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THE WORLD

Missing Bahamians Rattle a Nation

The disappearance of five boys confounds authorities, shatters a sense of safety and sparks wild and ghoulish speculation.

October 31, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

FREEPORT, Bahamas — Swaying in pleated teal robes that match the waters of the Caribbean, the gospel choir of Zion Baptist Church belts out "In Times Like These" as the Rev. Peter Pinter reaches for the heavens and appeals for answers.

"Lord, we believe you will break this case," the minister professes as his congregation prays for five local boys who, one by one, have mysteriously vanished in the last six months. "The Lord knows where they are. It's in his hands."

Having found no earthly explanation, the deeply spiritual and close-knit people of Grand Bahama Island have taken refuge in their faith and their hymns' soothing rhythm to cope with disappearances that have confounded authorities, shattered a sense of national well-being and broken the hearts of schoolmates and parents.

Long spared the abject poverty and violence afflicting most Caribbean neighbors, the hard-working hotel maids and trinket traders of this lush vacation land have no experience to draw on to understand what is believed to be the first serial crime to scar their nation. And, in the absence of telling evidence, the frightened people of Freeport have taken to wild and ghoulish speculation.

From fears of occult sacrifice to organ hunting, Bahamians are putting out their own gruesome versions of the fate of the missing boys, with many concluding they were nabbed by predators who stalked the Winn-Dixie supermarket where all five bagged groceries.

"People are saying all kinds of things," said Buster Laing, a Sunday school teacher at Zion who knew 13-year-old Deangelo McKenzie, the third of the five boys, ages 11 to 14, to disappear since early May. "There were rumors last week that police had seized all the butchers' tables and equipment from the supermarket and that they'd found body parts. It brought thousands of people into the streets to demand something be done about it. But it was just rumors."

Police found skeletal remains in the Barbary Beach area last weekend, and murder charges in connection with four of the boys were filed Wednesday against a 35-year-old hardware store clerk who worked near the supermarket. But the remains have yet to be identified as belonging to any of the missing boys, and the possible break does little to shed light on why the boys were killed, if they were in fact murdered.

Although authorities caution Bahamians against letting their imaginations run rampant, the link in the five cases is the supermarket and the nearby video game arcade where the boys hung out -- a venue that one bag boy said was stalked by at least two men who had not been seen since the last boy went missing.

Many are speculating that the boys have been taken off the island.

"No way those boys could be hidden somewhere here. Our people are too much busybodies, always watching what's going on at the neighbors'. Somebody, for sure, would have seen them," said Queenie Bishop, a taxi driver who shuttles tourists from the seaside resorts at Lucaya to the craft shops of the International Market. Like many employed in the tourist trade, she contends that such crime is alien to the Bahamas and suspects a foreign hand in the boys' disappearance.

Horrid Rumors

Two of the missing boys are Haitians, though born in the Bahamas, fueling speculation -- born of brooding resentment of an influx of refugees -- that voodoo practitioners might have snatched them.

Marilyn Davis, Deangelo's grandmother, says she still holds out hope that the boys have been kidnapped by slave traders for forced labor and, one day, will be found and freed.

But since authorities claimed in mid-October to have exacted confessions about the death of the first boy to disappear, 12-year-old Jake Grant, Davis has quit going to her crafts job at the Straw Market, despondent at the implications for the prospects of her grandson's safe return.

Comforted by relatives and neighbors at her modest home, Davis has shut out the horrid rumors of voodoo, devil worship or body snatching by traders in black-market lungs and kidneys.

But with police saying that Jake was accidentally killed by his playmates and his body somehow disposed of, Davis acknowledged that she had to ponder the unthinkable. Brenda Roberts, whose 12-year-old son, Stephen Dorval, was among four youths charged in Jake's disappearance, said police took him in for questioning while she was at work one night in early October and haven't allowed her to see him since. Regulations prevent her from talking to him by telephone, and she hasn't been able to come up with the money for airfare to New Providence Island to visit.

According to the scenario police have disclosed only to Jake's mother, Bridgette, the boys were swimming at the Tivoli Gardens Apartment pool while Roberts was at work -- something Roberts said they wouldn't do without her permission. Through roughhousing or a fall, Jake was killed or seriously injured, and the boys panicked and got rid of his body.

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