Wealthy men, including a Tongaat doctor and a policeman, who allegedly pursued romantic relationships on the gay dating and chat app, Grindr, claim they were lured to local guest houses under false pretences, where they were beaten, choked and robbed.
There are 13 victims – some of whom are married - including Mount Edgecombe businessman, Kuben Kevin Archary, 43, who was found strangled with a rope at a Durban guest house in July.
In total, the victims were robbed of R1 million.
Four suspects appeared in the Durban Magistrate’s Court on charges of murder, robbery with aggravating circumstances and kidnapping.
The accused are Khumbulani Quintin Ngubane, 40, Celempilo Nkomo, 29, Nkanyiso Ndebele, 28, and Mzwemvelo Simphiwe Ngubane, 28.
Mzwemvelo was the only one who applied for bail. The other three accused abandoned their bail application.
The State prosecutor, Calvin Govender, opposed bail due to the severity of the charges and the safety of the witnesses.
Detective Sipho Shezi, the investigating officer from the Durban North Police Station, testified that the accused had also used Grindr - a gay dating app - and other sites to create fake accounts as men looking for love.
"Once they connected with the victims, their modus operandi was to meet at guesthouses, lodges and bed and breakfast places. The meeting points were in Umhlanga, Ballito, Berea, Brighton Beach, La Lucia and Durban North. One suspect would wait to greet the victim, while the other three would hide in the bathroom," said Shezi.
He said once the victim was inside the room, the door would be locked. The three hidden suspects would then emerge and threaten and rob the victim.
The suspects allegedly used a razor blade to cut one of the victim’s on his scrotum.
"Some victims were tied up with ropes and assaulted. The suspects took their cell phones and used their banking apps to transfer money into their accounts. Altogether, the victims were robbed of over a million rand," Shezi told the court.
He said investigations into Archary's murder revealed CCTV footage from the area, which showed that the accused were travelling in a VW Polo.
"A police alert was sent out and in August Marshall Security spotted the vehicle in Durban North. The accused were in the vehicle and tried to flee. The security company and police gave chase and apprehended the accused. They were linked to the crime after police found rope that was similar to the one used to kill Archary, cell phones and bank cards belonging to the victims."
He said the victims also pointed out the accused in an identification parade, and Mzwemvelo was indentified as the person who handled the transferring of the money.
A source said most of the victims were wealthy and included a Tongaat doctor and a policeman.
Chris Gounden, the defence attorney representing Mzwemvelo, told the court that the accused was not involved in the crimes and had merely taken a lift with the co-accused on the day.
Gounden told the court to consider Mzwemvelo's personal circumstances - he is a father and the bread winner of his family - into account.
"He has no pending cases or previous convictions. He has no incentive to evade his trial."
Gounden also described the State’s case as weak.
The court, however, denied Mzwemvelo's bail application and the matter was adjourned to January.
In the public gallery, Archary's wife and daughter could not hold back tears as they came face to face with his alleged killers.
His wife, who declined to be named, said she would never forget how she had tried to wake Archary up as he lay dead on a bed at a guest house in Durban North on July 18.
"He came home from work at about 5pm and after having a bath he told me that he was going to a business meeting. He said he would be back soon. He did not tell me where the meeting was and I did not question him because he met with fleet controllers and managers on a regular basis at pubs or bars to have a drink and discuss business. He picked up his laptop bag and left."
She said at 6pm their daughter tried to call him because she wanted him to get her a chocolate on his way home but he did not answer.
"Although we thought it was odd for him not to answer, we assumed he was still busy. We tried again at 7pm and he still did not pick up. We realised something was amiss. I called his brother and together with a friend of my husband, they were able to track his vehicle to the guest house."
She said they arrived at the guest house at 9pm and saw his vehicle parked in the drive-way.
"They called out for the owner to allow them onto the property and explained why they were there. The guest house only had two bedrooms. My husband was found in one of them.
“His body was placed on the bed and covered with a blanket to make it seem like he was asleep. The suspects had electronically transferred just over R11 000 from his personal account and attempted to transfer over R2 million from his business account but it did not go through."
She said she arrived at the scene at 10pm with her son.
"I did not believe that he was dead. I went to the room and began shaking his body, screaming for him to wake up. It was traumatising."
She said her little family will never be the same again.
"My husband ran a motor mechanics business on North Coast Road. We still have the business open. Due to the police investigations, our business account has been frozen. We have lost customers and had to retrench eight staff members.
“Financially, we have taken a knock. I left my job as an operations manager at a restaurant to try and work on salvaging the business to keep my husband’s legacy alive."
She said her family had suffered emotionally.
"I am trying to be strong but it is not easy. I am the emotional, financial and physical support for my children. Our daughter and son are unable to deal with the loss of their father. I don't believe he was on Grindr but I think he was scammed through another website.
“We are waiting for the police investigation to give us more information. We are thankful to detective Shezi for all his hard work. It is because of him that I am able to sleep at night knowing that my husband's killers are behind bars."
She said her advice to people was not to disclose personal information on any of these sites, and not to meet unknown people.
"I never want another family to go through what we are going through…"
* Grindr is a dating app for people to talk and meet – just like Tinder. But, unlike Tinder, Grindr is exclusively for guys meeting other guys.