Of 604 people we know have died at the hand of another in the U.S. Virgin Islands since the V.I. Source began recording annual homicides in 1999, most were young men executed by groups of other young men or found shot dead without explanation.
A Source study of homicide data in our archives, the V.I. Police Department and other online resources, going back to 1999, the year the Source came online, shows these revenge killings and tit for tat retaliation drive the territory’s troubling murder count.
The study is the most complete, accurate and extensive database of V.I. homicides in the public domain. The expansive list serves as a reminder the death count is cumulative – that the number of Virgin Islanders with a family member lost to murder keeps growing year by year.
The average murder victim in the U.S. Virgin Islands is a 27-year-old man found dead in the street with multiple gunshot wounds and no explanation.
Ninety percent of victims are male, 84 percent are killed with firearms and 15 percent are stabbed to death. Overall, in the 15 years from 1999 through 2013, the territory averaged 40 (39.6666) murders per year for a rate of 37.4 per 100,000 residents.
That puts the territory consistently among the most violent cities in the nation, a fact most Virgin Islanders are well aware of. The good news, such as it is, is that this river of bloodshed tends to be localized and personal.
Robberies accounted for 54 murders – less than 10 percent of the total. And tourists are rarely targeted – with some high profile, disturbing, but rare exceptions. Like the 2005 robbery shooting deaths of Tristan Charlier and Leon Roberts. Or James Cockayne, who was stabbed and killed after an altercation in a Cruz Bay bar in 2007. Rarely, a tourist or other person is killed by chance, as with Lizmarie Perez Chapparro, a 14-year old cruise ship passenger killed by a stray bullet in a gunfight at a funeral in 2010. Or St. Croix musician Peter Desjardins, killed in 2009 by a ricochet from a warning shot when the restaurant he was playing at was robbed.
The most common reason for murders, when there is any explanation, is retaliation related to ongoing feuds between groups of young men, accounting for 148 deaths. Like the first homicide in the Source files: Jaheal Gomez, 22, gunned down Jan. 5, 1999 in the Ralph de Chabert housing community. Police found Gomez in a car wearing a mask and bulletproof vest. Police suggested he was planning to carry out a drive-by shooting and instead became the victim. Or Francisco Budhoo, who was shot multiple times in July of 2012, four days after being released from prison. Or 22-year-old Rasenjoni Williams, who was gunned down in 2012 at the beach with his 18-year-old wife, Amaria Remie Williams, two days after being let out on work release while awaiting trial on first degree murder charges in another retaliation slaying.
The study considered cases retaliatory or executions if the police indicated so in their press releases, if information in other news stories suggested it, and if known details of the case indicate it, such as when witnesses describe seeing a car with multiple occupants pull up and someone in it starts shooting a person outside the car.
A known personal fight between the killer and victim comes in a distant second with 68 victims. Robbery was the apparent motive in another 54 murders, and domestic violence killed 37 Virgin Islanders since 1999. Police gunfire has killed 17, most frequently while in pursuit of armed suspects.
But a whopping 279 murders – nearly half the total – have no obvious explanation.
Many look a great deal like more retaliation or feud related killings but there is not enough information to rule out some sort of personal fight or other explanation. Like Vernon James, 34, who was found dead in the street, shot to death, at 1 p.m. March 11, 2014, by D. Hamilton Jackson Terrace. Or Kelroy Morrell, 23, of Estate Frydenhoj, who was found shot several times and unresponsive several hundred feet from his home in 2009. Or Khoy A. Smith, 23, who was found shot in the back in the bush near Building 3 of the Tutu High-Rise Apartments in October of 1999. Or hundreds of others.
The Source contacted Assistant Police Commissioner Thomas Hannah, who has been with the V.I. Police Department for more than 25 years for insight into what motivates and fuels homicide in the territory. He recalls the numbers rising with the rise in crack cocaine and jumping after Hurricane Hugo, bringing a series of years with 40 or more killings.
When there is no obvious explanation, it is most likely another case of retaliation, Hannah said. "I would say 65 to 75 percent of killings since 1999 are some retaliation or turf war or beef between groups," Hannah said. Sometimes it is individuals protecting neighborhood turf, sometimes it is drug dealing turf, and sometimes it is revenge or misguided vigilantism, he said.
It is rarely a complete mystery. "Someone knows what happened," he said. Frequently, someone will tell police what they know, police make an arrest, then when the trial comes around, people suddenly forget everything, he said. Often they are afraid they will be targeted if they testify. Sometimes there are rumors or some evidence, but not enough to make an arrest. But police frequently have a good idea who is responsible, even if they cannot make an arrest, Hannah said.
"Some of these things are retaliatory whether we realize it or not – they carry that grudge, then finally they see the person at some location and say, "Remember you did this to me?"" he said.
"After Hugo it just took off," Hannah recalled. "That’s when we saw that spike. … More and more young men and women started getting involved, setting up their little empires. Then in the ’90s, little associations starting to attack each other. That is when we started running into the retaliation situation we have going on now," he said.
The perception of a lack of opportunity, high unemployment and low wages combined with the lure of easy money from selling drugs also creates a dynamic that leads to some of these back and forth shootings, he said.
"For example, take an 18-year-old who is out of work and can’t access education or a decent job. What does he do?" Hannah asked. "He buys marijuana or cocaine on consignment and sells it. Now suddenly he is the breadwinner for his family. You think I’m going to tell on my breadwinner? No. Then he sets up business on a corner. Soon enough someone has a beef with him and he gets a gun to resolve it, and to keep from being robbed. The next thing you know, a young man is dead, another is going to prison, and who is going to talk about what happened?"
A small portion of murders with no known explanation is more random and unpredictable, such as an unidentified decomposed body found in a cistern or an elderly woman found dead from a blow to the head. But most victims of unexplained murders are young adult men, found dead in the street from multiple gunshot wounds.
Victim ages run the gamut from infants to nonagenarians. But there is a sharp curve, rising from age 15 or so and peaking in the mid-20s, then sharply dropping off with increasing age.
While it is commonly believed that drugs play a contributing role in street violence, it was not obvious in the available data. Cocaine is mentioned in police and news reports in relation to six murders and marijuana in nine murders. Alcohol appears to be more significant, as it is a factor in at least 39 murders, typically in drunken fights after midnight at bars.
How often killings occur to protect profits from the illegal drug trade is difficult to quantify, although Hannah and others believe the dynamics of the illegal street trade feed V.I. street violence as they feed violence in many U.S. cities. In popular culture, the television show The Wire portrayed this dynamic. While marijuana, cocaine and heroin are plentiful, police and press reports have not asserted a connection between the drug trade and many murders in the territory.
Whatever the particular motivations, the data show the steady drumbeat of groups young men gunning down other young men over turf, for retaliation for another act of violence, or for no known reason is what drives the territory’s frightening murder rate.
If you pull out the 427 known to be victims of organized retaliation or found shot dead without any explanation, the territory’s average murder rate over the 15-year span drops sharply from 37 to 13.1 per 100,000 residents. That figure helps to show just what a massive impact this pattern of retaliatory and execution killings has had. It represents the lion’s share of deadly violence in the territory. These executions have directly touched thousands of close family members of the victims and thousands more friends and schoolmates.
The landscape of violence looks very different if you look only at female victims. Of the 603 victims, 60 – almost exactly 10 percent – were female, so all other things being equal, a Virgin Islands male has 10 times the likelihood of being a homicide victim as a female.
The reasons are very different too. When the reason is known, domestic violence accounts for 19 of the female victims – a third of the total. Interpersonal fights, often one woman having a violent dispute with another, account for six more deaths and robbery accounts for another four. Three were classified as retaliation/executions, for 5 percent of killings. That is much lower than the 27 percent of male victims classified so.
But as with men, nearly half of female victims (28 women) had no obviously discernible motivation. Like male victims, many of the unexplained and unsolved cases involve bodies found dead from multiple gunshot wounds with no witnesses and little evidence.
What to do about the violence? Take to the streets with pitchforks and torches? Cower at home, adding deadbolts and security cameras? Buy a dog?
More effective policing can help catch criminals, but preventing young men from growing up to resort to violence is the only way to stop the crimes from happening to begin with. Experts say there is a strong link between childhood trauma and later violence and getting everyone in the community involved at some level, and that providing young men with better, more socially valuable ways to express their need to be someone are key. (See: V.I. Crime at the Crossroads in Related Links below)
How to prevent them from happening "is the dilemma we are facing right now. The entire community has to take ownership of their home," Hannah said.