The Union Island Incident — 5 months later

Five months after Customs guard Othniel Whyte died in Union Island, questions abound about his death and the incident there.

Five months ago, on Sunday June 3, news emerged about a tragedy in Union Island.

The police issued a statement on Tuesday, June 5, 2012 — TWO DAYS after the incident.

They said investigations were continuing into circumstances “surrounding the deaths of three Venezuelan and one Vincentian nationals in waters around Union Island”.

They said reports were that Police and Customs officers were patrolling the waters when they encountered a Venezuelan boat.

Police said persons on the boat opened fire at the law enforcement officials who returned fire, resulting in the deaths of the Venezuelans.

Customs Guard Othniel “Money-Man” Whyte sustained gunshot wounds from hostile fire and died at the scene. One other Venezuelan national, who sustained gunshot injuries during the incident, was a patient at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital, the police said.

The police were wrong in at least one particular: A post mortem concluded that Whyte drowned.

Further, tests found that a substance they said was thrown overboard during the reported shootout and which they had suspected to have been cocaine, was soap powder.

Most people in St. Vincent and the Grenadines now know that five Venezuelans connected with the incident have since been repatriated.

On September 19, the Director of Public Prosecution Colin Williams ended attempted murdered and attempted kidnapping charges against four of the Venezuelans, in addition to customs violation charges against the captain of their vessel — “El Amigo Fay”.

The DPP has taken to radio to explain and defend his decision.

In the process, he asked certain questions about the Customs Department and Whyte’s presence on the vessel — in company of the Vincentian cop.

The DPP, in his call to the radio station, said the Customs Department did not submit a report about the incident, though they were required to do so.

Comptroller of Customs Grenville John has told a local newspaper that his department was not asked to submit a report.

In response to the DPP’s question about Whyte’s presence on “El Amigo Fay”, John (who is also a lawyer and one of the DPP’s former co-workers) told the newspaper that based on the law, Whyte was authorised to be on the vessel and that the cop was accompanying him, rather than the other way around.

I am among journalists who have reported on the indecent and its aftermath.

I have some observations — and some questions — about the incident and the ensuing scandal.

But since I separate my opinions from my reportage — as journalists should — I write here about those observation and questions.

Kudos to the DPP for explaining to the nation what informed his decision to discontinue the case. Vincentians, and other observers, are understandably very interested in this incident.

Mr. Whyte’s family has said that they need closure. That is true. But closure is also needed for residents of Union Island, the Customs Department, and the nation as a whole. This might only come from a complete and thorough re-examination of the incident, although the legal proceedings have ended.

This incident raises a number of questions about border security in St Vincent and the Grenadines. Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves, who is also Minister of National Security, has told citizens that two of the foreigners involved in the incident were hitching a ride from Union Island to Venezuela. One of these two men reportedly opened fired on the police and the Customs guard.

Who are these men? What were they doing in our country? Did they enter legally? Was it their first visit here? For how long were they here? Are there others like them within our borders? Where did the gun(s) allegedly used to fire upon the Vincentian officials come from? Are there more of these guns in our country?

About the investigation, how complete was it in light of the DPP’s statement that the Customs did not submit a report, as reportedly requested by the police.

Was such a report material to the investigation?

If not why did the DPP make a point of it on radio?

If it was that material to the case, how is it that the charges against the men were discontinued in the absence of this report?

About the substance reportedly thrown overboard:

Is soap powder so precious or so scarce here that Venezuelans would travel all the way from South America to smuggle it into St Vincent?

Was that “soap power” the reason person(s) on board the vessel reportedly opened fire on our law enforcement agents?

But when asked on radio if the substance thrown overboard was in fact soap power, the DPP chuckled and said, “That is very curious, isn’t it?”

Don’t you think that that is curious, too?

(When I get the time, I will share some thought on advertising and how it is used to affect media content … Or that might be how media content is presented to secure advertisement.)

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