Outside magazine, November 1997
When the body of a local man surfaced in the Grenadines, the wave of accusations that followed not only swept up the wealthy American couple suspected of his murder — it also exposed anew the uneasy symbiosis between those who seek an imagined Caribbean paradise and those who reluctantly sell it.By Bill Barich
In the Caribbean, there's an old saying that Americans come to the tropics to misbehave. Whacked out on the rum and the sun, they do things they'd never do at home, but few tourists have ever gotten into quite as much trouble as Jim and Penny Fletcher, a wealthy yachting couple from Huntington, West Virginia, whose run through the islands ultimately landed them in prison. In October of last year, the Fletchers found themselves accused of murdering a water-taxi operator, Jerome "Jolly" Joseph, on the little island of Bequia, which is part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a former British colony. The Fletchers were denied bail and held in bleak, dungeonlike cells for about nine months while they waited for a trial date. If convicted, they would be sentenced to death and hang from the gallows.
When the trial began this past July, I flew down to attend it. I'd been intrigued by the Fletcher case from the start. It had the elements of an outdoor film noir — drink, drugs, sex, sailing, and betrayal — plus a whodunit at its core. I had no idea whether the accused were guilty or innocent. Had they really pulled the trigger, or were they — as they claimed — merely unfortunate victims who'd made some powerful enemies on Bequia and were being punished for their colossally bad behavior? Jim Fletcher's family had an attorney massaging the State Department in Washington and working the international media, and so many charges of corruption and mistreatment had been tossed out helter-skelter that it was impossible to decipher the truth. The people who live in St. Vincent and the Grenadines — or SVG, as it's known — were frankly in shock. The tiny, out-of-the-way country consists of 32 islands and cays stretching almost to Venezuela, and nothing of such magnitude had ever touched the residents or caused them to ask so many puzzling questions about the nature of justice — or, for that matter, the nature of American tourism and its own corruptive power.
At the airport, a light breeze was blowing. There were just a dozen or so passengers on the plane, and we walked into a busy terminal together and lined up at a couple of simple tables, where two customs officers stamped our passports. Outside, taxis were parked at the curb, and I cast my lot with a cabbie called Slim. He wasn't slim, not at all, but he laughed and explained that everyone in town had a jokey nickname, including the prime minister, James "Son" Mitchell, who'd been in office almost since independence in 1979.
Slim showed me around a bit before taking me to my hotel. It was a Saturday, and the downtown streets were thronged and noisy. Hundreds of shoppers pulsed through a huge central market at the edge of the sea. Because of the English connection, I'd expected Kingstown to be somewhat stiff and formal, with the locals and the tourists keeping a polite distance, but instead I was reminded of the raucous, freewheeling atmosphere I knew from my long-ago Peace Corps days in Nigeria, where you can't avoid getting caught up in the pitch and roll of everyday life. I recognized the tinny radios blasting music at maximum volume, the children chasing about in a maze of wooden stalls, and the rowdy traders bargaining with their customers. Skinny dogs nosed about in the open gutters, while a handful of rum sots slept off their fevers in the shade.
Slim, like most Vincies, was well versed in the particulars of the Fletcher case and wanted to know if I had anything to do with it.
"I'm here to write about it," I told him.
"That woman did the crime!" he said with authority, leaning on his horn to scatter some chickens in the road. "The husband, he's just a drunk. But Penny Fletcher — I tell you, mon, she did the crime!"
"You think so?"
"Oh, yeah. Even before comin' here, she had problems in St. Lucia for wavin' around a gun. On Bequia, she was runnin' about and saying she wants to shoot a nigger!"
I hadn't seen the word "nigger" in any of the newspapers I'd read, though some reports alleged that Penny had wanted to shoot "a black man." Otherwise, Slim's version jibed with what I already knew. Jolly Joseph had indeed been shot; his body was discovered floating in Admiralty Bay, off Bequia. He'd been missing for two days, and the Fletchers were among his last known contacts. His skin was peeling off, and small fish had eaten away his eyelids, nose, and lips. A single .22 bullet was lodged between his ribs, having pierced his lungs, his aorta, and his heart.
"The police never found a murder weapon, did they?" I asked.
He shook his head. "But the Fletchers had a .22, mon. They sayin' a deckhand stole it from 'em, but probably they threw it overboard. That's a big ocean out there. Can swallow a lot of things."
Slim made it clear he didn't judge all Americans by Jim and Penny's supposed antics, but he was still angry with the U.S. government. Recently, American drug-squad helicopters had come in and sprayed the marijuana fields, he said, and what had SVG gotten in exchange? Exactly nothing!
"Then those Fletchers bring us all this negative publicity," Slim continued, in disgust. "Nightline and everything."
"You think they're guilty?" I asked.
"I tell you, that woman did the crime."
"Will a jury here convict them?"
"No, I don't think it," Slim said flatly. "They Americans, you know?"
The Grand View Beach Hotel, where I'd booked a room, occupied a bluff called Villa Point outside Kingstown. The main building had once been a cotton-drying house on a colonial estate, and it had lovely, airy rooms and was done everywhere in the lush colors you see in Winslow Homer's island watercolors, the greens and blues of the sea and the bright reds and oranges of tropical flowers. Here, too, the Fletchers turned out to be the chief topic of conversation. The woman behind the desk mentioned them shyly, and later I chatted about the case with Tony "Miler" Sardine, who owns the hotel with his wife, Heather. Tony had been born and raised on St. Vincent and shared Slim's distress about all the bad press.
"That prison isn't any worse than the others in the eastern Caribbean," he told me, adding that the guards were so lenient that they sometimes let the inmates slip into the Lyric Cinema across the street to catch a movie. The problem, of course, was that Jim and Penny Fletcher were rich tourists, not poor Vincies — the annual per capita income in SVG is about $2,100 — and they weren't accustomed to such hardship.
In fact, it was a quirk of fate that they'd done any time at all. They might have been free and clear of Kingstown before Christmas if a bizarre set of events hadn't prevented them from buying their way out of their cells. It happened that another murder had occurred in the islands shortly after the Fletchers were jailed at the end of October 1996. In early November, two intruders allegedly slipped onto a South African yacht anchored in Cumberland Bay, a remote spot on the leeward side of St. Vincent, and hacked to death Lorraine Heath, a tourist from Durban, with their machetes. Her husband, Alan, who summoned the police and had some superficial cuts, was the only eyewitness. Robbery was presumed to be the motive, but nothing appeared to be missing. Heath was outraged when the officers detained him for about three weeks while they investigated. He would later state that Hans Matadial, a well-connected lawyer in the city, finally approached him with a deal. If he'd pay $25,000 in legal fees, he would be released. Heath complied.
Word of Heath's narrow escape quickly reached Jim Fletcher in prison, and he informed Arturo Diaz, an attorney of his from Puerto Rico, the U.S. jurisdiction closest to SVG, that he'd pay as much as $100,000 for his and Penny's freedom. Diaz claims to have made the necessary initial arrangements with an unnamed "fixer" when the deal suddenly collapsed. "Things were very hot, hot, hot," Diaz recounted on the Nightline program. He suggested that his fixer had developed cold feet.
But it was actually Alan Heath who'd queered the deal. Home again in Durban, he had embarked on a one-man crusade to advertise the perceived horrors of St. Vincent and had scared off everybody, according to Diaz. The $25,000 was a bribe, Heath insisted — not "legal fees" — and he swore that the money had gone to Randolph Toussaint, the commissioner of police. (Toussaint denied it and has since resigned.) SVG was corrupt and had no justice system, Heath said on television, and his accusations made headlines everywhere.
At any rate, Sir James had a mess on his hands with the Joseph murder. In the wake of the Heath allegations, SVG was about to be tried along with the Fletchers, and the country's nascent tourism industry could hang in the balance.
That evening I wandered around the Grand View, where the grounds were beautifully landscaped. I stood on the lawn and watched two guys knocking breadfruit out of a tree with a stick, and by the swimming pool I bumped into a young reporter from West Virginia, who was covering the story for his hometown sheet, where it was front-page stuff. He was friendly with Jim Fletcher's father, Bob, and Bob's wife, Kae — they too were in Kingstown and waiting for the trial — and offered some background on the family, so we repaired to the Surf Side Bar for dinner. It was an open-air place right on the water, where Vincies mingled with both tourists and expats and consumed countless bottles of Hairoun, a fine local brew. We ordered conch roti — a sort of whole-wheat burrito stuffed with curried onions, potatoes, and conch — and the reporter launched into his tale.
Bob Fletcher had made his fortune in mining equipment, he said. J. H. Fletcher & Co. dated back to 1937 and currently had about 200 employees based in Huntington. Bob was known as a decent, stand-up guy with a passion for sailing, but his son had led a pampered life. Educated at Choate and DePauw University, where he majored in Spanish literature and was a classmate of Dan Quayle's, Jim went to work for the Fletcher company right after graduation, starting in sales and winding up as its CEO. He was active in Republican politics and once served as the party's chair in Cabell County, even running for the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1984 and 1986. He lost both times.
Jim would marry and divorce twice. In 1988, he was named (but never charged) in a drug sweep that netted a Fletcher & Co. accountant and also Penny Rhea Carter, his future third wife. Born Penelia Carter in Olive Hill, Kentucky, she ran with a fast crowd and acquired a nasty cocaine habit that was reportedly costing her between $500 and $800 a week during the late eighties. (After quitting coke, she switched to prescription pills, got strung out again, and wound up in rehab.) To beat the cocaine rap, she turned state's evidence. Penny liked to brag that she carried a gun, and at least one Huntington tavern banned her for flashing it on the premises.
By the early 1990s, Jim Fletcher had become a problem drinker. Friends described him as adrift, in need of challenge, which Penny seemed to provide. He had known her for years, but when the two began dating and frequenting bars together, their affair caught fire. In the autumn of 1993, out of the blue, Jim surprised his parents by phoning them from Bermuda and inviting them to a spur-of-the-moment wedding, where one of his daughters sang his favorite song, The Eagles' "Desperado."
Apparently, Fletcher had second thoughts about the marriage, because he reportedly filed for divorce the following spring. There was a reconciliation, though, and shortly afterward Jim Fletcher retired at the age of 47 (Penny was 33); he and Penny intended to sail the Carefree, a Wellington cutter Jim had purchased from his father. The couple spent four months preparing it for an open-ended voyage. Between them they had five children, including three school-age kids, but they planned to leave the youngest children behind with relatives. The Fletchers set sail from Key Largo in April 1995 with an ample larder of food and booze, plus a Smith & Wesson .22 and 200 rounds of ammunition. The pistol was still in their possession and duly registered at customs when, on August 21, 1996, they entered St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
From the hotel terrace on Sunday morning, I could see a preacher baptizing members of his flock by dipping them into the Caribbean. The downtown area was deserted, with not a single soul in the market, so I walked over to look at the courthouse, an old gray sandstone building that dates from the colonial era. It had a palm-fringed yard and high arched windows dappled with copious pigeon droppings. I peeked through some green shutters at the courtroom inside. It was all polished mahogany, with a gallery for spectators that had rows of benches, like church pews. There were ceiling fans to circulate the humid air, and faded photographs of Queen Elizabeth and her consort decorated one wall.
I found the men's prison right behind the courthouse. It looked daunting and medieval and had "A.D. 1872" chiseled into a stone over the front door. The exercise yard was tiny and claustrophobic. Shards of broken glass were sunk into the tall concrete walls to discourage the merest notion of escape. The sea was only 500 feet away, but Jim Fletcher never got a glimpse of it, nor could he hear the comforting roll of the surf; for his listening pleasure, he had the rattle of traffic and the braying of goats.
So little was going on in the city that I decided to have a look at Bequia, just an hour away by boat. While hymns roared skyward from a congregation on the second floor of a department store, I strolled down to the dock and boarded a ferry, stepping around bicycles and cargo crates and over bunches of green bananas. I headed for the passenger cabin, where an elderly Vincie woman in a Yankees cap sat by herself and watched a Bible scholar from Alabama on SVG-TV, the only island channel, which broadcasts a daily half-hour news program during the week and fills out its air time with shows donated by American evangelists, along with old movies, television dramas, and sitcoms.
Insult heaped upon injury! Not one word of praise for the islands' many charms, and no mention that the Joseph and Heath murders were extraordinary occurrences. How would the Borough of Manhattan like to be judged solely on its homicide rate? Nightline had dealt a serious blow to SVG.
The Bible program vanished in a few minutes, replaced by a psychedelic test pattern and some hot calypso music, and the ferry chugged slowly away from the dock. There weren't many passengers on board; Vincies look upon the Grenadines as too fancy and expensive, and they don't feel all that comfortable on Bequia or its more exclusive neighbor, Mustique, where Princess Margaret, David Bowie, and Mick Jagger have estates. Some Vincies jokingly refer to the Grenadines as "The Land of the Rich and Famous" and regard the island chain as a place whose sole purpose is to cater to the whims of affluent visitors from elsewhere — a vaguely decadent and seductive place.
In the Carib language, "Bequia" (pronounced BECK-way) means "island of the clouds." It's the largest of the Grenadines, at about seven square miles, and it is famous for its aura of romance. When Port Elizabeth, the only real town, appeared on the horizon, the meaning of the name grew clear. It looked idyllic, strung along the great sweep of Admiralty Bay, on a beach of pure white sand. (St. Vincent's beaches, by contrast, are mostly black sand.) The timbered hillsides were a vibrant green and draped with cottony clouds, and though summer is the off-season, some grand cutters and sloops were anchored in the bay. I noticed, too, the fleet of motorboats called water taxis, each ready and eager to do the yachties' bidding.
For a few hours, I explored the beaches and back streets of Bequia. I came upon a fine little bookstore stocked with all of V. S. Naipaul's books, some good dive shops, and a pharmacy that featured a gigantic display of condoms by the front counter. You could probably get anything you wanted on Bequia, as long as you were quiet about it and didn't disturb the peace. The doors of houses were open or unlocked, and the police didn't carry any guns. In the many bars and rum shops of the port, people were drinking through the early afternoon — island men alone and in groups, island couples, and a few island men with white women, all braided gracefully and easily together. Music played in the background while boys splashed in the sea and fished from a small dock.
Port Elizabeth had an overriding sense of calm about it, as well as an attitude of live and let live. I shuddered to imagine the Fletchers sailing into Admiralty Bay on their tide of noisy disruption.
They had arrived in Port Elizabeth in August 1996. With them aboard the Carefree was a Benedict Redhead, a Grenadian deckhand they'd hired in St. Lucia. When they anchored, the island's water-taxi operators instantly circled them, yelling and competing for their business. These locals made their living from tourists and would do almost anything for a price — fetch ice, haul garbage, pick up liquor, or provide transportation. They were hustlers engaged in an aggressive game, and one of Bequia's most accomplished players was Jerome "Jolly" Joseph, a 30-year-old Bequian who lived with his parents on a ridge above the bay. Jolly was well liked, reliable, honest, and good-looking, and he had a solid reputation as a ladies' man.
The Fletchers soon came to depend on Jolly's services. According to reports, Jim had begun drinking heavily, going ashore to buy a fifth of liquor almost every day. Often he passed out early, forcing Penny to cast about for company. Sometimes she toured the bars and rum shops in Port Elizabeth with Jolly and would refer to him as her protector. They would sit close to each other and chat intimately, and it was probably inevitable, given Jolly's history, that some people in town assumed that they were having an affair. (Penny would deny this to the police.) When Jim was awake, he and Penny could be seen brawling in public, and they had an especially loud and ugly fight at the Gingerbread, a restaurant owned by the prime minister's ex-wife. In fact, James Mitchell's family owned the Hotel Frangipani nearby — he'd been born in room one — where Garfield Joseph, Jolly's brother, had tended bar for years. The bonds among Bequia families were frequently tight.
In late August the Fletchers flew back to Huntington to visit their families. They returned to Admiralty Bay at the end of September and resumed their routine. One afternoon, Penny drifted into a narrow Bequia saloon called Buddy's Bar with Rudy Hanson, a new deckhand who'd replaced Benedict Redhead. She allegedly began arguing with three customers, insisting that she was a better navigator than any of them, and warning one fellow that he might lose his job just for the way he was looking at her. She boasted about her pistol and spoke of her desire to shoot a "nigger." ("She was really out of control that evening," Hanson said on Nightline.) The argument turned physical, and there was a scuffle that caused enough damage for Jim to have to pay for repairs.
A single shot was heard on Bequia at about 2 a.m., and at dawn Jolly's empty water taxi was found washed ashore directly downwind from the Carefree. Its fuel line was disconnected, and two live .22 bullets were rattling around on the floor.
The news traveled the island quickly, and by that afternoon an angry crowd of Bequians had collected on the beach. "Murderers!" they reportedly shouted at the Fletchers. "You killed him!" Jim and Penny were frightened enough to weigh anchor and head for the open sea, but the St. Vincent coast guard intercepted them. (They claimed that they were only going to visit the other side of the island.) Two days later, a sea captain on his way the southern Grenadines spotted Jolly's ravaged body adrift near an area called Moon Hole. Although the Fletchers weren't formally charged, the police brought them to Kingstown and questioned them in two separate sessions — for 51 and 54 hours straight — without the benefit of an attorney and without allowing them any food or sleep. They were steadfast in maintaining their innocence.
Four times the police searched the Carefree. They discovered a fiberglass storage chest with some reddish stains on it and a bullet-torn rubber dinghy, but the Smith & Wesson .22 was missing, along with 80 rounds of ammunition. (The live bullets in the water taxi matched the one in Jolly's chest, but not the rounds still on the yacht.) Pressed for an explanation, Jim claimed that a disgruntled Benedict Redhead had stolen both the pistol and the ammo back in August. Redhead, working in St. Lucia again, denied it. When Jim was asked why he failed to report the theft, he said that he had reported it, although no such record was ever found.
On Monday, in the early morning, i joined a big crowd of islanders gathered outside the Kingstown courthouse. A light drizzle was falling, but some people were still dressed in their Sunday best in hopes of landing a seat in the gallery for the Fletchers' trial, proving that Vincies are no more immune to the lurid than Americans are. A U.S. consul from Barbados was also in attendance, dispatched by the Clinton administration to ensure that Jim and Penny would be accorded "full due process." The Fletcher clan was present in numbers, too — Jim's grown children, his sister, and a few other relatives. Bob Fletcher, who is 82, wore an old blue sport coat and a bolo tie and scarcely resembled the public's idea of a multimillionaire. This was his third visit to Kingstown since his son's arrest, and I was impressed by how far some parents will go to attempt to save a wayward child, even when the child is a man.
The accused were already in the courtroom and confined to a tight little dock. Jim was rail-thin, sallow, and blank around the eyes, but Penny acted animated and glanced nervously around at her in-laws and friends. I'd heard and read so much about their exploits that I expected them to look demonic, but they seemed slack and harmless, a couple of suburbanites on holiday, he in a bland business suit that hung on his bony frame, she in the plainest of dresses. It was difficult to picture them as the scourge of the eastern Caribbean, and yet they'd had bad scrapes in almost every port. On St. Lucia, for instance, Penny had yanked out their .22 and terrorized some locals, and the police had had to confiscate the weapon. On Antigua, she allegedly had made loud claims that a black man had raped her. And on Bequia, she and Jim had fought those bitter public battles.
The hum of anticipation in the gallery stopped abruptly with the appearance of High Court Judge Dunbar Cenac. He had close-cropped hair, owlish glasses, and an open expression that radiated intelligence and easy authority. He had been up since six o'clock, he said, and would tolerate no nonsense. Jury selection, the first order of business, went without a hitch: A clerk plucked numbered pieces of paper from a cylindrical contraption, consulted a list, and shouted out names. In less than 30 minutes, including preemptories, a jury of eight men and four women was seated in the jury box.
Cenac then asked the jurors to leave, so that an important issue could be debated. I sat forward, wondering what was up, and studied the barristers grouped around some tables in front of the judge. They were the premier legal hands in the islands, I knew, and had tangled with each other many times before. To head the prosecution team — and perhaps to avoid any suspicion of bias — St. Vincent and the Grenadines had imported from Trinidad and Tobago the highly regarded Queen's Counsel Karl Hudson-Phillips and his partner, Gerald Stewart. Judge Cenac had preemptively denied Hudson-Phillips's motion for postponement, as well as a gag order on the media, so there was a bit of frustration in the counsel's manner as he strutted about in his flowing black robe and white bib.
The island's papers, all weeklies, had roundly criticized Hudson-Phillips for his gambits and branded him a carpetbagger, but they showed no ill will toward Richard "Johnny" Cheltenham of Barbados, who was defending Penny Fletcher. Cheltenham was a veteran of 96 murder trails, and his interrogation style was spare and effective, like a boxer who relies on his jab. But the real star in the room was Ralph Gonsalves, Jim's attorney, a Vincentian of Portuguese descent. Known by some as Comrade Ralph for his support of Cuba, he led his country's labor party, battled corruption, and hoped to be the next prime minister.
Judge Cenac presented the issue of the moment. He had to decide whether or not Penny's statement about wanting to shoot a "nigger" should be part of the evidence that the jury would hear. At a preliminary inquiry, the three men from Buddy's Bar had described Penny's behavior. "She said she wanted to shoot a nigger because she'd been raped in Antigua," went their testimony.
Richard Cheltenham, the first attorney to speak, proceeded from logic. Penny had not threatened a particular black man, he pointed out — that is, Jolly Joseph. Rather, she had tossed out an idle barroom threat against a class or category of people. Such a general threat could hardly be construed as evidence of murder, Cheltenham continued. It was a non sequitur and simply didn't follow! In rebuttal, Hudson-Phillips adopted a folksy idiom: If you find an egg missing from your henhouse and your dog, a known egg sucker, has been in the vicinity, isn't it fair to assume that the dog may be guilty?
"When you marry it [Penny's statement] to the circumstance of a nigger shot," Hudson-Phillips concluded, wiping his brow with a hankie, "it is a highly relevant bit of information."
The barristers in their formal attire turned in a marvelous performance. There was something very stylized and old-fashioned about the way they conducted themselves that had the effect of shoving the victim, Jolly Joseph, far into the background; it was as if the players were more interested in upholding the dignity of St. Vincent than they were in determining the Fletchers' guilt or innocence. But perhaps all trials revolve around the fine points of language in the end. As for Judge Cenac, he was busy taking down the arguments by hand, in pen and ink, as the English do, instead of relying on a court stenographer. He deliberated briefly before making his decision. There were gasps in the courtroom when Cenac announced that the prejudice of Penny's statement would outweigh its probative value. He would refuse to admit it as evidence.
Then the trial began in earnest. I watched a string of witnesses parade before the jury to relate discrete bits of information that combined to form a narrative. Their story was thin in places, but it was never wholly unbelievable, even though the evidence, as advertised, was entirely circumstantial. They were, in essence, the prosecution's case, and the grim tale of the murder and the Fletcher's damning behavior in the days preceding it was laid out.
The defense team did its best to nullify the potentially damaging testimony, casting doubts and poking holes. Couldn't Jolly's water taxi have drifted to the same location from elsewhere, rather than from the site of the Carefree? Possibly. Didn't other residents of Bequia have .22s? Probably. More than 30 of them? Yes.
It was impossible for a spectator to distinguish the truths from the half-truths and the lies, but I felt the prosecution's case had some credibility. Who else on Bequia had been so recklessly courting disaster? If the Fletcher's gun had indeed been stolen, how had Penny, as reported, shot up the Carefree's dinghy in a birthday revelry just days before the murder? Was Rudy Hanson around on the night of the murder, as he had been at Buddy's Bar? There were plenty of suggestive and unanswered questions, but that didn't mean a jury would or should vote to convict the Fletchers in the absence of any hard evidence.
As the hours passed in the courtroom, I began to understand where Hudson-Phillips and his partners were directing the narrative — toward Benedict Redhead, their key witness. Although Redhead had been fired by Jim and Penny during a dispute and couldn't be considered absolutely objective, he was, Hudson-Phillips intimated, the only person who might provide a reasonable motive for the killing: Redhead told the police he had proof that Penny Fletcher and Jolly Joseph were romantically involved. But he wasn't scheduled to recount this proof until Friday, so I decided to take a break from the trial and visit Bequia again myself to see what, if anything, I could find out.
On Wednesday morning, slim came to fetch me at the Grand View and drove me down to the Kingstown dock, where I again caught the ferry for Bequia. I'd made an appointment to meet with Tom Hopman, one of the publishers of the Caribbean Compass, a monthly yachting paper, and an old Bequia hand; he knew as much about the island as almost anybody, and might help describe the often awkward interaction between tourists and locals.
An American from Indiana, Hopman had sailed into Admiralty Bay 23 years ago and could never bring himself to leave for good. With his partner and companion, Sally Erdle, Hopman still lives on a boat, in fact — a 41-foot Phillip Rhodes "plastic classic" anchored in the bay. He'd known Jolly Joseph well, but he wasn't particularly eager to talk about him.
"Jolly was reliable and honest," he said, repeating what I'd heard from others. "He had the longest-established operation here. He never cut any corners. He wasn't a perfect angel, but who is?"
Hopman shrugged. He doubted it. "That's an easy enough equation to make," he said. "But Jolly worked really hard. In winter high season, there'll be about 150 boats in Admiralty Bay, and a guy who hustles can earn $1,000 in a single day."
We left Hopman's office after a while and headed to a neighborhood caf‰ for lunch. Hopman went barefoot and greeted friends along the way. As a waitress took our orders, the sky grew dark and then broke open, with the rain falling so fast and in such thick sheets that both the ceiling and walls of the caf‰ began to leak. An inch of water, a little flash flood, spread across the floor and washed into my sneakers and socks, and I realized that Hopman's feet were bare for a reason.
We moved to a table in a drier part of the caf‰. Again Hopman seemed reluctant to speak, and I had a sense that most people in St. Vincent and Bequia (and probably in the U.S. State Department) fervently wished that the whole affair would disappear and allow things to go back to normal. Jim and Penny had queered the deal for everyone in the islands, just as Alan Heath had queered it for them.
"They were total loonies," Hopman finally said, shaking his head at their curious actions. They had professed their love for Bequia and hoped to start a charter business with their yacht and also to donate $25,000 to buy books for the impoverished island schools, yet at the same time Jim was capable of offending Rotary Club members by showing up for a meeting so drunk that, according to some Bequians, they had to ask him to leave.
"We've never had any violence here," he said. "It's the Americans who bring the guns. We had a boat show last May, and the Bequians wouldn't let their children go aboard any of the yachts because they were scared the kids might get shot."
"Bequia's changed in 25 years," I said.
"Yeah, we've got an airport now," Hopman said, "and more tour boats are stopping in the port. Bequia used to be for travelers, not tourists."
I asked him if he knew the Joseph family, if they might be willing to talk with me.
"Not now," he said, with some regret. "Everybody here was friendly to the media at first. But they got hurt by all that television stuff. Nobody trusts an outsider now."
I checked into the Hotel Frangipani and looked up the Josephs in the phone book, but they weren't listed. I tried strolling up into the hills, where the roads are rutted and the houses are simple and often in need of repair, thinking I might get lucky and locate them. Families run big on Bequia, sometimes with as many as ten children, so there were lots of boys and girls playing in the streets. They kicked around a soccer ball and dashed after one another, but when I asked about the Josephs, they turned shy and looked away.
That night, I hung around the hotel bar and also hit the Gingerbread and Buddy's Bar, but I soon tired of making inquires. I felt bad about intruding on people's privacy. They had a right to silence in their time of sorrow, so I finished a last Hairoun, watched the stars blinking above the indigo sea, and admitted that Tom Hopman had been right. On Bequia, for whatever reason, nobody wanted to talk about the murder of Jolly Joseph, at least not yet.
The evening before Benedict Redhead's court appearance, I visited with Bob Fletcher at The Camelot, the most luxurious hotel in Kingstown, and the most oddly situated, in that it overlooks the slums of the city rather than the Caribbean. Fletcher and his family were sitting on a patio and giving interviews to three reporters, all from West Virginia. Bob still wore his bolo tie, and his thick white hair made him look younger than his years. He knew how to assess a messy situation and tackle it head-on. I had a feeling that he'd cleaned up after his son before, maybe more than once.
There was no arrogance in Fletcher, despite his fortune. That $100,000 payoff looked cheap to him now, he told me with a smile, as we sat down at a table. He must have spent close to half a million dollars on attorneys, hotel bills, and plane fares so far.
Bob Fletcher described for me the piece of equipment that had led to his business success, a niche product that he and his father had developed in 1950 to help support the roof in a coal mine. He said he'd always loved sailing, even back when he was navigating a humble sailing canoe around Lake Michigan. He bought his first real yacht from a boatbuilder on Long Island in 1965. It was a 35-foot sloop constructed entirely of fiberglass, and he called it Ma±ana and sailed it happily for 23 years until he traded up to the Carefree, which had cost him $250,000. He was very fond of the eastern Caribbean and had passed 11 winters touring with pleasure the same islands that had brought Jim to grief. He praised the beam wind and the lines of sight, the fine anchorages and the excellent snorkeling.
Bob told me he was at a cancer clinic in Mexico, where his wife was being treated, when he first got word of Jim and Penny's arrest. He jumped into the middle of things and soon learned what the State Department could and couldn't do on his behalf. The prison conditions were truly awful, he said. His son told him that there were inmates inside who weren't even aware of the charges against them. He wished he could do more for Jim, he said, but he couldn't — his hands were tied. Jim would need the courage to make it through on his own.
Meanwhile, SVG was going to have to change its ways if it wanted to join the twenty-first century. "They're always pushing tourism," Fletcher said, in a not-unkind way. "But did you know they buy all their chickens in Miami?" The entrepreneurial wheels were spinning in his head.
"They could grow the grain for feed right here and set up a chicken industry," Fletcher continued. "All they'd need after that would be some freezers. They keep looking to the outside for an answer instead of asking, 'What can we do right here?'"
I wondered if Bob had any thought about why Jim and Penny had run afoul of the law. He took a minute. "Well, I think Jim was unfortunate," he said, in a measured voice. "He didn't get on the right side of certain people down here, for reasons beyond his control. I'm real proud of how he's conducted himself. Once you get involved in this kind of thing — and it could happen to anybody — there's no way out."
"Do you think they'll be convicted?" I asked.
All the Fletchers were in the courtroom, of course, when Benedict Redhead took the stand in the morning. He looked sheepish about his status as the key witness, hauled reluctantly back to St. Vincent. In a new pair of khakis and a clean polo shirt, with a gold chain around his neck, he appeared tense but forthright as he recounted how Jim Fletcher had hired him "to run small errands for alcohol and cigarettes." He had sailed with them from St. Lucia to Antigua and on to Bequia, and he explained how there, in Port Elizabeth, he had come back from town very late one night and had seen Jolly Joseph in the cockpit of the Carefree with his arm around Penny "in a lovemakin' position."
Lovemakin' position! The gallery exploded. Hands flew into the air to muffle all the laughter, and a broad-beamed, stern-faced police matron pounded the floor with a staff and cried, "Order in the court! Order in the court!" until a relative calm was restored.
Redhead, looking downcast, went on with his story, which the prosecution hoped would speak to motive. That evening he'd waited until Joseph had left, then warned Penny that she'd "have to stop doing these things because your husband will eventually start blamin' me." Enraged, Penny screamed at him and accused him of trying to rape her. Jim was drunk and asleep, Redhead told his rapt audience, but she got him up and reported the supposed rape. Jim called her a liar, Redhead said, adding that he never mentioned the embrace again, "'cause I was scared I might be shot by any of 'em." He'd seen Penny flash her pistol many times, so he leaped into the dinghy and slept under an almond tree on shore for safety's sake. When he returned the next day, Jim fired him.
Then came the defense attorneys' chance to question the deckhand. The scenario, the defense suggested, was at odds with his account and cast Redhead himself as the villain. Ralph Gonsalves, his grand voice savoring every syllable, implied that Redhead had actually been pub-crawling in town all evening and was drunk when he got back to the yacht — or "sweet," as Vincies say.
"You were sweet, weren't you?" Gonsalves asked.
"I was not sweet," Redhead said hotly.
In Richard Cheltenham's version, Redhead stripped down to his underwear on his return from Port Elizabeth and drunkenly accosted Penny, who was sitting up reading after Jim had passed out. She resisted his advances, and they grappled around and made such a racket that Jim woke up and came to the rescue. Jolly Joseph was nowhere on the set, according to Cheltenham.
"James Fletcher slapped you in your face!" the barrister bellowed. "He sent you back to your room and told you he would deal with the matter in the morning."
"No, your honor!" Redhead snapped. He denied every charge thrown at him, clearly offended, before he stepped down. Had he been believable? I thought so. But I thought as well that the real truth lay somewhere between the two different stories.
The prosecution produced one final witness, Inspector Ernest James, a top-ranking police official on Bequia. He had supervised the murder investigation and stated for the record that the Fletchers had been cooperative and had asserted their innocence throughout. He had only one new item to contribute. The stains on the Carefree's fiberglass storage chest had proved to be blood — type O, identical to the victim's. When questioned, Jim Fletcher had claimed that the blood was his. He'd smacked his nose on the lid of the chest while removing a quart of oil from it, he'd said. Inspector James had noticed a bruise on Fletcher's nose, but when he'd requested a blood sample for the sake of comparison, Jim had refused to provide it.
And with that, the prosecution's parade of witnesses ended. Opinions in the gallery were evenly divided as to the ultimate worth of their narrative. The defense team responded to it as they might have to a merry little fairy tale. Gonsalves argued that the case was too weak to go to the jury and that the judge should exercise his right to dismiss it. Richard Cheltenham joined his colleague in the push for a "no-case" submission. "What we have are fragments or scraps of evidence posing — posing, milord! — as circumstantial evidence," he said. Hudson-Phillips, the lone (and predictable) dissenter, reminded the court that circumstantial evidence is by definition composed of fragments and scraps, and he offered a professorial discourse in support of its validity.
Judge Cenac — pen in hand, writing away — listened attentively to the arguments from both sides and advised the court that he would sleep on the matter and render a decision in the morning.
It was a long night in kingstown for all the principals in the Fletcher case, and when morning came at last the courtyard was completely mobbed with Vincies awaiting Judge Dunbar Cenac's verdict. As Bob Fletcher made his gentle way through the crowd, a few locals approached him to offer their support or merely shake his hand — he had become an island celebrity, like it or not — while others kept their distance and grumbled about the special way Americans were treated. Army troops in camouflage uniforms were posted around the courthouse.
Inside the building, Cenac gave a long legal explanation for his decision, going over it point-by-point. It was so quiet during these 45 minutes of discourse that you could hear the blades of the ceiling fans turning.
"The question remains, 'Who shot Jolly Joseph?'" Cenac said. "There is no evidence before me, direct or indirect, that the accused committed this act." And with that, he instructed the bailiff to release the Fletchers from the dock. They were free.
The courtroom fell to bedlam. Penny Fletcher burst into tears and let her head rest on her husband's chest, while equally tearful family members rushed forward to embrace them both. Mary Joseph, Jolly's mother, was visibly upset, and there were shouts and hoots of derision everywhere. Jim and Penny Fletcher were soon to board a flight to San Juan, but before they left they paused to make a brief statement. "Justice has been served," Jim said from the courthouse steps. "We bear no ill will toward the people of St. Vincent."
I felt a bit sad to be going home. St. Vincent was a lovely island unfairly laboring under a burden not entirely of its own making, and it hadn't deserved the bashing it had received — injustice again. I promised Slim as he drove me to the airport that I'd return someday and run around with him, hiking in the mountains and dancing in the clubs.
In Key Largo a few days later, Jim and Penny gave their only extended print interview, to Mark Truby of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch. They told him about the horror of being in prison and confessed that they'd planned to commit suicide if they were convicted. They blamed Prime Minister James Mitchell for all their trouble. Mitchell was the mastermind, out to get them, they said, because they had embarrassed him with their intention to buy books for the children of Bequia. As for the true murderer of Jolly Joseph, Jim hinted that it might have been someone in the courtroom. His love for sailing was undiminished, he said, and he and Penny might well get back on the Carefree and continue their interrupted trip.
Reading the interview, I had difficulty believing that the Fletchers could be so deluded. Did they really think that the prime minister of SVG was out to get some tourists for wanting to provide schoolbooks to his nation's children? Had they failed to comprehend how offensive their behavior had been? And who, exactly, was the murderer they implied had been in the courtroom? Benedict Redhead, who'd reportedly been in St. Lucia when the crime was committed? One of the men from Buddy's Bar? Had there been someone else on the island of Bequia making barroom threats? The case had an unsettling, unresolved quality that played on my mind.
In late August, when the dust settled, I decided to phone Bob Fletcher and ask him if his son might be willing to talk with me. I told him I wanted to offer Jim and Penny a chance to correct the unflattering portrait of them that had emerged in Kingstown. But Bob doubted that they'd consent to a talk — they wished that the business would simply disappear, he said. He agreed to pass my number along to them, at least, but they never called. I spoke with Sally Erdle of the Caribbean Compass right after that, hoping to reach the Josephs, but she informed me that the family members were still grieving and in seclusion.
Erdle did say she had a bit of news for me, however. In trying to track down Rudy Hanson for a story for her paper, she had discovered that he'd put the Fletchers' yacht in dry dock at a boatyard in Trinidad and had done some repair work for the Fletchers while he lived aboard it. Now Hanson had put the yacht back in the water, she said, and had set sail — possibly for Venezuela, though the boatyard owner wasn't certain — perhaps to meet Jim and Penny at some agreed-upon anchorage in the Caribbean. And one other thing: Rumor had it that the boat's name, Carefree, had been rubbed off. I thanked Erdle for her time and hung up, feeling a kind of numbness when I imagined the boat in operation again, its larder stocked and its destination unknown. It was like a ghost ship, a phantom on the water, and when I closed my eyes I saw the sapphire-blue Caribbean and Jolly Joseph in it, floating.
Bill Barich is the author of five books, including the novel Carson Valley.
Photographs by Michael McLaughlin