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Charlotte Amalie
Monday, July 22, 2024
HomeNewsLocal newsAnalysis: 50 Years After Fountain Valley

Analysis: 50 Years After Fountain Valley

The modern Carambola Beach Resort And Spa (Photo: Google Street View screenshot)

A half-century ago, five gunmen strode into the Fountain Valley Golf Course, killing eight people and wounding eight more. The crime stained the tranquil image of America’s Paradise like none before, signaling an end of innocence for St. Croix, washing the Virgin Islands in the mainland’s racial and political divisions.

News coverage of the event seized on Black island men shooting white country club goers and Black employees, dubbing the Sept. 6, 1972 attack the Fountain Valley Massacre. What reporters and newsreaders around the world missed was the unique nature of race relations in the Virgin Islands, said two men who knew the alleged mastermind and primary gunman of the attack, Ishmael LaBeet.

LaBeet was a troubled Vietnam veteran trying to get his life together, they said. A quiet guy, if LaBeet were a raving gunslinger out for blood, he hid it well. He certainly did not present himself as a homicidal anti-white, anti-mainland activist.

Melwood Civil knew LaBeet from St. Croix and, by chance, found they were assigned to the same Nha Trang, Vietnam base camp for U.S. Army airborne brigades.

“He was there a couple of days before I got there,” Civil said. “He was kind of quiet. I don’t know; I guess I didn’t know him that well because I didn’t know he could do all this stuff, do all this stuff he did in Fountain Valley.”

Robbing the golf course was reportedly LaBeet’s idea. His four accomplices reportedly did not know of his murderous intent. LaBeet opened fire almost immediately, shouting his hatred of white people as he pulled the trigger. When one accomplice refused to kill a golf course employee, LaBeet allegedly put a machine gun to his head and demanded he fire. He did.

In Michael Joseph’s expansive 2014 book, Fountain Valley 1972, the St. Croix attorney said Virgin Islanders coming of age in the 1960s were largely unaware of the depths of American racism. They lived in the land that the Fire Queens, General Buddhoe, and countless other locals’ ancestors had freed from skin-color tyranny. Joseph said while attending college on the mainland, he was legitimately baffled to learn the complexity and danger of 20th century American racism.

For David Simmiolkjier — and most likely LaBeet — that lesson came when he joined the U.S. Army. Simmiolkjier also knew LaBeet from St. Croix and met him again while fighting in Vietnam. Speaking from his St. Croix home Sunday, 84-year-old Simmiolkjier was quick to unfurl a list of racist elected officials from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s whose policies he encountered while stationed in the American South and abroad.

Where Simmiolkjier carries the dismay of these encounters in some salty language, he said he was floored by the revelation LaBeet had spearheaded a crime, much less a mass shooting. LaBeet had been petitioning Simmiolkjier, an Army sergeant, to help him rejoin the military. LaBeet had been booted out of the service.

“He was alright, a regular guy. He got a bad-conduct discharge from the military,” Simmiolkjier said, meaning LaBeet had committed some offense during his service in Vietnam and was ineligible for veterans’ benefits. “At the time that Fountain Valley took place, he was trying to correspond with me in order to get back in the military to get a good discharge.”

He didn’t think the Fountain Valley incident was racially motivated either.

“I don’t think it was racial. We in the Virgin Islands, people my age, we never really experienced the racial difference here in the Virgin Islands that they have in the United States of America,” Simmiolkjier said. “I know what racial prejudice is. We got some here now, but there was no racial prejudice here when I was young. It was superlative superiority. Who’s better than who was what it was all about.”

Joseph, whose brother was the reluctant gunman who LaBeet demanded kill the golf course employee, wrote in his book of a St. Croix where gun crimes were almost unheard of. He said that LaBeet had audaciously shot at a police officer, setting off a manhunt that drove the war-tested paratrooper into the bush of the Grove Place region. Aided by a few low-level criminal friends, LaBeet hid in St. Croix’s roughest terrain while gathering other societal outcasts.

Whether LaBeet turned murderous at war, went feral in the bush, or was inspired to political violence by anti-colonial efforts of the era is unknown. It was a turbulent time.

Before the Fountain Valley incident, 1972 saw Rep. Shirley Chisholm announce her candidacy for president; Black Panther Angela Davis stand trial for murder and be found not guilty; 13 Black Panthers and playwright Jim Rado arrested at an industry event in Central Park, New York; sculptures of Confederate rebels Jefferson David, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson carved in Stone Mountain, Georgia; the Equal Rights Amendment sent to the states for ratification; the first Black basketball player in the Hall of Fame; vast escalation in the already sprawling Vietnam conflict that led North Vietnamese negotiators to walk away from peace talks — then the eventual total U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam; the Watergate break-ins and later revelations on them spurring President Richard Nixon’s defense; Jane Fonda tour North Vietnam, photographed sitting on a cannon; George Carlin arrested on obscenity charges; revelations U.S. health officials used Black people as human guinea pigs in syphilis studies.

Two years earlier, St. Croix-born Melvin Evans was the first elected USVI governor in 1970. It was a point of pride for the territory.

For all its racial insulation, the Virgin Islands was not immune to institutional colonial racism in 1972, said Civil, who had returned from Canada on the day of the attack to attend his grandmother’s funeral. A gated community near Fountain Valley was home to predominantly white people. LaBeet and company surely knew this.

“A lot of people moved out of Judith’s Fancy, and a lot of native people buy it up. That’s how native people own property and thing like that. Before, they wouldn’t let them in there. You had to go through a gate, and craziness going on down there,” Civil said. “They wouldn’t let no one look at thing down there and thing like that. But after that, a lot of people move and move back to the mainland and sell their properties. And a lot of natives down there now.”

The protracted — often bungled — manhunt for the killers was a dagger in the heart of St. Croix’s economy, Joseph wrote in his book. Travel agents across the mainland dropped the once-popular island from their recommended visits list. Journalists with an easy angle arrived instead. The New York Times’s Sept. 8, 1972 headline was GUNMEN HUNTED IN VIRGIN ISLANDS; and in 1974, it was Murder in Paradise: The Case of St. Croix.

Once captured, LaBeet, Warren Ballentine, Beaumont Gereau, Meral Smith, and Raphael Joseph were allegedly tortured. At trial, they refused to testify, Joseph wrote. They were all convicted and given eight consecutive life sentences — one for each victim.

In 1984, LaBeet, now going by Ismail Ali, hijacked a plane during a prison transfer and escaped to Cuba. It was another headline grabber the Virgin Islands did not need. There was a push on to not just rebuild St. Croix’s reputation with tourists but to regain local control of areas like Fountain Valley — now known as Carambola.

Gov. Alexander Farrelly pardoned Raphael Joseph in 1992 after 12 years in prison. He died in 1998 in what his brother wrote was a suicide by drug use.

The St. Croix of 2022 — where there have been 20 gun-related homicides by the end of August — versus that of Sept. 6, 1972, does not hinge on the Fountain Valley mass killing, said both Civil and Simmiolkjier.

“No kind of violence like that back in them days. If you fight, you fight with your arms and thing. You no fight with a weapon. Now everybody have a weapon and is killing each other,” Civil said. “But I don’t think Fountain Valley have anything to do with that.”

He thought violent fantasies brought on by social isolation were to blame.

In Joseph’s book, he reported his brother would find solace watching wild dogs work as a team to hunt. Hiding from police in the bush, he would watch the otherwise unaffiliated dogs form spontaneous packs to take down a deer. Then, they’d eat and disband just as freely.

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