Those behind the kidnapping of Ugoeze Comfort Okoro, wife of the traditional ruler of Ihitoha Uratta Community, Owerri North Local Government Area of Imo State, were recently arrested and their confessions have shed light on their motive and the modus operandi of the abduction.
The 73-year-old victim, now deceased, was kidnapped from her home on the night of Sunday, January 26, 2020, and forcefully taken away in the presence of domestic staff and her husband, HRH Eze Emmanuel Okoro, Oha I of Ihitoha Uratta. She was abducted barely a month after the couple’s celebration of their 50 years of marriage.
The five suspects, mostly ex-convicts and alleged self-declared members of IPOB, paraded for the crime include Stanley Ozechukwu Igbo, alias White, 35, Kelechi Njamanze, 28, Uchedu Ibekwe, 30, Tochukwu Chukwuka, 28 and the 50-year-old priest and herbalist, Vitas Ahuneza.
The sixth man and the acclaimed organizer of the kidnap has been identified as Uche Okechukwu who is currently serving a jail term in Owerri Prison. He is alleged to have coordinated the activities of the other five who kidnapped Ugoeze Comfort Okoro, wife of his brother, the monarch of Ihitoha Uratta.
After collecting a four million naira ransom on February 1 at Umunoha in Mbaitoli Local Government Area, the gang failed to honour its end of the bargain to release their hostage. The royal family was thrown into grief a few days later with the discovery of the victim’s corpse at Akabor community in Oguta Local Government Area.
Eze Okoro was compelled to report the abduction of his wife to the police after paying the initial ransom of four million naira and instead of releasing his wife her abductors had demanded an additional one million naira.
Imo State Commissioner of Police, Mr Bolaji Fafowora, in turn, had ordered the Anti-Kidnapping unit, dubbed Tiger Squad, to take over the case. On February 7, when the second tranche of ransom was dropped, the long arm of the law caught up with one of the suspected kidnappers, Stanley Ogechukwu Igbo, who was shot by security operatives.
Speaking to Saturday Sun, Superintendent of Police Linus Nwaiwu, Commander of the Tiger Squad, explained that after Ogechukwu Igbo was arrested, he took detectives to their hideout where a second suspect, Tochukwu Chukwuemeka was apprehended. He, in turn, led detectives to arrest the gang’s medicine man, Vitalis Ahuneza who provided charms for the gang during their operations.
The fourth member of the gang, Uchedu Ibekwe was arrested soon after. Of him, Nwaiwu disclosed: “While searching his house, we recovered AK-47 rifles, one pump-action gun, 120 live ammunition and 45 cartridges, assorted charms, four jackets and a cash sum of N2million, being part of the ransom collected. We also recovered an army beret.”
The round-up was completed with the arrest of Kelechi Njamanze.
Recounting how the kidnappers invaded his home on January 26, Eze Okoro said: “After the gunmen ordered us to lie face down, they took my wife away. Afterwards, they called me on February 1 and demanded N50 million. I had to pay them N4million.”
He was dismayed that the kidnappers went ahead to kill his wife even after he paid them the ransom. “They dumped her body in the bush. It was one Good Samaritan who took her corpse to the mortuary. We have recovered the body and had deposited it at the mortuary in Aladinma Hospital,” he said.
Kidnap gang formed in Owerri Prison
The five suspects have one thing in common: They are either ex-convicts who served time at Owerri Prison or members of IPOB. The first suspect, Stanley Ogechukwu Igbo, born of an Akure, Ondo State father and a mother from Imo State, grew up in Ajangbadi area of Lagos State and became a trader after he completed his secondary education at Ajangbadi High School in 2005.
“I had to relocate from Lagos State in 2009 when former Governor Babatunde Fashola demolished our shop,” he told Saturday Sun. Not long after, he strayed into crime and was arrested for armed robbery in 2011 by detectives from the State Criminal Investigations Department, Owerri. He was subsequently remanded in prison for eight years.
“It was inside the prison yard I met Uche Okechukwu who introduced me into IPOB and I voluntarily joined the organisation after I was released,” he narrated.
According to him, he met IPOB coordinator Ikechukwu Raymond in his house in Onitsha where he was sworn into secrecy not to divulge whatever he saw or heard. “They brought out two AK-47 rifles, which they said were collected from policemen during a protest,” he claimed. “They took me and over 300 others to a native priest where for two days we were fortified with various charms.”
While divulging details of the kidnapping, he further implicated Okechukwu Uche, currently serving time in Owerri prison. “He coordinated the kidnapping of his brother’s wife and suggested we should demand N50 million. We collected N4 Million, but the woman died in our custody and we had no option but to abandon her body in the bush.”
Ogechukwu Igbo claimed his share of the initial ransom was N200, 000.
He was in the process of collecting the second tranche when he was shot on both legs.
The second suspect, Tochukwu Chukwuemeka alias Topic, from Owaelu Uratta in Imo State was recruited into the gang inside Owerri prison by the first suspect and the alleged kingpin of the gang who is still in prison.
Chukwuemeka got N300, 000 out of the N4million ransom. Two Ak47 rifles, a pump-action gun and 45 live cartridges were found in his house. “The AK-47 rifles have been in my custody for one year. We use them for operation, especially for kidnapping and armed robbery,” he said.
The third suspect, Kelechi Njamanze, arrested for armed robbery in 2012, was remanded in Owerri Prison, where he, subsequently, spent seven years and two months and became acquainted with Ogechukwu Igbo and Uche Ikechukwu, who co-opted him into the gang.
The 28-year-old who hails from Owerri Municipal Council of Imo State was a graduate of Alvan Ikoku College of Education, Owerri, where he studied Accountancy. He, however, claimed that he is not a member of IPOB and not a penny was given to him out of the ransom.
He said: “It was Ogechukwu and others who organised the kidnapping of the deceased. And truly the victim died in our custody and we left her corpse in the forest in Njaba.”
Uche Ibekwe, the fourth suspect, a bricklayer and a native of Owerri North Local Government Area, also admitted that he was a member of IPOB. Detectives searched his house and found incriminating items, including AK-47 rifles and charms, which he claimed was for “for protection,” given to them by their priest.
Vitalis Ahuneza, the herbalist among the gang also declared his membership of IPOB. “The suspects came to me for prayers. They were up to 300 members that came for prayer and protection. I gave them some articles for protection. I didn’t give them protection against AK-47 rifles,” he said.
The suspects, according to Commissioner of Police, Fafowora, will soon be charged to court as soon as detectives investigating their case conclude their assignment.