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Paradise Lost

Their retirement cruise to the Caribbean turned into a murder case. Now Jim and Penny Fletcher face a death sentence, with shades of international politics, extortion--and bananas.

May 09, 1997|HEATHER KNIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was supposed to be a fairy tale.

A wealthy West Virginia businessman retires in middle age and travels with his wife to the Caribbean. Jim and Penny Fletcher had no schedule, no appointments, no return date. Last year, they anchored their 47-foot Wellington cutter, Carefree, off the tiny island of Bequia--one of the numerous islands that make up St. Vincent and the Grenadines--and settled in for some serious leisure. They sought to befriend some islanders, even donating money to buy books for schoolchildren. It was paradise--until Oct. 6.

The Fletchers--who had a reputation for excessive drinking--went to dinner that Sunday night at one of their favorite restaurants on Bequia, the Gingerbread. They used a water taxi to traverse the 75-yard stretch between their sailboat and shore. The next morning, their taxi driver, Jerome "Jolly" Joseph, 30, was found dead--shot to death by a weapon of the same caliber as one the Fletchers owned.

Based on this and other circumstantial evidence that U.S. officials dispute, the Fletchers have been held in jail for seven months by a judicial system their lawyers say is corrupt. If found guilty, they face mandatory death by hanging.

The U.S. State Department has reviewed the case and concluded that the Fletchers are wrongly accused. And with President Clinton stopping in the Caribbean on Saturday for a summit on crime and drugs with the region's leaders, West Virginia congressmen and the Fletchers' family are trying to persuade him to raise the issue with St. Vincent's prime minister, James Mitchell.

So far, they have had little luck. A spokesman for the White House's National Security Council said Monday that Clinton is not planning to raise the case. Nor are officials traveling with the president--including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright--expected to broach it with their St. Vincent counterparts.

St. Vincent officials say the Fletchers' case is just one example of eroding relations between their country and the United States. The officials are especially perturbed that the United States is seeking to end what the U.S. alleges is preferential access to European markets for east Caribbean bananas. St. Vincent, with a population of less than 120,000, depends heavily on its exports of bananas.

"There are many policy issues that are making people feel the United States is abandoning a friend in the Caribbean," said Kingsley Lane, the St. Vincent ambassador stationed in Washington.

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A State Department report, written after the Fletchers' preliminary hearing in March, was scathing in its criticism of the case against the couple. The judge in the hearing "has taken lint and created a rope with which to hang the Fletchers," the report said. "There is not one scintilla of physical evidence connecting the Fletchers to Jerome Joseph's murder. . . . Considering the evidence presented at the hearing . . . one is led to the conclusion that this is a witch hunt."

According to the couple's lawyers, the prosecution alleges that Penny Fletcher was having an affair with Joseph, providing the motive for foul play. The couple's attorneys dismiss this allegation as ridiculous.

Instead, the lawyers and the Fletchers' relatives charge that the wealthy couple was targeted by St. Vincent officials for extortion. Arturo Diaz, one of their lawyers, said he was approached in December by an intermediary, whom he would not name, who said a bribe could be arranged to get the couple released. The offer was rescinded because of extensive publicity resulting from a similar incident, Diaz said.

He was referring to a case involving Alan Heath, a South African who alleged he was falsely charged with the murder of his wife while visiting St. Vincent in November, and then released after paying an intermediary $30,000. Heath, who says his wife was killed by two intruders on their boat, recently said on ABC's "Nightline": "There is obviously no justice system on St Vincent at all. They're totally corrupt."

St. Vincent officials deny such allegations. The country's attorney general, Carl Joseph, while refusing to comment specifically on the Fletcher or Heath cases, said: "We have a system of justice that is second to none in the world."

Lane, the St. Vincent ambassador, said the dispute over the Fletchers boils down to Americans believing they are entitled to special treatment. He added: "We can guarantee that the Fletchers will be given the same due process as anyone else accused of a crime. We don't convict people without adequate evidence."

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The Fletchers' trial is scheduled for June, but the immediate concern for their family members is the couple's health. His lawyers say Jim Fletcher, 49, is housed with up to 17 other prisoners in a small cell and sleeps on a bare wooden pallet. He is fed tea, bread and rice, and has lost 30 pounds in prison, said Rod Duncan, his nephew. Penny Fletcher was hospitalized in April because of an infection she developed since being jailed.

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