The descendant of one of Kenya's most infamous white settler families took the stand in a packed Nairobi courtroom yesterday to deny murdering a black poacher who was shot dead on his land.
Tom Cholmondeley, son and heir to the fifth Lord Delamere, the largest white landowner in Kenya, said he "could not understand" how he could have shot 37-year-old Robert Njoya, suggesting it was a friend who was with him at the time.
The trial of Mr Cholmondeley, a 40-year-old Old Etonian, has threatened to reopen old debates over land ownership and race in a country where most of the 30,000-strong white community live a life of privilege that most black Kenyans can only dream of.
Mr Cholmondeley's grandfather was one of the ringleaders of the so-called "Happy Valley" set, the gin-drinking, wife-swapping colonialists whose epic tales of debauchery were immortalised in the novel and film, White Mischief.
Times have changed and many white Kenyans have sold their land and moved into conservation and safari holidays. But for the younger generation, like Mr Cholmondeley – who are known as "Kenya cowboys" – it is still a life of luxury.
The mix of regular safaris, weekends at the Indian Ocean coast and a never-ending supply of cocktails and champagne is a long way from the confines of the Kamiti maximum security prison in Nairobi, where Mr Cholmondeley has been held on remand for more than two years. Yesterday in the wood-panelled courtroom he recounted, in a 90-minute testimony, the day of Mr Njoya's death.
Mr Cholmondeley had been taking a tour of the family's 55,000-acre Soysambu estate with a friend, Carl Tundo, a local rally driver known to many as "Flash". The two men spotted a group of poachers, one of whom had a dead Thompson's gazelle slung over his shoulder. Mr Cholmondeley and Mr Tundo were both armed, he claimed. Mr Cholmondeley carried a rifle, while Mr Tundo had a pistol.
Mr Cholmondeley took aim at the poachers' dogs and fired. "There was no one in the field of view when I shot those dogs," he said. But a bullet hit Mr Njoya in the pelvis. The other men ran off. Mr Cholmondeley and Mr Tundo carried Mr Njoya to a car and drove him to hospital, but he was dead by the time they got there.
Mr Cholmondeley handed himself in at the local police station and said he had shot him. But in his testimony yesterday, as his parents, Lord and Lady Delamere, calmly looked on, Mr Cholmondeley changed his story.
"Had I shot him, he should have fallen where I shot the dogs," he said. "I was shocked and surprised. I couldn't understand what had happened... From my angle, I could not have shot that man."
Instead, he suggested, his friend Mr Tundo could have shot him. Both men were arrested and spent a night in jail. "That night in the cells, Flash was really upset and tearful," Mr Cholmondeley said. "He asked me not to mention it [his pistol] for fear that he would get into trouble." Mr Tundo, who gave testimony earlier, denies he was carrying a weapon.
It is not the first time that Mr Cholmondeley has been accused of murdering someone on the farm. He shot and killed an undercover game warden in April 2005, but was acquitted before the trial began after the attorney general decided there wasn't enough evidence. His acquittal caused outrage – and wasn't helped by a picture of a grinning Mr Chomondelely giving a thumbs-up sign which was splashed across the front pages of Kenyan newspapers. Masai tribespeople, whose forefathers owned the Delameres' land before the colonialists arrived, threatened to invade Soysambu and reclaim it.
Kenya's Standard newspaper greeted the second arrest of Mr Cholmondeley with the headline "Oh No! Not Again!" The trial began in September 2006 and has proceeded in fits and starts. The defence is expected to continue today.
The trials of Tom Cholmondeley
19 April 2005
Cholmondeley arrested on charge of killing an undercover Masai game warden
17 May 2005
He is freed after the prosecutor says there is insufficient evidence.
10 May 2006
Cholmondeley is arrested again after he telephones police to tell them that he has shot at a group of men he suspected of poaching a gazelle on his farm. One of the poachers, Robert Njoya, dies
24 May 2006
Cholmondeley pleads not guilty. His lawyer tells hearing that his client shot at the group when they set dogs on him, not at Njoya himself
25 September 2006
Trial begins in Nairobi and months of wrangling ensue over access to evidence
8 July 2008
Cholmondeley takes the stand for the first timeReuse content