Residents Demand Answers on Crimes From Officials at Emergency Meeting

After the report of a rape on the island’s remote East End Tuesday morning, August 30, a community meeting featuring local and federal law enforcement agencies on Wednesday evening, August 31, drew hundreds of residents looking for answers to looming questions, many of which remained unanswered by officials.

More than 300 residents gathered in Frank A. Powell Sr. Park in Cruz Bay Wednesday, August 31, to question officials about public safety.

“We want you to leave here with some confidence that law enforcement, both federal and local, are responding with concern for the community of St. John,” said Delegate to Congress Donna M. Christensen.

Del. Christensen moderated the meeting the day after the incident was reported which was attended by more than 300 residents who overflowed the packed St. John Legislature Building in Cruz Bay.

With standing room only and more than 100 residents gathered around the two public doors, the meeting soon was relocated to Franklin A. Powell, Sr. Park to accommodate the immense crowd.

No Official Information
Although neither local nor federal law enforcement officials have issued any information on the reported kidnapping, rape and assault or identified the case as a hate crime, rumors spread like wildfire across the territory within hours of the initial police report of the incident, prompting press releases and public comments from officials and questions from residents.

V.I. Police Department Commissioner Elton Lewis was present on St. John Wednesday night, August 30, to urge residents to ignore gossip and rumors swirling around the incidents and to assure them his department is taking this case seriously.

“The V.I. Police Department is not taking this lightly,” said Commissioner Lewis. “I want to assure you we are working on the case both on the federal and local levels.”

Although officials did not confirm the case was a hate crime, Lewis said one of the reasons the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is involved in the case is due to the fact the V.I. Code does not contain any procedures dealing with hate crimes.

“I’m asking and appealing to this group for an opportunity to investigate this accurately and thoroughly,” Lewis told the crowd.

“There are lots of issues and grey areas which need to be sorted out,” the commissioner said, adding that he is personally working on the case.

Not Classified as Hate Crime
Several times during the meeting, residents probed officials on whether the case is being considered a hate crime.

“Did we have a hate crime in our community?” asked Lenyse Shomo, who said residents need to know.

Lewis did not answer the question directly, but said a crime did occur and attorneys must determine the classification of the crime.

A physical description of the person or persons who are responsible for the crime was repeatedly requested throughout the evening.

“Did the victim give a physical description?” asked resident Jane Roskin.

No Physical Description Released
In response to her question, Lewis said it was not appropriate to answer at the time.

“There is not sufficient information to answer that,” said Lewis, explaining that once officials believe they have a proper profile of the criminal, it will be released to the public.

The alleged perpetrators’ race is not the main issue being investigated, according to FBI agents.

“The fact is we aren’t concerned about white or black,” said Louis Feliciano, FBI spokesperson for the Caribbean. “The key here is to get to the bottom of this and figure out if or if not there was a violation and if so, bring this individual to justice.”

The FBI, VIPD, U.S.V.I. Commissioners and Senators, the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Unit Criminal Division and the U.S. Attorney’s office are all collaborating resources to investigate the crime, according to Feliciano.

FBI Remains Mum
FBI policy is to not disclose any information on an ongoing investigation, including whether or not an investigation is ongoing, explained Jane Erickson, FBI special agent.

“The FBI will not disclose if an investigation is ongoing because in order to complete an investigation we need unbiased witnesses,” said Erickson. “We will not release any information on an active investigation.”

The lack of information from federal and local officials throughout the evening’s gathering ignited frustrations from the crowd about the lack of police presence and inadequacies which historically result in police inaction. on St. John.

Residents at the meeting brought up past serious crimes such as the 1993 murder in Coral Bay amid reports of cross burnings around the isolated community. Those crimes remain unsolved.

“One of the things I’d like us to be mindful of as this meeting continues is that even if something yesterday didn’t happen, something was going to happen,” said Monique Matthias, one of the organizers of the Wednesday night meeting, at the onset of the gathering. “I ask for your support to dig deep because this could have been your brother or your sister – for this to change, the change has to be within each and every one of us.”

Officials Urged Restraint
In reaction to outbursts of emotionally-charged and threatening statements hinting at retaliation for the report of a rape, officials urged the crowd to not feel isolated.

“St. John is not in a vacuum,” said Nelson Jones, criminal chief of the U.S. Attorney’s office. “What happens on St. John affects the Virgin Islands – we must make sure the people of St. John feel safe.”

“The issues are broad and deep and long-standing in this community; we can’t solve them tonight,” said Del. Christensen. “But we can get an understanding of what can be done on the community and the law enforcement side to start to solve these issues.”

The police department alone does not solve crimes, said VIPD Commissioner Lewis.

“It’s people in the neighborhood with information who solve crimes,” said Lewis. “The police department does not just pull people out of the air, we have to work together with the community to solve these crimes.”

Crime Prevention Measures Not Taken
Frustrations were aired at the meeting expressing that law enforcement officials did nothing to prevent the crime from happening.

“Our impression is that something happened to this woman previously and nothing was done,” said Bosede Bruce. Veronica Jones Jackson said the victim had previously told her she was being harassed and threatened on the telephone.

“Why wasn’t this woman under surveillance?” asked Leona Smith.

Although the specific concerns remained unanswered by officials, Commissioner Lewis indicated at the meeting that an arrest had been made in the previous alleged hate crime case involving racial graffiti which occurred in June involving the same victim.

However, the VIPD commissioner later retracted his statement on a phone interview the following day with St. John Tradewinds, claiming he misspoke.

“There are a number of dynamics in this case, I believe there are three separate incidents,” said Commissioner Lewis. “I don’t believe the arrest was in relation to the graffiti incident, I believe it was a citizen’s arrest.”

Police Presence Demanded
Several residents at the meeting raised questions regarding the broader issue – the lack of police presence on the island, especially in Coral Bay, to service the island’s remote areas.

“The reason we are feeling the way we are tonight is because of many years of distrust and mistrust,” said Theodora Moorehead. “We feel the police should be looking out for our interests.”

The population of St. John is growing and security is no where to be found, Moorehead added.

“Put two police officers in Coral Bay,” said the St. Johnian. “Not some of the time but all of the time.”

The VIPD is trying to increase its presence in Coral Bay and is committed to erecting and staffing a Coral Bay substation, Lewis responded.

Currently, two police officers are stationed at the victim’s residence at all times, Commissioner Lewis added.

The FBI is urging the community to come forth with any information regarding this case or any other concern by calling (787) 754-6000.