay him the balance later.

Heckmair, meanwhile, wanted to know who was looking for him. Thomas and Townsend were becoming desperate, talking to an ever-increasing number of people in an effort to obtain his address. Multiple witnesses recall Thomas and Townsend speaking to them specifically about Heckmair’s whereabouts while text messages record Heckmair’s interactions with people describing the agitated Americans’ incautious inquiries. Eventually, they managed to get hold of Heckmair’s phone number. Prosecutors believe the three men arranged to meet at Gusinde Street on the afternoon of January 7th. It’s in that quiet cul-de-sac, located off a main road in Windhoek, that Heckmair was murdered.

Thomas and Townsend then went back to Muliokela and paid him the balance they owed on the gun, plus an extra N$300 for himself. When Muliokela asked what had happened to the firearm, they told him that they had disposed of it because “no one wants a gun that’s been used.” The two men then returned to their guest house and prepared to leave the country. By this time, Namibian police were looking into Heckmair’s final days and had already established that two black American men had been looking for him. They traced Thomas and Townsend to the African Sky lodge, where they recovered the silencer, two 9mm pistol barrels, eight cell phones, and some marijuana. The two men were placed under arrest that same evening, initially on a charge of drug-possession.

The discovery of the marijuana was certainly convenient. It allowed police to keep Thomas and Townsend in custody while they worked on linking them to the murder. But it is worth noting that of all the criminal charges the two men eventually faced—one count of marijuana possession, one count of murder, one count of robbery with aggravating circumstances (Heckmair’s phone and wallet containing 100 Swiss francs were missing), three counts of contravening the Ammunitions Act, and one count of obstructing the course of justice—the drugs charge was the only count to which both agreed to plead guilty.

The evidence of text messages, cell-phone records, a long list of witnesses willing to testify to the suspects’ hunt for their victim, the testimony of the man who sold the suspects their weapon, and the discovery of a silencer and gun barrels in their luggage all provided the Namibian Police with a clear-cut case. It ought to have resulted in a speedy trial and conviction. It didn’t turn out that way.

II. The Trial

In spite of the sheer volume of incriminating evidence, Townsend and Thomas elected to plead not guilty. Townsend even claimed that he had never heard Andre Heckmair’s name until he was arrested. From the moment of their first contact with law enforcement, both men were uncooperative and remained that way. After they were charged and began their trial in 2014, they sought to obstruct the course of justice at every opportunity.

The trouble began almost immediately, during police questioning. Thomas managed to get hold of one of the detective’s notebooks when the two men were being issued with their prison clothes and toiletries. He then destroyed some of the notebook’s pages, for which he was rewarded with the obstruction of justice charge. A few months later, Thomas was ordered by the court to provide police with handwriting samples. He agreed to comply but provided samples written with his left hand when he is right-handed. Two additional court orders were required to get him to provide the correct samples.

The Namibian legal system is a reflection of the country’s history and diversity—a mixture of Westminster-style constitutional law, Dutch Roman common law, international law, and customary law. Lawyers wear robes when presenting in court, but the proceedings will otherwise be familiar to Americans in many respects: defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, a lawyer will be provided to those who cannot afford to hire their own, and the prosecution makes its case first, followed by the defense. The biggest difference is that in Namibia, criminal cases are not decided by juries. It is up to a judge from the High Court to determine if the prosecution has proved its case. Judges can also call additional witnesses to the court after the defense rests if they’re undecided. There is only one higher court with which to file an appeal should a defendant feel that they did not receive a fair trial.

High Court Judge Christie Liebenberg was assigned to try the case, and a trial date was set for November 4th, 2014. Before that day arrived, Thomas’s first lawyer, Willem Visser, resigned and was replaced by Werner van Rensberg. But on the opening day of the trial, Marcus Thomas was absent due to injuries sustained the night before.

On November 3rd, Thomas attempted to escape from the Windhoek Correctional Services facility. First, he sawed through the frame on the window in his cell. Then he climbed down the wall of the jail onto the roof of a workshop building, using a rope fashioned from torn pieces of his prison blanket. He sawed through a grill over a skylight on the workshop roof and climbed inside, then crawled under the workshop gate in the first barbed wire fence. As he ran towards the second fence, he was spotted by a guard, who ordered him to stop. Thomas climbed a tree next to the second fence separating him from what was by now surely only temporary freedom. “I'm going,” he answered when the bemused guard asked what he was doing. But as he attempted to jump over the top of the fence from the tree, his foot became entangled in the razor wire. He spent the next two hours dangling upside down against the fence as everyone waited for the Windhoek Fire Brigade to come and rescue him.

Thomas only sustained superficial cuts and bruises, but he insisted that he needed to spend the next few days recovering in the infirmary. A prison official speculated that the escape attempt only failed because Thomas was startled by the guard, and that he would probably have made the jump otherwise. He had a backpack with him that contained tools, a cell phone, and maps of Windhoek and Swakopmund (a city on the Atlantic coast). Investigators believe he had inside help at the jail but the results of any internal investigations have not been made public.

It later emerged at trial that, before the escape attempt, Kevin Townsend had requested a meeting with Chief Inspector Felix Ndikoma. Townsend had then told Ndikoma that Thomas was planning to escape with the help of another inmate named “Roger,” and that Thomas had paid N$30,000 to a correctional officer for his assistance with the plan. Townsend said he was unwilling to divulge further details unless he was granted bail. When that condition was denied, he fell silent.

In the days that followed, Thomas refused to attend the trial, claiming that his injuries prevented him from leaving the infirmary. Judge Liebenberg ordered that he be brought to the courtroom. Meanwhile, the state’s first witness, Warrant Officer Oscar Shatipamba, was called to testify about the crime scene and how Heckmair died. The state was preparing to call its second witness, Simon Muliokela, to testify about the sale of the illegal gun, when Thomas’s lawyer, Werner van Rensberg, informed the judge that Marcus Thomas was mentally unfit to stand trial. When the fire department cut Thomas free of the razor wire, he had fallen two meters to the ground and he was now claiming that he had sustained a brain injury.

And so, the criminal trial was suspended while Thomas underwent psychiatric evaluation to see if his claim could be substantiated. Meanwhile, van Rensberg withdrew from the case and Monty Karuaihe began representing Thomas. In April 2015, Thomas and Townsend were on their way back to court when the police van in which they were travelling was hit by a taxi cab. They were both taken to the hospital and court proceedings were rescheduled for May.

A psychiatrist appointed by the defense examined Thomas at Windhoek Central Hospital for 30 days and determined that he was not fit to stand trial due to “impairment in cognitive performances.” She told the judge that Thomas knew he was in Namibia but had no recollection of how or why he got there and would not be able to follow the court proceedings. Prosecutor Antonia Verhoef was unimpressed by this assessment and asked Judge Liebenberg to agree to a second evaluation, which was duly granted. In October 2016, Judge Liebenberg read a new evaluation by two psychiatrists, and another by a clinical psychologist who had conducted a series of neuropsychological tests on Thomas. All agreed that Thomas was faking his condition. The psychologist determined that Thomas “deliberately distorted answers and failed easy tests, while he succeeded in more difficult tests.” The psychiatrists likewise concluded that Thomas was “malingering and is fit to stand trial.” The criminal trial was scheduled to resume in April 2017.

By the time everyone returned to court that April, Thomas was on to his fifth lawyer, Kadhila Amoomo. Amoomo began by requesting that Judge Liebenberg recuse himself from the case for displaying bias against his client. When Liebenberg ruled that Thomas was fit to stand trial six months earlier, he had said that “Marcus Thomas can appreciate the wrongfulness of his acts in respect [of] the offenses charged.” Liebenberg refused to recuse himself and pointed out that he was simply reading from the psychiatric report. Nevertheless, proceedings were further delayed until Liebenberg’s decision could be upheld in October.

In July 2018, everyone returned to court and Amoomo announced that he would be withdrawing as Thomas’s legal representative due to a conflict of interest. He had just received an updated witness list from the prosecution and it included one of his clients in a different case named Ashley Hendricks. As Hendricks’s lawyer on another matter, he could not ethically cross-examine her. Liebenberg accepted Amoomo’s resignation and the case was postponed until February 2019.

In October 2019, Thomas lost his eighth lawyer, Titus Ipumbu, who quit citing an “irretrievable breakdown of trust” with his client. Thomas’s legal representatives had all been provided by the Directorate of Legal Aid, a government service that connects accused clients lacking financial means with lawyers prepared to work pro-bono. Each new attorney required a trial postponement to prepare a defense, and the judge and prosecution were growing exasperated.

Liebenberg decided that he’d had enough. He pointed out that Ipumbu’s resignation “was brought about solely by the letter written by Thomas in which he misrepresented facts in a fraudulent manner.” He added that Legal Aid had already said they would provide Thomas with no further legal assistance. Going forward, Thomas would have to represent himself and Liebenberg ordered proceedings to resume where they left off in 2014. The trial restarted and Simon Muliokela finally concluded his testimony four years and three months after he had begun to deliver it. Thomas declined to cross-examine him.

Marcus Thomas was not the only one causing delays. When the trial began, Kevin Townsend was represented by Boris Isaacks. In February 2015, Isaacks was fired by Townsend and replaced with Joshua Kaumbi. On a court day in September 2015, Townsend fired Kaumbi for “poor legal performance” and proceedings were delayed so he could obtain new representation. He privately engaged Mbanga Siyomunji as his new representative. Before the state could call its third witness upon the resumption of proceedings in 2019, Townsend fired Siyomunji and the case was delayed again to allow him to find new representation.

The COVID-19 pandemic prevented the trial from continuing in 2020. In August 2021, when proceedings finally resumed, the receptionist at the Cardboard Box Backpackers guest house took the stand to testify that the two defendants arrived together and booked into one room, although they slept in different rooms and then left without paying. She added that Thomas had asked her about a package he was expecting. Andre Heckmair’s sister, Bonnie, testified that her brother left on the day of the murder to meet two Americans for lunch. Shortly after she concluded her testimony, the trial was delayed yet again due to the ill health of one of the new defense lawyers.

The trial was placed on hold again in September 2021 as both defendants filed motions arguing that the evidence collected at the African Sky guest house had been illegally seized and was thus inadmissible. That motion created a mini trial within the main trial, which concluded when their motions were overruled. The trial was set to restart in 2022 to give Thomas’s latest new lawyer, Laura Pack, time to prepare her case. The defense continued to argue that evidence obtained from their room should be thrown out and now accused the police of planting it. It wasn’t until May 2023—nine years after the trial began—that the state was finally able to rest.

Thomas and Townsend were now represented, respectively, by Salomon Kanyemba and Mbanga Siyomunji (whom Townsend had re-engaged), and the two attorneys immediately filed a new motion to dismiss all charges on the grounds that the state had not proved its case. Liebenberg refused. In response, the defense stated that their clients would not testify and that they would call no witnesses. And with that, the defense also rested.

III. The Verdict

In July, the trial reconvened for closing arguments. The defense repeated its claim that the state had failed to conclusively prove its case because all the evidence was circumstantial. The gun and Heckmair’s belongings were never recovered. They maintained that the silencers found in the guest house were planted by the police, were never used, and did not fit the weapon used to murder Heckmair. Prosecutor Antonia Verhoef, who had doggedly pursued the case through the years of delays, argued that the witness testimony overwhelmingly proved Townsend and Thomas’s guilt.

Delivering his verdict on September 6th, Liebenberg acknowledged the lack of direct evidence linking the accused to the crime, but noted that the circumstantial evidence of their guilt was simply overwhelming: “When considering the cumulative effect of the evidence presented, the court is satisfied that the only reasonable inference to draw a conclusion to reach from the proved facts is that the accused persons planned and committed the murder. What may further be inferred from these facts is that they acted with direct intent when shooting the deceased in the head with a firearm.” Marcus Thomas and Kevin Townsend, Liebenberg ruled, were guilty of murder, robbery with aggravating circumstances, and the illegal possession of a handgun and ammunition. Thomas was also found guilty of attempting to defeat the course of justice by stealing the police notebook in 2011.

On October 26th, 2023, nearly 13 years after Andre Heckmair drew his last breath, his killers were finally sentenced. Judge Liebenberg noted that Thomas and Townsend had displayed no remorse, and he sentenced them to 27 years each for the murder. Of that, eight years will be deducted for time served during the trial. Although they had been in custody since January 2011, Liebenberg reasoned that most of the delays were deliberately caused by the defendants. 

The two men were each handed an additional four years for robbing Heckmair after killing him, two years of which will run concurrent with the murder sentence. Thomas received an additional year for tampering with police evidence during his initial arrest. For their firearm violations, both men were given the choice of paying fines or serving additional prison time. For Thomas, that will mean an additional year in prison, and for Townsend, an additional six months. They will be almost certainly be deported immediately upon leaving prison, by which time they will have been in Namibia for 35 years. 

The national public mood following the trial was overwhelmingly supportive of the judgement. Namibia has a troubled history marked by racial violence and animosity, and racial tensions do persist in some segments of Namibian society today. But this was not a racialized issue. Andre Heckmair may have been white, but he was a Namibian citizen, and both his white and black countrymen were outraged by the case. Two men had traveled to their country to murder someone in cold blood, as if they were assassins in a Hollywood movie. They then proceeded to make a mockery of their nation’s rightful pursuit of justice.

The catalog of farcical events that followed may sound absurd, but for Heckmair’s grieving parents, the experience was an agonizing ordeal. As Thomas and Townsend stalled and bluffed and lied and filed endless vexatious motions, they turned the trial into a squalid circus that served no purpose other than to delay the inevitable. The Heckmair family still lives in Windhoek but the Cattle Baron Ranch is gone. In its place, the family opened a new restaurant called Peppercorn Grill and Steakhouse, but it wasn’t able to survive the pandemic and permanently closed in 2021. Its absence offers a poignant and tragic coda to a strange and terrible story in which the antics of the accused have been allowed to upstage a painful reality of lives pitilessly and pointlessly destroyed.

Bridget Heckmair has said that her husband became depressed and ill after the murder. They have come to terms with the grim facts of their son’s death but they still don’t know why Thomas and Townsend took his life. Even after being found guilty, his killers have remained silent about their motives. At the pre-sentencing hearing Bridget testified, “We greeted [Andre] before his appointment and the next time we saw him was in the morgue with a bullet wound in his right cheek. To this day we cannot cope with that image.”

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