Trip To Paradise Now Horror Story

KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent - On day 152 of his imprisonment at Her Majesty's Prison here, James Fletcher's haggard face spoke volumes about what he and his wife, Penny, have endured.

Accused of murdering a loved community member, the Huntington, W.Va., couple has languished since October in grim conditions. A team of lawyers has been unable to free them. The U.S. government has been uninterested.

A circumstantial thread ties the Fletchers to the murder of Jerome "Jolly" Joseph, 30, a hard-working water-taxi driver.

But questions about U.S. foreign policy, small-town ties, police corruption, extortion, human-rights abuses and the Fletchers' own lifestyle obscure the picture.

Last summer, the Fletchers sailed to St. Vincent, a tropical paradise. Their behavior - alcohol abuse and drunken rages engendered whispers of promiscuity and gained them notoriety. This summer, James and Penny Fletcher will be tried in Joseph's murder - if they survive that long.

For six months, the couple has lived on water and rice. Penny Fletcher, 35, has been hospitalized several times for a urinary-tract infection. James Fletcher, 49, has for a toilet only a bucket he shares with 17 other men.

The Fletchers came to live in paradise. They may well die here instead.

"This whole thing is going to be over soon because I'm not going to make it much longer," James Fletcher said. "There is an incredible sense of unreality about all of this."

But it is terrifyingly real: Convicted murderers in St. Vincent are taken to an old hilltop fort overlooking the Caribbean Sea where gallows wait.

And there they hang.

Former Colony

The nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is off the northwest coast of South America. Once a British colony, St. Vincent and the Grenadines became independent in 1979.

In August, the Fletchers sailed into Beguia's Admiralty Bay aboard their 47-foot yacht, the "Carefree."

Fletcher, former chief executive of his family's coal-mining-equipment firm, took early retirement. Though he filed for divorce in March 1995, the Fletchers were still together, apparently reconciled.

The couple planned to sail all over the world. This was just one more stop.

The rhythms of life beat slow and easy in Bequia. But Penny Fletcher changed that in a hurry. The Fletchers became notorious for their antics.

Two days before Joseph's disappearance, the couple was bickering at the Gingerbread, a Port Elizabeth restaurant owned by Pat Mitchell, Prime Minister James Mitchell's ex-wife.

"They both drank a great deal. The woman was unstable and seemed very unhappy and caused problems wherever she went," Pat Mitchell said.

That evening, Penny Fletcher was involved in a bar brawl with Francis Bynoe, Nolly Simmons and Nick Kuhne, three seamen from Bequia.

A police officer escorted Penny Fletcher away, the men said. James Fletcher paid for the damage the next day.

But the Fletchers also donated $25,000 to Bequia to help pay for children's school supplies no longer provided by the St. Vincent government. They planned to start a small charter service on their yacht and donate 10 percent to the country's education system, Penny Fletcher said.

Low crime rate

Murders are rare in Bequia. Homes and businesses are left unlocked and police officers don't carry guns.

Because Joseph had never had problems in the past, islanders assume an outsider committed the crime, Kuhne said. The Fletchers say their independent investigation showed Joseph was a small-time drug dealer; his friends say that is absurd.

Like other tourists, the Fletchers used water-taxi drivers to travel between their yacht and the island. Joseph frequently worked for the Fletchers and the island's gossip pegged him and Penny Fletcher as lovers.

She told family members she was pregnant and had an abortion when the couple returned to West Virginia in September. But this raised eyebrows because her husband had had a vasectomy.

Such rumors anger Penny Fletcher. "We barely knew him," she said.

On Oct. 6, the Fletchers radioed Joseph to take them to a restaurant for a late dinner.

They arrived at 10 p.m. to find the restaurant closed. The Fletchers had a brief fight and, according to them, asked Joseph to return them to their yacht.

About 2 a.m., Roger Durham, a Texas native living in Bequia, heard a shot that sounded like a .22-caliber coming from a nearby beach.

The next morning, the Josephs, who live on a ridge overlooking the bay, began to worry because Jerome Joseph had not come home.

Worry turned to fear when Stephen Joseph, the victim's brother, found the "Jolly Joseph" water taxi washed ashore. Two live .22-caliber bullets were found inside.

The "Carefree" was anchored down-current from where the water taxi was found and before long, locals began shouting and pointing at the Fletchers' yacht.

Divers were searching around the "Carefree" by midmorning, and Coast Guard officers boarded the boat and questioned the Fletchers.

That afternoon, an angry crowd gathered near the yacht. The couple pulled anchor and headed out of Admiralty Bay, but were intercepted by the St. Vincent Coast Guard.

"Jim said, `I don't feel safe here,' " said Arturo Diaz, a Puerto Rican lawyer retained by the Fletchers. "He wanted to take the boat to the other side of the island to Friendship Bay. But to hear the prosecutors tell it, they were trying to burst out of the place."

Two days later, Joseph's bullet-pierced body was found floating in the water in an area known as Moonhole. Police confiscated the Fletchers' $250,000 yacht and passports.

The "Carefree" was searched four times. The Fletchers were interrogated for 51 and 54 hours on separate occasions without food or sleep.

There would be no confession.

Slowly, some damaging evidence against the Fletchers began to surface.

They registered a .22-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun and 200 rounds of ammunition with customs officials when they arrived in St. Vincent. The gun was not found during the searches of the yacht, and 80 rounds were missing.

The Fletchers told police they thought the gun was stolen in August by Benedict Redhead, a former deckhand. Those statements would prove damaging.

Police located Redhead on nearby St. Lucia. He not only denied stealing the gun, but also said he witnessed an affair between Penny Fletcher and Joseph.

Police interviewed Bynoe, Simmons and Kuhne who, in addition to recounting the fight, said Penny Fletcher made several damaging statements. Francis told police she had said she was going to shoot a black man because she had been raped in Antigua, Kuhne said.

She also allegedly told the men she celebrated her 35th birthday Oct. 2 by shooting the rubber dinghy tied to the yacht. This contradicted the Fletchers' earlier statements that the gun already had been stolen.

On Oct. 30, the Fletchers were arrested and charged with murder.

The Fletchers hired a team of lawyers and investigators. On the front line was Ralph Gonsalves, a member of the St. Vincent Parliament and a prominent Kingstown defense attorney. Gonsalves pressed officials for a preliminary inquiry.

Trinidad attorneys Karl Hudson-Phillips and Gerald Stewart were hired by St. Vincent to match the Fletchers' defense team. The hearing began Feb. 25, and the Fletcher and Joseph families packed the courtroom.

The prosecution called 24 witnesses. The Fletchers' rubber dinghy was hauled to the courtroom. Held to the light of cross-examination, though, the case against the Fletchers seemed to have serious holes:

-- Redhead, who testified that he saw Joseph and Penny Fletcher kissing on the "Carefree," was confused and rattled by Gonsalves on cross-examination.

-- The bullets found in the Jolly Joseph matched the slug pulled from Joseph's chest but not the 120 bullets remaining on the yacht. Blood reported to be found in the Jolly Joseph was determined to be dried paint.

-- The Fletchers' attempt to leave Bequia Oct. 7 was described by authorities as an escape attempt. Coast Guard officials said their calls to the Fletchers on a short-wave radio were ignored and when they reached the boat, the radio was turned on. In court, officials admitted they had forgotten to check which frequency it was tuned to.

Surprise decision

The Fletchers' lawyers predicted the case would be dismissed, saying probable cause had not been established.

But District Magistrate Paula David Delves ruled March 11 that although the case was "entirely circumstantial" and contained various weaknesses, there was enough evidence to go to trial, citing Penny Fletcher's admission she fired her gun after it was supposedly stolen and witnesses' reports of her threats to shoot someone.

The Fletcher family is convinced the couple is at the mercy of a corrupt government.

The Fletchers and their lawyers think this case has been prejudiced by Prime Minister Mitchell and Police Commissioner Randolph Toussaint.

Like most Bequians, the Joseph family knows Mitchell personally. Brother Garfield Joseph has worked as a bartender in the Frangipani, the prime minister's restaurant, for 15 years. He also likely has been told of Penny Fletcher's antics in his ex-wife's restaurant.

Another murder

On Nov. 2, three days after the Fletchers were arrested, a South African woman named Lorraine Heath was slain aboard her yacht anchored in St. Vincent. Her husband, Alan Heath, said she was murdered by islanders who boarded their yacht during the night.

According to Heath, he became a suspect and was detained and repeatedly interrogated. South African President Nelson Mandela personally called on Heath's behalf.

But Heath claims he regained his freedom only after having $25,000 wired to a lawyer who works for St. Vincent high officials.

After his release, Heath started a campaign against St. Vincent's government.

The Fletchers might be free today if Heath had kept quiet, say family members and lawyers. Diaz said he was approached on Dec. 11 by an intermediary, whom he refused to name, who told him Toussaint was a corrupt official with a gambling problem and a deal could be arranged.

James Fletcher and his parents authorized Diaz to pay up to $100,000 for the couple's release, but the intermediary pulled the deal off the table after Heath went public with his extortion claim.

"If I had known, I would have kept quiet," Heath said. "I've told the Fletchers' attorney the judicial system is thoroughly corrupt and the only way they are going to get out now is through pressure (from the U.S. government)."

Rocky relations

The Fletchers' arrest could not have come at a worse time in the countries' relationship. The U.S. government has become extremely unpopular in St. Vincent in recent years.

Recently, the World Trade Organization made a preliminary ruling to end the Eastern Caribbean's preferential access to the European banana market.

President Clinton, at the request of Chiquita CEO Carl Linder, asked the WTO to consider ending the preference, established when most Caribbean islands were European colonies. Vincentians say the move will devastate the banana industry.

The U.S. Embassy has run up against a wall in trying to get information from St. Vincent officials about the Fletcher case.

On June 2, James and Penny Fletcher will appear in court. A trial date will be set, probably in late June or early July. A jury will be chosen. And in most ways it will proceed like a U.S. murder trial - though James Fletcher doesn't believe it.

"Mr. Mitchell wants a conviction," James Fletcher said. "The police know I didn't do this."

Keeping such faith has been difficult for James and Penny Fletcher.

"I think they want to hang us," Penny Fletcher said. "It scares me. I never thought it would come this far."