Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ST. VINCENT: Murder Charges Against Americans Threaten Tourism

Patrick Smikle

KINGSTON, May 9 1997 (IPS) - For the second time in less than a year, St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ vital tourist industry has been hit by scandal emanating from police investigations into murder involving visiting yacht owners.

Travel agency sources tell IPS there were cancellations within days of the feature ‘Nightmare in Paradise’ telecast last Friday on the ABC television news programme ‘Nightline’.

The US network’s news feature dealt with the charge of murder brought against an American couple, Jim and Penny Fletcher , for the killing of water-taxi operator, Jerome ‘Jolly’ Joseph, a

resident of the St. Vincent ward island of Bequia.

“It is a story so bizarre that you could turn this one into a ‘Movie of the Week’ without altering any of the basic facts,” said Nightline presenter, Ted Koppel. On that much, there is a

consensus.

Joseph’s body was found floating downstream from the

Fletcher’s yacht three days after he had ferried them from Bequia to, their vessel. He had been shot in the chest with a .22 calibre pistol. The Fletchers own such a weapon but told the investigating detectives they had lost it.

They were the last people known to have seen Joseph alive. Although they claim they barely knew him, there had been persistent rumours of a romance between Penny Fletcher and the Vincentian boatman.

Penny Fletcher was known (in St.Vincent, in St. Lucia and in her hometown of Huntington, West Virginia) for her violent temper, especially after a few drinks. Both she and her husband were heavy drinkers.

There were no eyewitnesses and no murder weapon. But the

Vincentian police felt there was enough circumstantial evidence to charge the couple with murder. A magistrate agreed when they

appeared in court for a preliminary hearing and committed them to

stand trial.

Vincentian attorney, Ralph Gonzalves, who represents Jim

Fletcher, describes the committal of his client as a travesty of

justice. “It is my view that the Magistrate ought not to have sent the case on (for trial) in respect of James Fletcher,” Gonzalves told IPS.

“I don’t think there was any evidence to show what the

Americans call probable cause and what we call a prima facie case.”

The lawyers representing Penny Fletcher say the same thing. But one of them, Arturo Diaz, an American, goes a step further. Diaz claims a deal was proposed to him by “a prominent Vincentian” that the Fletchers pay a bribe of 100,000 dollars and be allowed to go free.

Gonzalves says he has heard of this offer only from Diaz and has made it clear he wants no part of it.

The alleged bribery offer has struck a responsive chord

because a similar allegation was made last year by Allan Heath, a

South African yachtsman.

Heath’s wife Lorraine was stabbed to death on their boat while it was anchored off St. Vincent. He said she was attacked by two intruders. The police treated him as a suspect. Heath said he was allowed to go free only after he had paid a 25,000-dollar bribe.

The government, the police and lawyers who represented him, have all dismissed Heath’s allegation. The lawyers say the money he paid was to cover the fees of attorneys who represented him.

Nevertheless, the yachtsman has persisted with his allegations and has mounted a campaign on the Internet to dissuade tourists in general, and yacht owners in particular, from coming to St. Vincent.

In the months between the December arrest and the March hearing, relatives of the Fletcher’s mounted an intensive campaign to mobilise support for them. Adopting one of Heath’s tactics, they opened a website on the Internet. They held news conferences. They wrote letters to the White House and the State Department.

Jim Fletcher’s teenage daughter Julie, appealed for help to President Clinton’s teenage daughter, Chelsea.

A measure of their success is that Clinton has been briefed on the case. There is talk of him raising it with St. Vincent’s Prime Minister, James Mitchell, at this weekend’s summit with Caribbean Community (Caricom) leaders.

At the same time the State Department has made it clear that the US administration has no power to interfere in St. Vincent’s judicial process. “American citizens overseas are subject to the laws of the country in which they are visitors or residents,” Deputy State Department spokesman, John Dinger said earlier this week.

“Our ambassador, Jeannette Hyde, in a Mar. 3 meeting with the Prime Minister of St.Vincent, reiterated our interest in the fair outcome of the judicial proceedings and the welfare of the Fletchers during their pre-trial detention.”

Another indication of the success of the Fletcher’s campaign

is that an ABC news crew headed by National Security correspondent, John McWethy, turned up in Kingstown for the preliminary hearing.

The ‘Nightline’ programme they produced painted St. Vincent and the Grenadines as a haven for drug smugglers, run by a corrupt government. It speculated that Joseph had been a drug pusher and that his death was the result of a drug deal gone awry.

McWethy reported that the Fletchers had been prevented from

contacting a lawyer or the US Embassy in the first days after

their arrest. He and Koppel described “dungeon-like conditions” in the prisons where they are being held and expressed doubt that they would receive a fair trial.

Prime Minister Mitchell himself has dismissed the corruption

charges. “All of this talk about corruption is to try and establish that we have no moral authority to try any case in this country,” he says.

He challenged ABC News to ” examine the background of the Fletchers in their own hometown and find out if they have a clean record in their own country.”

Local sources dismiss the notion that the deceased was a drug dealer, noting that in as small a country as St.Vincent (386 sq. Km., population 107,000) “everybody knows who the drug dealers are.”

Attorney Ralph Gonzalves says it is not unknown for the police to prevent detainees from contacting an attorney and admits that conditions at the prisons are poor.

But probably most damaging for the country was Ted Koppel’s

closing remarks…”There is one thing that the State Department

could do, and I’m a little bit surprised that they haven’t yet — and that is that they can put out sort of a travellers advisory.”

That statement amounted to Ted Koppel issuing a Travel Advisory, Ralph Gonzalves lamented.

Although it is known that there is deep concern in tourism

industry circles, the Tourist Board is not talking.

Asked about the reports of cancellations and what his Department was doing to counter the bad publicity, Tourism Director, Andreas Wickham responded, “I can’t confirm or deny anything. Any statement surrounding the Fletcher case, as it relates to tourism, is going to be issued by the Minister of Tourism. That is the official policy.”

Tourism Minister, Alpian Allen denied any knowledge of

cancellations. About countering the negative publicity he said, “We have a strategy that we are planning, but we’re not willing to release it as yet it.”

Asked what kind of impact Allan Heath’s anti-St. Vincent campaign had had, Allen replied

, “Since Mr. Heath advertised us, Cumberland Bay, where the incident took place, is literally littered with yachts.”

But private sector tourism interests are less upbeat about the situation. They note a 3.8 percent fall in visitors last year, after record arrivals and a 9.5 percent increase in 1995.

With reports that other American television programmes such as ‘Extra’, ‘Inside Edition’ and CBS’s ’48-Hours’ are planning to feature the Fletcher case on networks viewed by millions, one source noted that the overall impact could be devastating.

 
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