In happier times: Rodney and Rebecca Smart. Photo: Supplied
Rodney Smart went to Ghana in 2012 to do a gold deal. Instead, the former real estate agent from Double Bay in Sydney says he ended up being kidnapped in the neighbouring West& African republic of Togo.
After 23 days in captivity – threatened with jail on trumped-up money laundering charges by a gang of thugs and corrupt police – Smart says he escaped to the US embassy.
He soon found safe passage back to Ghana where he and an associate, Norman Jamieson, were in business sourcing gold from West Africa to ship for refinery in Dubai.
Rodney and his wife Rebecca Smart had separated a few months before the businessman was abducted. In December 2012, Smart had been introduced to Dr Moses Owusu in Ghana. Owusu, says Smart, purported to be a lawyer and told him he had access to 70 kilos of gold doré bars from Libya and, if Smart would travel to Togo, he could buy it.
"He was convincing and well spoken," says Smart. "On December 19, I packed an overnight bag and departed for Togo". When he got to the border he handed over his passport to an associate of Moses Owusu. After a short drive to a hotel in the capital Lome however Smart was told that his passport had not been stamped and he could be in trouble for money laundering.
He was then held captive in the hotel room he says and was warned it was for his own protection. Owusu, says Smart, told him that he would have to pay $US150,000 to avoid charges of money laundering. Smart rang his business partner Norm Jamieson who transferred the funds. His abductors however demanded another $US250,000.
"I was sitting idle and was told I was in a grave situation and I could end up in prison over there and a white boy like me wouldn't last in prison with all the disease and rape and so on," says Smart.
After four days in captivity, he was transferred from the hotel to another location with bars on the windows and steel doors. Under pressure from his captors, Smart says he rang his wife to obtain more money for his release. Meanwhile, Rebecca was asked if her father could provide security over his real estate assets to raise money.
After three weeks in captivity however Rodney Smart says he managed to escape. The man who brought him food daily took pity on him, he says, and left him a key in the kitchen of the house where he was detained. Smart fled, hailing a taxi to the US embassy and soon finding passage back to Ghana.
The story didn't end there. A few loose ends remain. Rodney Smart's estranged wife Rebecca, who was asked for a ransom, is now in dispute with the colourful financier Ian Lazar. Desperate at the abduction, she had contacted the Sydney wheeler dealer for help.
At Lazar's behest, she put $100,000 into trust with lan Lazar's lawyers Cambridge Law. It was spent. Rebecca says Lazar promised her the help of Israeli commandos but appeared to have done little more than commission a report.
Lazar says he used his connections to help her husband escape -even sending an extraction team to Africa - but when he found what he claims was a scam he advised Rebecca Smart not to pay the alleged kidnappers any money. The report he commissioned, by former ASIC investigator Niall Coburn, says Rodney Smart's abduction bears all the hallmarks of a West African internet scam. Rebecca Smart says there was no evidence provided to her that an extraction team had been dispatched.
Coburn identified a raft of flaws in Owusu's documents, such as his practising certificate as a barrister. He recommended that no funds be sent to Owusu as he was highly likely to be a scammer.
"The documents, provided to Rebecca Smart and Ian Lazar in relation to Rodney Smart's detention, are fraudulent and cannot be relied upon. It is highly likely that Rodney Smart and Dr Moses Owusu (who befriended Smart in Togo) are working together to defraud either Rebecca Smart and or Ian Lazar for $US750,000," wrote Coburn.
Smart denies this. "My wife and I have a wonderful friendship. She knew that I was not out to defraud her," he said last week. Rebecca Smart said she did not believe her husband was involved in any scam.
"Ian said (Rodney Smart) was involved but never gave me any proof," she said. "Niall Coburn believes Rodney was involved based on the forged documents, but again, no proof. If it was so easy to say he was involved why was it so hard to send me an iPhone photo with all of their "surveillance"?
After inquiries by Fairfax Media, Ian Lazar provided Rebecca Smart with an invoice for his services.
The invoice provides no specific evidence of Lazar's contractors or a breakdown for the costs of his various services. He said Rebecca Smart got off cheaply and still owed him another $10,000 in GST on the $100,000, at least.