Fear and Loathing in America's Paradise
In August 2005, St. John businesswoman Esther Frett was raped, bound, and gagged and thrown into the sea off the remote east end of the island near Coral Bay by three young, white Klansmen. Frett, who is black, survived to tell the tale, and that's exactly what many folks, both black and white, believed her story was, a tale, and a very tall one at that. Regardless, the local race industry swung quickly into action.
St. John is the smallest of the three main islands of the U.S. Virgin Islands and is among the most exotic, lush, mountainous, thinly inhabited, and enchanting islands in the Caribbean. About 60 percent of its land is consumed by the Virgin Islands National Park.
Nearly all of the residents of the Virgin Islands (this one, St. Thomas, and St. Croix) counted in a 1939 American Civil Liberties Union census were native-born, but by the mid-1960s immigrants from other islands of the Lesser Antilles (known to this day as "down-islanders") and from Puerto Rico have severely diluted the native population. Whites from mainland America also came to buy property and put down roots over the years after the Second World War. Thus the census of 2010 found the purely native population had been reduced to less than 50 percent of the total 110,000 that live in the territory. Non-blacks comprise about 25 percent. These developments do not sit well with a small but vocal minority of current natives (people "bahn heah" in the dialect), who sometimes urge the down-islanders and whites to "go home."
Esther Frett was a 37-year-old woman who used to operate a doll-making-and-selling business on the second floor of a smallish building in the heart of the tiny, compact and only town on St. John, Cruz Bay, on the west end. The business downstairs was a modest retail imports affair run by a white man, Robert Sells, locally known as Bali Bob. His business was called Close Reach Imports, or just Bali Bob's.
Like many neighbors, Sells and Frett were not, apparently, very neighborly. According to sketchy police reports and court papers, Frett occupied the upper floor of the building, Meada's Plaza, until the end of May, 2005. Why her lease, if there was one, was terminated was not revealed. But a serious feud had arisen by then between Frett and Sells, and on June 3 Sells, an ageing bearded hippie into Universal Love and New Age sentiments, was arrested and booked on assault charges brought by Frett and her husband Jerry. First accused of a misdemeanor, Sells was then re-charged with a felony by a local prosecutor with the Virgin Islands Department of Justice. He was arraigned on two counts of intimidation, assault and battery, and disturbing the peace.
Later that month, the Fretts reported to police that Jerry Frett's car had been vandalized at their home on the east end of the island, near the scatter of homes and shops of the center-less CoralBay. The car had been defaced with racial epithets, as the police called them, not without the generous occasions of the N-word. This was immediately -- and appropriately -- classified as a hate crime, which triggered the insertion of the FBI, since committing a hate crime is a federal violation. The V.I. Police Department was happy to turn the emerging mess over to Washington. Crimes with racial overtones are rare but inevitably political and societal hot potatoes in the Virgin Islands.
Immediately, voices from unsurprising quarters were raised in wrath. No one outside the eternally angry circles paid much attention, but for many it seemed odd that on St. John, among the three islands the most racially diverse -- just over half the 4,000-strong population of the island is white -- and relatively harmonious, someone would commit an act right out of the annals of pre-1960s Alabama or Mississippi. Still, there is the odd white racist in the territory, so as unlikely as it seemed, the hate crime was not flatly impossible. But was it a crime in support of the New Ager Sells? The FBI wasn't talking; the local cops weren't talking, and Sells wasn't talking -- much.
The silence fueled the worst suspicions of a small collection of activist, pan-Africanist, and nativist (read, bahn heah and black) people, based not on St. John but on St. Croix, 40 miles south across a deep and often dangerous stretch of the Caribbean Sea.
The acknowledged leader of, or at least most ardent spokesman for, the aggrieved was Mario Moorhead, a 60ish scion of a prominent St. Croix family and a radio talk-show host who frequently used his forum to test the boundaries of how much anti-white racism could be tolerated on the air. Calling his listeners his "beloved," Moorhead towered over most people at about six-foot-five with his graying dreadlocks and braids falling to his heels. He is fond of traditional African livery, and while relatively congenial off the air with all sorts of people regardless of race or provenance, on his daily show he championed the perceived cultural superiority of the native population and referred to whites as "them people."
Moorhead's attacks on the usual suspects -- the "supremacists" and parvenu "continentals," buzz words for white statesiders -- and their obvious connections to the hate crime on St. John were dismissed as annoying business-as-usual by all but the most fevered. Then the lid came off.
On August 30, Esther Frett went to the police station in Cruz Bay and said she had been raped. Her attackers, she said, were three young white men who mouthed KKK-like insults. She said she was tied up and cast into the water near Coral Bay and left to drown. Frett reportedly declined to submit to a "rape kit" examination at the clinic on the island. Later on, Moorhead and his comrades-in-arms suggested that indeed a rape examination was made but the authorities covered up that evidence in order to protect the perpetrators.
Calling the rapists, or alleged rapists, who were yet to be identified, "scumbags," he hastily formed an ad hoc group called We the People for Justice and arranged for demonstrations against the FBI's and local cops' temporizing on releasing information about the investigation.
Despite the aching lack of facts substantiating the rape, the governor of the territory also hastily decided the incident was genuine and accurately reported by Frett. Gov. Charles Turnbull, an ursine longtime veteran of the local political wars, hurried out a press release decrying the assault and urging the local police to get to the bottom of it. "All law-abiding Virgin Islanders," the governor said, "must condemn the despicable act of violence perpetrated against a female resident of St. John ... I assure the people of the Territory that the agencies of this government, including the Police Department and the Office of the [V.I.] Attorney General, working in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of the United States Attorney General, have undertaken an extensive investigation to determine the facts and ensure that everything possible is being done to bring the perpetrators to justice." Unlike the comments from the police and FBI, the word "alleged" was not used by the governor.
On September 1, Sells' jeep was set afire while parked outside his business. The next day the building itself was torched and gutted. Police classified both fires as arson, thus drawing the interest of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
By the end of September, both Virgin Islands Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen, a medical doctor by profession who might have been perhaps a little more skeptical, and Governor Turnbull were pressing the federal government for answers. "The Justice Department," she charged, "has been too slow in the processing of evidence for this case, and I have communicated my displeasure to the highest levels of the Justice Department in Washington. It is important to the peace and tranquility of our community that this case be brought to a close in a timely manner. The foot-dragging we have seen thus far is simply unacceptable."
On the same day Christensen issued her remarks, Turnbull chimed in again. Citing the "potential for violent episodes," the governor wrote to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that certain elements in the Virgin Islands intended to conduct "a series of demonstrations and protest marches" during the first week of October.
The governor's letter prompted a slightly chilly one-paragraph response from Acting Assistant Attorney General Bradley Schlozman, assuring Turnbull that the FBI, ATF, U.S. Attorney General's Office and the Civil Rights Division were "all devoting substantial resources to conduct a complete, thorough and fair inquiry." Schlozman added that the governor should let Justice know if it could be of further assistance.
While Turnbull's fears were inflated, his remarks called for calm. But Moorhead went on a tear. He told his beloveds that they "must stamp out racial violence" while characterizing the alleged rape as "a lynching." He said that the white majority in St. John "controls the economy" (which is not altogether inaccurate) and "the government" (which was absurd, since the government is under the more-or-less absolute control of blacks in the territory, St. John included). "We have the numbers," Moorhead fulminated, "and it's time we use them." Callers to his show demanded "a mass demonstration" of blacks from all three islands to be waged on St. John. His group said they had invited Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, and Al Sharpton to the islands to help stir the pot. None of the three ever showed up.
In the event, a handful of people from St. Croix traveled to St. John on October 1. Moorhead blamed the light turnout on the cancellation by a charter-boat operator to carry the protesters to St. John from St. Croix -- cancelled, he said, because of pressure brought to bear on the captain from unnamed parties. The small group staged sit-ins in St. John restaurants, ordering bottled water and tying up the tables or otherwise confounding the conduct of commerce. The theory, according to Moorhead, was that the white business owners would have more clout with the federal authorities and justice would be done.
As Thanksgiving approached and We the People for Justice was getting nowhere, Moorhead called for another event, this time hoping to tie up, as they did in October, St. John businesses. The target this time was St. John's biggest and most popular grocery and gourmet store, Starfish Market in Cruz Bay. A modest coalition of St. Johnians had by then joined with Moorhead's St. Croix protesters. The talk-show host spoke to this second group -- the St. John Association for Equal Rights and Justice -- at an Episcopal church on the island on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. "Little you will be spoiling the big American holiday," Moorhead told the 20 or so people on hand. He said that the owner of the market had two choices, negotiate with his comrades or shut down. They planned to start the protest on Wednesday, which Moorhead called "the biggest day of business at Starfish," with people shopping for their turkeys and pumpkin pies.
The protestors had gone into Starfish Market and bought groceries with small change, snarling the checkout lines. By early afternoon the demonstrators, numbering no more than 10 or 12, had gathered under a tree in a corner of the market's parking lot, where Moorhead and another racial activist, ChenziRa Kahina, a St. Croix woman known as Dr. Chen, lectured the group on tactics. Dr. Chen was resplendent in a white African gown with a gold-trimmed headdress as Moorhead stood quietly by. She had told another St. Croix radio station some weeks before than she knew "for certain" that the Frett allegations were true, since, she said, she had talked to Frett personally.
Moorhead was back on St. Croix the Monday after Thanksgiving, hosting his show, which he opened by reading a press release from his new organization. The document claimed that We the People for Justice had unimpeachable evidence that the federal government was sitting on the case and refusing to release any information to the protestors. The reason was that the authorities (meaning all the law-enforcement agencies, local and national) wanted to protect the status of St. John as a "premier tourist destination" and was letting the criminals go free so white people who owned businesses and hotels would be safe from bad press. Moorhead did not mention that most working black families on St. John also depended on that tourism for their livelihoods.
The conspiracy to coddle the perpetrators of the Frett rape included, according to Moorhead's supporters, the local and national media, the FBI, AFT, Justice, the Civil Rights Office, the Virgin Islands government, the business community of St. John (both black and white) the local police, and the Klan.
In early November, Roy Innis, the chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, came home to St. Croix from New York to attend a family funeral and got wind of the flap. Citing the Tawana Brawley hoax that Al Sharpton made plenty of racist hay out of in New York state a few years before, Roy Innis' son Niger Innis said, "We debunk phony racism," according to a report in the St. Croix Avis newspaper. "Flying rumors become crystallized and turn into fact," he said. "The main thing," Roy Innis told the paper, "is not to accept hysteria."
On August 22, 2006, Virgin Islands Superior Court Judge Brenda Hollar sentenced Bali Bob Sells to four months' imprisonment on aggravated assault and battery and felony intimidation with "racial bias" for the original confrontations with Esther Frett. The actual sentence was for two years, but the judge reduced it to the shorter period and ordered Sells to three years' supervised probation, to take anger-management counseling and to write a newspaper editorial on "racial discord," according to the local media. The prosecutor cited Sells' racial slurs and the allegation that he "mooned" several black women. Sells was contrite, reading an apology in court to Frett, who wasn't there. Her husband Jerry was. The prosecutor, responding to defense witnesses who said Sells was a "hothead" but not a racist, said, "Bob Sells is from the states. He's 51. You don't think he knows the word 'nigger' is hurtful to people?"
As for the far more dubious allegations brought by Frett about being raped and thrown into the sea by three white Klansmen, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded in September that it could find no evidence of any civil-rights violations by Sells or anyone else. The DoJ stopped short of debunking Frett's claims of rape and assault, which a St. John official dismissed as being "politically correct." No one was ever charged with the torching of Sells' jeep or the building occupied by him and Frett.
By March 2008 Meada's Plaza had reopened with a convenience store occupying part of the ground floor. Bob Sells served his jail time on St. Thomas, disappeared for a while, and today is seen back on St. John, "from time to time," according to a local source. He is also reported to be -- or at least was -- working at a McDonald's in Puerto Rico. Esther and Jerry Frett now run a food-and-juice stand on a Coral Bay roadside. Race relations on St. John, it is said, have not much improved since the depressing events took place, which one resident remembers as "simply awful."
Robert Hoffman is the former editor of the daily St. Croix Avis, Caribbean Correspondent for the Associated Press, and news director of station WYAC-FM on St. Croix. His books on Alexander Hamilton, Antigua, and St. Croix are available at amazon.com