The U.S. Virgin Islands can be a dangerous place – and although they are technically a U.S. territory, American families have struggled to obtain justice there when their loved ones have fallen victim to violent crime.
The motto, "No passport required for U.S. citizens," is watermarked in the corner of the islands' tourism website, which boasts of world-class waters, idyllic beaches, "outdoor adventures" and a rich heritage and culture.
However, there is a dark side of paradise. The most recent United Nations data on the islands' homicide rate from 2012 shows 49.28 per 100,000 residents. The islands have routinely failed to fully report homicide data to the FBI going back years, records show.
For comparison the rate in Chicago in 2021 was estimated to be 29.8 per 100,000, based on city crime stats and data from the Census Bureau. Antigua and Barbuda, another nation of Caribbean islands to the east, had a homicide rate of 9 in 2020, according to the U.N. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the rate in the mainland U.S. was 7.8 in 2020.
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The trend is apparently nothing new. United Press International reported in 1981 that eight American travel writers invited to write about the tropical paradise were mugged in front of the legislative building on St. Thomas when their bus got stuck in traffic.
Even then, the U.S. Virgin Islands were seeing more murders and rapes than other Caribbean islands and the mainland United States, UPI reported.
Once a murder has been committed, families are often left to investigate it themselves – with police allegedly lax in how they approach basic investigatory practices, according to numerous people who have described the process to Fox News Digital.
Discussions have been cropping up in island Facebook groups regarding oversight of the island's police force – which in the past has been accused of failing to properly investigate cases. A former police commissioner wrote an op-ed appealing to witnesses to come forward with evidence of crimes. Numerous island residents have told Fox News Digital they are afraid to speak out on the record due to serious concerns about their safety.
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In 2021, when the British flight attendant Sarm Heslop was reported missing from her boyfriend's 47-foot yacht, police failed to obtain a search warrant for the vessel. Months later, they told Fox News Digital that a court had denied their requests for one – despite the boyfriend's prior domestic violence conviction and that he told her that's where she had last been seen.
The boyfriend, Ryan Bane, then hired the same lawyer as Jeffrey Epstein's former confidante, Ghislaine Maxwell. Epstein, a convicted sex trafficker who died in a federal jail in 2019, infamously maintained a private island in the territory.
One U.S. tech executive, who told Fox News Digital his firm does contract work for the Virgin Islands Police Department, said the department has "a few good detectives" running against a "lack of commitment."
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"They are absolutely making critical mistakes, avoiding easy to complete investigative tasks, avoiding investigative techniques that are time-consuming or hard, etc.," he said Thursday.
In 2005, a Connecticut native named David Geiger and his then-14-year-old son were attacked by Renell Lettsome in another home invasion robbery, court records show. Lettsome beat them both with a pipe, stabbed the father to death and lit the house on fire.
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Prosecutors relocated Lettsome's girlfriend, who worked for Geiger, to Florida in exchange for a witness statement and to assuage her safety concerns, according to court documents.
By then, Lettsome had escaped to the nearby British Virgin Islands, where he surrendered to local authorities a month later. He told them he could not sleep or eat and confessed to the murder.
However, after his conviction, he did not receive the maximum possible sentence of life in prison because the girlfriend had been relocated outside the Virgin Islands' range of subpoena power, according to the St. John Tradewinds newspaper.
"More than one person has died down there in the last few years, and the police force always says it's under investigation," said Dr. Robert Oldham, whose friend Ed Netherland, a Nashville insurance executive, was beaten to death in a waterfront home invasion robbery in 2014. "But it doesn't look to be like it's much investigation."
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Netherland's family did not pursue a private investigation as other victims' families have done, Oldham said, and the murder remains unsolved.
The family of Jamie Cockayne, the 21-year-old Pennsylvania man stabbed and beaten to death on St. John after a bar fight in 2007, spent tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket on private investigators and lawyers to bring the suspects to justice.
Even then, they did half of their sentences, made parole and got in more trouble. One, Jahlil Ward, was shot and killed in a drive-by shortly after his release. Years earlier, Ward had been shot in another incident involving Mekel Blash – who himself would be convicted in 2019 of stabbing New Jersey native Jimmy Malfetti to death in a home invasion robbery five years earlier.
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Like Cockayne's family, Malfetti's hired private investigators and covered travel costs until Blash finally took a plea deal, admitting to second-degree murder as prosecutors dropped nine other charges.
Another man convicted in Cockayne's death, Georgia native Kamal "Six Pack" Thomas, got out of prison and went on to date former U.S. swim champ Jamie Cail, according to numerous sources on the islands and in the U.S. The 42-year-old was originally from New Hampshire and died in late February.
Island police and prosecutors have declined to reveal her cause and manner of death and have not publicly identified Thomas as the man who found her. Without naming him, they said Cail's boyfriend told them he came home from a bar on Feb. 21, found her dead and drove her to a clinic where medical staff could not revive her.
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Police announced a criminal investigation into the matter but have released few updates. Investigators are asking anyone with information on the case to contact detectives, call 911 or reach out to Crime Stoppers V.I. at 1 (800) 222-TIPS.
Cail's death came right before the American college spring break season, a lucrative time of year for the islands, in a territory that relies heavily on tourism and aid from the mainland. So did the slaying of Kathryn Almony, a 57-year-old St. Croix woman who police say was killed by her boyfriend last week.
On Thursday, the VIPD announced a first-degree murder charge against a 66-year-old St. Croix resident named Randall Yates, who police say told 911 he found Almony unconscious in the bathroom last week.
The USVI tourism commissioner, Robert Boschulte, did not respond to multiple calls or emails in the wake of Cail's death.
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Finally, someone from his office told Fox News Digital that, "At this time, we are not able to comment on an ongoing investigation."
"What is the benefit that U.S. citizens receive from sending millions of dollars to the U.S. Virgin Islands?" Jeanie Cockayne, Jamie Cockayne's mother, recently pondered. "They're just like a baby that’s never been weaned. They do nothing for the United States."
According to USASpending.gov, the U.S. Virgin Islands received $1.4 billion from the federal government last year. That is more than a quarter of the territory's GDP, which is around $4.2 billion, according to the World Bank.
While the embattled Virgin Islands Police Department has jurisdiction over local offenses, the FBI urges anyone who believes they are a witness or victim to a federal crime to call them directly at 1-800-CALL-FBI or to call the local field office in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Additionally, the U.S. Coast Guard says anyone who needs help in U.S. waters should reach out over VHF radio on channel 16 with their GPS location and the nature of their emergency.