Getting away with murder – the curious case of Shai Avissar and Hazel Crane

Getting away with murder – the curious case of Shai Avissar and Hazel Crane
Hazel Crane, a close friend of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, was at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing on 3 December 1997 to support her friend. The commission was investigating human rights abuses allegedly committed by Madikizela-Mandela during the apartheid era. (Photo: Walter Dhladhla/AFP)

Since the November arrest of a top Israeli crime suspect in Gauteng, Daily Maverick has exposed how violent syndicates from that country have been operating in South Africa for decades. Now we unravel what happened to two Israeli men whose names were linked to the murders of Shai Avissar and Hazel Crane 20 years ago.

Two decades ago, a gunman fired bullets into a car in Johannesburg. Hazel Crane, the target, was fatally wounded.

A close friend of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s, she was assassinated in 2003 while on her way to the court where her estranged Israeli husband Shai Avissar’s suspected killer was set to appear.

Avissar had been murdered roughly three years earlier.

The Crane and Avissar killings were possibly linked to illicit diamond deals that still result in violence and seemed to connect Israel’s underworld to South Africa’s.

Daily Maverick has recently reported on how evidence from assassinations suggests rival Israeli crime syndicates have been operating in this country for years.

Underpinning this are suspicions that dirty cops, along with local and international intelligence agents and suspects, are working together.

Wanted for questioning

In the Avissar’s assassination case, two Israeli men were identified as suspects wanted for questioning.

One of the two was arrested. But that case ultimately collapsed because Crane, a key witness, was murdered and the investigating officer later died.

There was once speculation that local criminals were involved in Crane’s murder – mining magnate Brett Kebble’s killer Mikey Schultz, via a lawyer, previously denied involvement.

Some with knowledge of the Avissar-Crane matter believe, aside from the deaths, corruption within South Africa’s police service also contributed to the case caving in.

Daily Maverick can now reveal what has since happened to the man who was once detained for Avissar’s murder, and what may have happened to the second man wanted for questioning at the time.

Witness versus ‘underworld crime queen’

The saga goes back more than 20 years.

Avissar was a diamond dealer widely reported to be a member of an Israeli organised crime syndicate.

While some media later portrayed Crane as a witness who knew too much so was assassinated to protect those she could incriminate, other unsettling stories clung to her name.

She was once convicted of illicit diamond dealing.

A 2007 Noseweek article described Crane, based on claims from a former friend, as “a brazen thief and arch criminal who flourished for years as an underworld crime queen in Johannesburg under the protection of… top policemen”.

The bludgeoned diamond dealer

Avissar was last seen alive back in October 1999 in the Johannesburg suburb of Norwood. A few months later, in January 2000, his body was discovered in a shallow grave in Pretoria. He had been beaten to death.

Following Avissar’s assassination, it was reported that police were after two men from Israel –  Lior Saadt and Amir Moila (who also went by the name David Milner).

Amir Moila in a photo that was used after Israel’s National Serious and International Crime Investigation Unit raided businesses linked to him. (Photo: Moti Kimchi/Ynet)

Crane told The Star newspaper that Moila had fled South Africa for Mexico.

Violence marked the case.

A Mail & Guardian report said two possible witnesses in the Avissar matter were murdered shortly after he was killed.

Eliminated witnesses

“Julio Bascelli was shot in the head in a deserted garage in Modderfontein, east of Johannesburg,” it said. “Carlo Binne was shot dead at the Johannesburg club Gecko Lounge in April 2001.”

That month, Saadt was arrested in Mozambique for Avissar’s murder and brought to South Africa.

About two months later he was wounded in a shooting that unfolded while he was being transported to the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court where he was set to appear for the murder case.

Another detainee was killed in the incident.

The violence escalated. 

Killing Crane

Crane was assassinated on 10 November 2003 while on her way to the Johannesburg court where Saadt was set to appear.

While one media report said that cops were again looking to question Moila, this time over Crane’s killing, a police spokesperson had told News24 there was no evidence that Moila was the key suspect in the Crane murder, but he was still wanted in connection with the Avissar case.

Crane’s killing meant the case against Saadt, relating to Avissar’s murder, suffered a major setback.

The investigating officer, Inspector Wayne Kukard, died in his Johannesburg home in January 2004. Some media reports said he had a heart attack, others said a stroke. 

Collapsed criminal case

A few months later, the charges against Saadt were withdrawn.

In March 2004 he reportedly flew back to Israel under police protection due to fears he would be attacked.

While what became of Saadt relating to South Africa is public record given extensive media coverage at the time, it was not immediately clear what happened to Moila, the other Israeli man wanted for questioning in the Avissar case.

According to the 2007 Noseweek article, Crane’s friend who was with her when she was murdered, Margaret Turner, believed Moila killed her.

Turner had not seen the gunman’s face but said investigations of her own and information she received pointed to Moila as pulling the trigger.

There is nothing to suggest Moila was ever arrested in South Africa.

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

‘Missing’ suspect suspicions

Daily Maverick can reveal that a photograph of Amir Moila published in the 2007 Noseweek article appears to match images of a man identified in recent Israeli media reports as Amir Molner, who previously spent time in jail there.

In 2009 the Israeli publication Haaretz claimed Molner was once in South Africa (another publication, Mako, claimed the same) and had operated in the same circles as Avissar and Crane.

There was no response from Molner in that article, but his legal representative, Moti Katz, was quoted saying: “My client denies any connection to the affair.”

In an emailed response last week to a Daily Maverick query asking if Molner was ever wanted for questioning in South Africa for the Avissar-Crane matter, Katz said he did not know anything new.

Asked if he could provide Molner’s contact details, he said he did not share such client information.

Another of Molner’s legal representatives, Ronan Rabi, explained to Daily Maverick during a call last week that he only represented Molner in certain cases and knew nothing of the Avissar-Crane matter, therefore could not comment.

Daily Maverick tried contacting a third lawyer who also once apparently represented Molner. He seems to have seen WhatsApp message query – blue ticks indicating this – but did not respond.

A message to an account on Facebook that appeared to be Molner’s was not read by the time of publication.

Jail and forced entry

Based on court papers from Israel, Molner was jailed there around 2008 and faced 32 months behind bars in relation to weapons and a conspiracy to commit a crime.

The court papers allege he was head of a criminal organisation and therefore of national interest.

Molner had subsequent legal skirmishes.

Another case involved cops with a search warrant forcing their way into his home. Molner, fearing who was about to enter as he had been warned about threats to his life, refused to let them in.

He was acquitted of obstructing police in their duties in 2017 in the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court.

Travels to China

As for Saadt, after his time in South Africa that ended with him being escorted out of the country in 2004, he settled in China at some point.

According to several Israeli media reports, both Saadt and a relative of his, Yaniv Zagori, were arrested in China in 2017 – possibly due to visa issues – and sent back to Israel.

Saadt later returned to China.

In August 2021 he died, apparently due to health issues related to Covid-19, in Vietnam.

Zagori, meanwhile, faced legal issues in Israel.

This is where the saga is reminiscent of the Avissar and Crane case – witnesses were targeted.

Witness assassinations

According to a 2021 Supreme Court matter in Israel, Zagori was accused of murder.

The case involved the assassination of two state witnesses – Tal Korkos, who was once his ally, and Elisha Sabah – as well as the killing of Korkos’s ex-wife Deborah.

Korkos was murdered in June 2017.

He had previously turned state witness in another case against Zagori – the defence therefore questioned his integrity – that ended with Zagori spending several years in jail.

It was the state’s case that Korkos was then targeted in an act of revenge “for the fact that Tal testified against [Zagori] in the previous case.”

Korkos had got into his car that was secretly fitted with an explosive device that was denoted via remote control.

“The vehicle caught fire and Tal was engulfed in flames,” the court papers said.

Car bomb connections

In South Africa, the Avissar and Crane murders, for which no one has been held to account, appeared to be linked to Israeli organised crime.

The case involved potential witnesses being murdered in South Africa, much like what happened to Korkos in the unrelated case in Israel (although he had already testified in a court by the time of his killing).

The way Korkos was murdered – the bombing of a vehicle – also links to current legal action stretching between South Africa and Israel.

One of Israel’s most wanted suspects, Yaniv Yossi Ben Simon, was arrested in Gauteng in November and faces charges in connection with two car bombings that played out in Israel in 2003 and 2004.

Daily Maverick recently reported on how Simon’s arrest connected South Africa to that country’s biggest ever organised crime investigation.

He was accused of being involved in the notorious globally operating Israeli crime family, the Abergil Organisation.

Simon, who may face extradition to Israel, had been living in South Africa since 2007 and the Abergil Organisation’s head Yitzhak (sometimes spelled Itzhak) Abergil was also probably in South Africa prior to that, in 2002.

That, coincidentally, was roughly when unrelated violence linked to the Avissar-Crane case started heating up. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Short version : a bunch of crooks killed each other, saving us all lot of hassle.

  • virginia crawford says:

    No wonder South Africa is becoming an international criminal hub: unlikely that you will be caught and if you are, kill the witnesses. I’m also very curious as to how these people function financially- I have to give my finger print to open a bank account and give proof of address etc. Where is SARS ? Big spenders with no visible income?

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Waiting for the next international crime syndicate to be revealed,operating in South Africa.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

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