Rhodesian Herald, Sept 14, 1972. © Roger Stringer
I first heard of “Diggeden” growing up back in the 90s. “Dick Den mupfanha wemhepo”, we would sing, a tribute to a man’s talent for disappearing into thin air.
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His name was Aiden Diggeden, a notorious car thief, robber, serial jail-breaker and all round legendary crook. They say no jail could hold him; he strolled in and out of Rhodesian prisons as he wished. After we discussed this legend with a couple of friends, one of them pointed me to this blogpost by lawyer/writer Tererai Mafukidze.
Long-ish post, but makes for great reading!
The legend of Aiden Diggeden
Zimbabwe’s legendary Ford car obsessed prison breaker: Aiden Diggeden
By Tererai Mafukidze
In 1984, while doing grade five at Driefontein Mission, one of my Harare friends serenaded us with the stories of a legendary criminal and jail breaker he referred to as ‘Diggy Den’. I was fascinated by the tales told, though I never believed any of them. I was partly embarrassed too because being a policeman’s son, I had never heard of this Diggeden. During the next holidays, I asked my father about Diggeden. My father related how this thieving and amazing white man escaped from any jail that ever tried to hold him. I was fascinated by it all.
Then one Saturday morning some twenty five later, I went hunting for old books in Melville in Johannesburg. While trawling through old books from Rhodesia, my eyes were attracted by a book with the titled ‘Some Famous Rhodesian Trials’ by Alan Hardy. On opening the book, I was overjoyed to discover that one of the criminals covered in the book was Aiden Diggeden. For the first time, I had finally found something written and authentic about Diggeden. I immediately paid the R 180 price for the used book. It was money well spent. Aiden Diggeden was indeed one of those to whom the name legend is used without exaggeration. He was a criminal, yes, but one who made his trade proud. Alan Hardy narrates an amazing story of a man who could escape from any prison and yet had an obsession to steal Ford motor cars.
Diggeden was born in Bulawayo in 1939. He attended his primary school there before proceeding to Chaplin High School in present day Gweru for his high school education. Chaplin was also Ian Douglas Smith’s alma mater. Even in his days at Chaplin, he proved quite an adept thief. On leaving school, Diggeden was sent to prison in 1962 for stealing five cars- all of them Fords! He was sentenced to four years’ hard labour. Yet imprisonment, or should I say being in prison, did not stop him!
On 30th September 1962, a large quantity of electrical goods was stolen from a large Bulawayo shop. On the same day, a Ford Zephyr and a Ford Consul were reported stolen. One of the cars was found parked opposite Grey’s Prison, where Diggeden was serving his sentence. The police were at sea about the culprits who had committed the crime.
A month later, CABS offices in North End, Bulawayo were broken into and a large safe was stolen. On the same day, it was reported that two cars, a Ford Zephyr and a Ford Consul had been stolen. The safe was recovered in a farming area after the culprits were disturbed while trying to break it open. Once again, one of the stolen cars, the Ford Consul, was found parked opposite the prison.
Two days later, robbers staged a daring attempted to steal $32,000 which were wages being transported by the railways. After a mishap, the robbers disappeared into the night without managing to steal the cash. Police found a stolen Ford car next to the Mpopoma Siding, while another Ford was found near Grey Street Prison! A mistake in the railway robbery attempt gave the police the clue they wanted. A key dropped by the robbers showed that it belonged to Grey Street prison. The police were excited about the three prisoners sharing a cell: Diggeden, a renowned car thief with a penchant for Ford cars; Rinder who had attempted to use explosives in a bank robbery; and a violent criminal called Scalding. As Hardy says:
‘They were safely in gaol at the time of the unsuccessful train robbery and each of the previous unsolved robberies.’
However, thorough police interrogations got Rinder and Scalding confessing. They had smooth talked a prison guard to allow them to go in and out of prison. On searching their cell, the police found an assortment of tools useful for their crime spree. But Diggeden, a former Railways employee himself, could not stomach a new criminal trial for the crimes committed from prison. He therefore planned his escape from prison. The plan was to stage a mass break out. The rest of the prisoners would surrender once outside the prison walls, while Diggeden and his associates would escape. During the escape, Rinder and Scalding developed cold feet and gave themselves up, but not Diggeden! He vanished into thin air and was ‘neither seen nor heard of again in Rhodesia until 1965’. Diggeden had ‘made his way to South Africa where he operated under assumed names. Posing as a car salesman he continued his life of crime in a somewhat more flamboyant fashion.’ He reportedly got so good at trampoline that he won the South African trampoline title.
By this time, Diggeden was operating under a false name. He was known as Colin Nicholas Trauter. He was arrested for car theft but escaped from a jail in Johannesburg before trial. He never returned to Johannesburg until 1980. During his South African stay, Diggeden had not done small jobs. He had ‘some fifty known cases of car theft’!
Diggeden re-entered Zimbabwe in February 1966 through Forbes Border Post in present day Mutare with a companion named John Terence Dillman. They had British passports and pretended to be visitors in transit to Zambia. Shortly after arriving in the then Salisbury, Diggeden and his friend did something uncharacteristic- they stole a Mini Cooper! They then went to CABS branch in Mabelreign and held up the teller before making off with $1,750 using a toy gun. The police was put on national alert. Meanwhile, Diggeden and his companion had headed to the City of Kings by train. They decided to check into the Plaza Hotel and hired a room in the name of J T Dillman. When police came around the hotel sniffing around for them, the pair made off from the breakfast table and left behind $1,680 of the bank loot behind in Room 111! Police also found two passports in the name of JT Dillman. This enabled the police to link Diggeden to the bank robbery. The teller identified the two men in the passports as the robbers.
A nationwide manhunt was launched, but it was to no avail. Police then received the news that Diggeden and Dillman had been arrested in Zambia for car theft and had been convicted and sentenced to three years imprisonment. Two senior detectives traveled to Zambia to interrogate them. While Dillman admitted the offences, Diggeden denied everything. Yet, he informed the detectives that he intended to escape from prison in Zambia. Diggeden was found with a hack-saw blade which he intended to use for his escape and was charged with attempted escape in the Zambia High Court on 9th September 1966. Diggeden lived up to his reputation. During the court proceedings, Diggeden sprinted out of court and disappeared into thin air!
On arrival in Bulawayo two days later, the fugitive was arrested by detectives. He pleaded guilty to a number of the crimes he was facing and was sentenced to thirteen years in jail. In order to ensure that Diggeden served his sentence, they transferred him to Salisbury maximum prison (present day Chikurubi). When prison authorities heard rumours that Diggeden was planning another escape, they confronted him. Typically, he replied that the prison would never hold him. They had been warned! As Hardy relates:
‘Just one year after his recapture, at 3.45pm on 31 January 1968, one of the most daring and ingenious escapes in the annals of Rhodesian prisons was under way. Months of planning and preparation went into this amazing man’s next bid for freedom.’
Aiden Diggeden had fortuitously come across the master key of the maximum security section. He had sketched and made a copy at the prison workshop. He had also stolen civilian clothes from the store room and also made another key for the trap door above the maximum section. Diggeden and his accomplice Lionel Barker used their duplicate keys to escape from cells into the loft. From there they made a ladder using stolen towels and other materials. They then crawled on the roof timbers and opened an air-vent they had previously loosened. As Hardy narrates:
‘Here they paused, forty feet above the ground. After securing the rope-ladder, Barker went first, but his weight was too much for the ladder and he plunged to the ground, breaking his leg in the fall.’
This is the moment we would shout in the village, ‘koinda nhete hobvu dzokorwa nemanda’! The fat one was pulled back by his weight! The injury cost Barker his escape. But Diggeden would not abandon his comrade. He carried him to the prison chapel and prepared him a bed with bench cushions. Diggeden stayed with Barker comforting him until at 4.30am when Diggeden then made his next move. Barker remained in pain in the chapel and would not alert anyone until Diggeden was well on his way. Diggeden used one of the chapel benches to jump over perimeter and made his way to the prison parking area. He concealed himself under one of the trucks and at 5.30am, he was driven out of the prison while hiding between the body and the chassis.
Diggeden slipped off and made his way to what is now Chikurubi Support Unit. ‘Walking to the police depot nearby, and in his usual audacious manner, he stole a bicycle which belonged to a depot inspector, and rode to Salisbury.’ Diggeden was back to freedom! Another national manhunt was unleashed.
Surprise, surprise…on getting into the city, Diggeden stole another Ford Anglia. The Ford Anglia was found abandoned the next day along Mazoe Street. He stole another Ford, which the police found abandoned near the central police station. Diggeden went under and only surfaced some days later in Bulawayo. A detective gave chase as Diggeden drove a stolen car but lost the target. On 7th February, the police finally made a breakthrough. ‘An African storekeeper telephoned the police saying that a man who could have been Diggeden had been into the store and had then boarded an African bus heading for Essexvale (now Esigodini). Diggeden was arrested on the bus. He was taken back to Harare and, seeing all his accomplices had confessed, admitted what had happened. He was sentenced to a further eighteen months for escaping. He now faced a total imprisonment of fourteen and a half years.
But Diggeden would not be suppressed. A year later he made another dash for freedom. This time, he asked to see the senior prison officials. He just dashed off while being accompanied back to holding cells from the visit. He out-sprinted the surprised guards and scaled a sixteen feet wall to momentary freedom. A detective who was nearby disturbed this dash to freedom. Diggeden was arrested again. His additional sentence meant that he faced the prospect over sixteen years in jail.
But Diggeden was not done yet. ‘At 6.45pm on 6 August 1970, the seemingly inconceivable happened. Diggeden, under stringent maximum security surveillance and confined to a cell measuring ten feet by eight feet and ten feet high, for approximately sixteen hours a day, was reported to have escaped from prison and was again on the run!’A massive man hunt was called off three hours later after Diggeden ‘was found hiding in a water-tank on the roof of one of the cell blocks.’ Another year was added to his sentence for the attempted escape.
According to Hardy:
‘The forlorn outlook of over seventeen years of incarceration and the possibility of extradition to South Africa at the end of his prison term in Rhodesia, gave Diggeden little to look forward to other than to plan his next escape, and somehow to get out of the country.’
As expected, Diggeden escaped again from the maximum prison on 15 November 1971. This time he used a key he made in the prison workshop to escape the maximum security section. Hardy explains the most incredible escape plan:
‘His plan was so extraordinarily impudent that it is difficult to believe he actually got away with it. Dressed as a prison guard ostensibly in charge of two European prisoners – one carrying a film projector and the other a screen – Diggeden nonchalantly walked to the main gate of the prison.
Disguising his voice, and in an admirably authoritative manner, Diggeden told the duty warder to open the gate as he had outside work for the two prisoners to perform, saying that he was taking the two men to give a cine show at the prisoners’ mess.
Bidding his ‘colleague’ a pleasant ‘cheerio’, the duty warder opened the main gate and let the three men out!’
You have to give it to Diggeden! Once outside the prison, he stole ‘a warder’s Ford Anglia which was parked outside the prison gate and the three men drove towards the city centre.’ They were free for a few days before a tip-off from members of the public who had seen them driving a white Ford in the Avenues area started a manhunt described as the biggest in Rhodesian history. Diggeden and his two accomplices were finally cornered in the Avenues that evening and arrested. In February 1972, Diggeden received two years hard labour for escaping and an additional two years’ hard labour for taking and driving a car without the owner’s consent. Three years and six months of the sentence were conditionally suspended.’
This sentence marked the last time Diggeden would attempt to escape from prison. He served twelve years out of a sentence of eighteen years and was released from prison on 16 November 1978. The day after his release, he left for England to take up a job as an accounts clerk. While in England, Diggeden found time to write a letter to the police magazine the Outpost. The letter was reproduced by other national papers. In the letter, he praised the police for the hard work they put in ensuring that he was arrested for his offences!
But Diggeden was not done with crime. On 11 April 1980, newspapers reported that Diggeden had been jailed for five years for stealing 41, 000 British Pounds from British employers. The money was apparently squandered on a trip to South Africa, where he had unfinished business with the law over the theft of over fifty cars some years before.
The whereabouts of Aiden Diggeden remain a mystery. He is one compatriot I would want to sit down with and listen to the story of his life. His obsession with Ford, his aversion to imprisonment and his ability to escape from prisons make him a true legend in his own right. It is said that much of his loot was invested in Kruger Rands gold coins in South Africa. If you see a wealthy fellow, in his 70s, driving a Ford, you may be in the presence of ‘greatness’!
May we never see his like again!
Below Tererai’s post, is this intriguing comment:
Indeed I did Google myself and here I am my learned friend Tererai. At 72 and still in good health, perhaps due to a misspent spartan life and prison food. I can reveal that I’m living under yet another assumed name in familiar surroundings not too far from what was Salisbury prison. Alas my old lodgings are not what they used be. Ford cars seem to have disappeared and these days it is the 4 by 4 that catches my eye. Trouble is no one trusts anyone any more. Vehicle security is similar to that of Fort Knox, so much more able to resist temptation. Even the thought of an odd heist is now anathema to me. One would need heavy artillery to blast through those thick glass partitions that today’s bank tellers hide behind. Things ain’t what hey used to be!
Chaplin High School
Tererai Mafukidze is a lawyer. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org. This article on Aiden Diggeden is based on ‘Aiden Diggeden: No Gaol Can Hold Me’, in Alan Hardy’s ‘Some Famous Rhodesian Trials’, Books of Zimbabwe, 1981 page 119-132.