Former Cowan House school principal Robin Odell gave an emotional testimony on Thursday at the trial of former teacher Vindra Jaickaran Moodley, who swindled the school out of around R2 million and faked having cancer.
The court heard her actions had fractured the local community and caused disharmony.
Odell, who was headmaster from 2012 until July last year, said Moodley’s crimes caused an “unbelievable boiling pot of emotions”, which particularly affected the pupils.
He said the saga caused him personally “significant” reputational damage, and he was accused by some of “fabricating stories” when he divulged the fraud to the wider community.
Moodley previously pleaded guilty to 73 counts of defrauding Cowan House, adding up to about R1,7 million.
She admitted to lying to the school about having cancer in April 2014, which she backed up with false letters and medical reports from the Grey’s Hospital Oncology Department.
Moodley has been appearing in the Durban specialised commercial crimes court throughout this week for a pre-sentencing hearing.
A tearful Odell said in reply to questions by state advocate Wendy O’Brien that the matter had caused him severe emotional strain.
He said the whole community was traumatised by the fraud revelations as people had rallied around Moodley when they thought she had cancer.
“One time I remember sitting by her bedside holding her hand and she had her head on the pillow and was asking me to hand her water or whatever,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes.
Odell said afterwards he’d felt he had let the pupils and the community down.
“It was challenging to go to headmaster’s meetings knowing I had the wool pulled over my eyes. I had to communicate with parents knowing I had to take care of their children and I had let them down.
“It has had an impact on my family. When you’re angry and you have no outlet, you take it out on those close to you,” he added.
He said some members of the community had also pointed fingers at him for poor management, and many simply refused to believe Moodley had conned the school.
“I had suspicions that the cancer wasn’t real and even spoke to a doctor about it, who got angry at me for even suggesting that it was a lie because there were supporting letters from Grey’s.”
Odell said the incident had caused reputational damage to the school and affected its subsequent intake.
“The toughest part was the children coming to me and crying, asking what is happening to [Moodley]? It’s impossible to explain the situation [that she conned us] to a six-year-old. It’s beyond their comprehension.”
Chairperson of the Cowan House school board Andrew Barnes told the court the school was not interested in Moodley’s “repayment plan” of R15 000 a month.
He said the school was prepared to take a R1,7 million knock if it meant justice was served.
He said Cowan House was badly set back by the losses it suffered and developments like a new media centre had to be put on hold.
Moodley, who was later recalled to testify, presented a new payment plan, which would see her put down R500 000 at the end of July.
She would then pay off the remainder over the next three years.
Moodley was caught when the school launched an internal investigation into transactions she was involved in.
She had initially tried to get her son, Rushmir Chhoteyal, to take the blame, her guilty plea said.
She will appear again on June 8.