Harish Patel, a member of a group known as the Krishna Squad, was returning home to Parklands, Nairobi, after spending the morning volunteering at a Hindu crematorium when he received a distress call.
Gunshots had been reported at Nakumatt Supermarket, Westgate Mall, and the shooting was still going on.
He was less than a minute away, so he immediately turned around and sped to the mall, one hand on the steering wheel, the other holding his pistol.
That was the story Mr Patel, then 43, told the Nation a few days after the 2013 Westgate attack. Also known by the alias Harish Daria and by his real name Hirji Ramji, Mr Patel is well known in the Indian community in Nairobi’s Westlands and Parklands.
LICENSED GUN OWNER
During the Westgate attack, the man who once described himself as a Jack-of-all-trades, was instrumental in rescuing hundreds of people from the mall, courtesy of his membership of the Krishna Squad, a vigilante group comprising licensed gun owners.
The most famous member of the squad, though, is Mr Patel, one of the Westgate heroes.
Harish Patel in action during the Westgate Mall attack in 2013. On n Saturday, DCI detectives arrested him after one Prashkumar Keshavji Dodhia accused him of attempting to extort Sh10 million from him in order to sort out an assault case. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP
Almost every media outlet interviewed him after the incident.
There is even a photo of him in action at the mall clutching his 0.75mm Taurus pistol taken by Reuters that was widely published.
“This is my country. These are my people,” he told the Nation after the attack.
“At that moment it did not matter whether they were Asian, African, White or Kenyan; you are in our country, and we have to look after you.”
“Our mission was to get them or die trying. We were ready to die,” Mr Patel said. “We weren’t trying to be heroes, we were only trying to save lives. I feel proud that I saved lives.”
Then, on Saturday, detectives from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) arrested Mr Patel after one Prashkumar Keshavji Dodhia accused him of attempting to extort Sh10 million from him in order to sort out an assault case.
During his arrest, he was found with a military smoke jacket, a pair of handcuffs serial number 877034, a bulletproof vest, a Ceska pistol, 27 rounds of ammunition, two empty magazines, walkie talkies and 25 rolls of bhang.
When he appeared before Senior Principal Magistrate Kennedy Cheruiyot in Nairobi on Monday, Mr Patel denied all the four counts of extortion he was facing and being in possession of government items and narcotic drugs. He was released on bail despite the prosecution’s opposition to the move.
“The prosecution has not offered compelling reasons to warrant the accused’s bail denial,” Mr Cheruiyot ruled.
What is surprising, as Mr Patel prepares his defense, is how a person widely admired for his heroic deeds during the Westgate attack is now being accused of extortion.
Responses to a tweet by the DCI announcing his arrest also suggest that there could be more to his arrest than what is in the public domain.
“Following completion of an inquiry on one Hirji Ramji Patel alias Harish Daria and consequent consultations with the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Gigiri detectives have arrested the said suspect at Parklands in Nairobi, in whose possession assorted recoveries were also made,” said the DCI following Mr Patel’s arrest.
And while it is now up to the court to determine whether Mr Harish is guilty or not, the fact that he is a well-known member of the Asian community on security matters is raising questions.
Apart from responding to security incidents in Parklands, the Krishna Squad describes itself as a self-help organisation, which donates food in Nairobi slums and also volunteers at the Hindu crematorium in Kariakor.
During Prof Wangari Maathai’s funeral in 2011, Mr Patel was part of the team that cremated the Nobel laureate.
And in Westlands and Parklands, those who know Mr Patel say he has been working with the police as a member of the area’s community policing team.
Others say he could be an informer, a private investigator or a police reservist since he is always seen in the company of officers.
Also known as Eagle One in Parklands, Mr Patel has on several occasions been seen at crime scenes with officers, or controlling traffic in the evening.
“There is no businessman who does not know Harish. The police, too, should not say they have never worked with him, especially those from the Parklands Police Station, because he is the link between them and the community,” said Mr Narendra Lalji, a businessman in Westlands.
While it’s not clear what Mr Patel’s engagement with the police is, relations between law enforcement agencies and civilians who work with them are always loose, one-sided and don’t always end well.
Last year, the DCI ordered the arrest of Ms Jane Mugo, the chief executive of Trimo Security Ltd, saying she was wanted for robbery with violence, impersonation and threatening to kill. Like Mr Patel, Ms Mugo is well known in media circles.