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Campbell Bridges slain: Gem dealer paid ultimate price for mining in Kenya

Bridges followed a risky career path in the African bush. This week, he was allegedly stabbed to death by a machete-wielding gang that coveted his profitable mining concession.

August 14, 2009|Edmund Sanders

NAIROBI, KENYA — For decades, Scottish geologist and gem dealer Campbell Bridges navigated the risks that came with mining precious stones in Africa.

At his camp deep in the Kenyan bush, he spent nights in a treehouse to stay safe from wild animals. He used a python to stand guard over his cache of colored gems and more than once chased away marauders attempting to poach from his caves.

But Bridges' life and adventurous career ended abruptly this week when his truck was ambushed in southeastern Kenya by a mob armed with spears, machetes, and bows and arrows. Police and family members say the attackers appeared to be linked to a gang seeking to seize control of Bridges' lucrative mining concession.

Bridges died Tuesday of stab wounds, officials said. His son, Bruce, and two Kenyan colleagues were injured in the attack.

In addition to his son, Bridges is survived by his wife, Judith, and daughter, Laura, a law student in Chicago. Like Bruce Bridges, they are U.S. citizens.

Bruce Bridges said his father had been fighting for three years against a group of Kenyans -- who he said were backed by local government officials -- seeking to drive him away.

After Kenyan mining officials this year upheld his father's rights to mine the land, the group turned to violence and intimidation, including roadblocks, harassment and death threats, Bruce Bridges said.

"They are just a bunch of thugs who want the resources," he said.

His father's repeated complaints to the local police were ignored, Bridges said, including a plea shortly before Tuesday's assault. They had left the police station and were headed home to his base near Voi when at least eight assailants attacked their vehicle, he said.

"We know everyone who did this, by first and last name," Bridges said.

"We reported it to the police, but they gave us no assistance."

Charles Owino, a police spokesman, said he could not comment because he had no information on the case. Other police officials told reporters that they were searching for suspects, but that no arrests had been made as of Thursday.

In a career that spanned half a century, Campbell Bridges spent most of his time digging in the caves and mountainsides of Africa, including stints in South Africa, Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia) and Tanzania. The son of a mining company geologist, Bridges was among those who worked in the initial extraction and marketing of the gemstone tanzanite in the 1960s. He worked as a consultant for New York-based jeweler Tiffany & Co. in selling the gems to U.S. customers.

He is credited with finding, in 1967, an equally rare green gemstone called tsavorite. When Tanzania nationalized its mining industry, Bridges moved his prospecting business to neighboring Kenya, where he laid claim to a large deposit of the green-specked rocks near the border with Tanzania. He named the stones after Tsavo National Park, near where his company, Tsavorite USA, mines and sells gems.

Family members expressed skepticism that Kenyan authorities would prosecute those involved in the slaying and have asked the U.S. and British embassies to launch their own inquiries.

Officials at both embassies said they were assisting the family, but had no plans to get involved in the criminal investigation unless asked by Kenyan authorities.

"We are closely following the investigation and hope that the perpetrators will be brought to swift justice," said Charley Williams, spokeswoman for the British High Commission in Nairobi.

The attack comes amid what many see as a resurgence in violence, crime and corruption in Kenya, which is struggling with a sluggish economy and a stalled coalition government, formed as a compromise after a disputed presidential election in late 2007.

With police officers who routinely seek bribes and an overburdened court system, many crimes in Kenya are never prosecuted.

Despite prodding from the international community, the government has yet to punish perpetrators in the riots and tribal clashes that killed more than 1,000 people during the post-election crisis.

Bruce Bridges said his father had grown increasingly worried about Kenya's political and social instability but did not expect the threats against his business to turn so violent.

"He used to say that with the way things in Kenya were going, who knows what might happen," Bridges said. "He knew the risks. He understood Africa. But to have something like this happen is just unbelievable."

--

edmund.sanders @latimes.com

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