Calvin Benjamin watched cops die all around him
This is the 25th in a series of close encounters with death by Jamaicans, some of them in prominent positions of the society. The colour of retired Senior Superintendent of Police Calvin Benjamin's world changes every time he drives past St Joseph's Hospital in South East St Andrew.
For opposite the hospital marks the spot where gunmen ended the lives of two members of his police team and almost took his during a bloody shootout on November 6, 1981.
Constables Michael Thompson and Derrick Amos were cut down by gunmen holding high-powered weapons as they and their senior colleagues — Benjamin and Tony Hewitt — tried to foil a robbery at a grocery store operated by a Chinese national across from the hospital.
Hewitt, who had just returned from Puerto Rico, was head of the patrol team that responded to a police control request. They, being downtown, appeared well suited to confront the gunmen, but things did not go according to plan.
"At the time I was living in Bull Bay, so when I was coming to work, I picked up my team members who were coming in for the 6 o'clock shift. I picked up Thompson at his house along Merrion Road, Vineyard Town and picked up Amos at the Stadium police station," Benjamin said.
"About 10:30 that night we got a call that a robbery was in progress across from St Joseph's Hospital. By the time we went there rain started falling, so we stopped by Nightingale Avenue at the supermarket. Another car that was with us was told to drive around to Merrion Road and stop by the gas station along Langston Road. We parked the vehicle and started to walk, by this time the rain started to fall hard," he continued.
"Thompson was in front with an M16, I was behind Thompson, I had the radio and a firearm. Amos was behind me with a submachine gun and Mr Hewitt at the back with an M16. While walking towards the place, we decided to walk on the opposite side of the shop, the St Joseph Hospital side.
"Upon reaching Merrion Road and Deanery Avenue, it was shots like nothing. We had to cross over to the other side and I only saw when Thompson, who was still walking in front of me, just dropped and he died instantaneously.
"Seconds after, I just heard Amos behind me saying 'Lord, me get shot' and by the time I turned around I saw Amos going down. I was in the middle, and Tony, who had started to fire at the gunmen, was at the back.
Benjamin had no choice but to seek cover from the hail of bullets.
"All I could do was run up Merrion Road when I met a man in the road shouting 'do, don't shoot me, is me call the police,' but he was one of them and I didn't know," stated Benjamin.
Clearing fences like an Olympic hurdler and staving off menacing dogs in the rush, Benjamin, now with a rain-drenched radio that could not transmit, eventually got out of the range of fire and back to where the patrol car had been parked.
Fearing that Hewitt had also been killed, Benjamin sighed with relief when he saw his colleague emerge from the shadows, still clutching his M16 rifle.
Assistance came around 30 minutes after communication was restored, but as they headed back to the spot where the young crime fighters had been killed, another barrage of gunfire again forced them to take evasive action.
The heavy showers had washed Thompson's body from where it had lain after the original attack. Amos was still there motionless and was pronounced dead at hospital when reinforcements came to their rescue.
Police intelligence pointed a finger at men from the East Kingston community of Dunkirk. They had left over 150 spent shells behind, but soon, one of the suspects was killed by men in Greenwich Town. Another also died violently and a third was shot in a gunfight with bandits and is now crippled.
That incident was drilled into Benjamin's mind and he suffered emotionally from the memory for years.
"For months I could not drive past St Joseph's Hospital," the highly respected former crime fighter admitted. "In those days we did not get counselling. It really hurt then and it still hurts now... it's something that's still on my mind. Even when I drive past there today, I never go by and not look at the spot where those policemen were killed.
"Those boys had just come to kill that night. It was just God saved me that they killed the guy in front of me and behind me. The men were firing automatic weapons and when I was running up the road, I was certain that I had been shot, because the shots were digging up the stones on the road, which were hitting my hands, and I kept thinking that I had been shot.
"So when I reached the car I was looking for blood all over me. It was really scary, but it was not my time," Benjamin said.
Benjamin had only suffered gunshot wounds once before when a shotgun held by a fellow policeman at the Harbour View Police Station went off and six pellets lodged in his foot.
But the veteran of over 40 years in the constabulary had slammed the door in the coffin builder's face at other times.
"I have come close to death a number of times, but God has been good," he submitted.
In 1976 while he was stationed at Denham Town Police Station, he came face to face with the deadly West Kingston gunman Anthony Hewitt, nicknamed Curly Locks and, to this day, he doesn't know how he was not killed.
He was on a routine foot patrol along a path between Third and Fourth Streets, when he became submerged in some serious 'bangarang'.
"As we were going down the passage, all we could see was Curly Locks coming into the middle of the pathway and just firing at us with a long-mouth .38 pistol. I saw death written all over.
"We fired back and he ran. How we didn't get shot is a miracle because Curly Locks was bad out of this world," Benjamin stressed.
That incident had come soon after another dramatic encounter in which Benjamin and three of his colleagues had to dress like women to catch a group of rapists who had terrorised women in West Kingston for several months. Most of the women were attacked in the region of the Coronation Market and Spanish Town Road.
"We decided to catch the boys who were doing the rapes, so we dressed in women's clothing. Two of us, including myself, wore dresses, and the other two were in pants. My other colleague who was in a dress had a problem with his big belly showing, but he kept it under control.
"We decided to go out early one morning, and my partner Jack and I — who had on the dresses, were walking on one side and the two other men on the other side of the road.
"As we were going on, we saw a boy just appear in front of us right at Bump, Tivoli Gardens, and he came out and said, 'Hey p.... stop deh! Oonu a go get f.... this morning!"
"He came out with an automatic weapon trained at us. We had our firearms under our armpit, so we could not fire at him right away. He realised that something was wrong, so he started firing at us. We hit the ground and the guys over the other side took him on. He was shot and the gun recovered.
The boy who was killed was from Enfield, St Mary and was believed to have committed several crimes.
Police Commissioner Joe Williams commended the policemen and they got special awards, Benjamin said.
Six years after that first encounter with Curly Locks, who was eventually killed along Wellington Street in Denham Town by a youth with the alias 'Paperman', the emergence of another bad man kept Benjamin and his police colleagues busy.
Anthony Tingle — called Starkey by friend and foe alike — was engaged in a fierce fight for survival. It was June 1, 1981, Benjamin's birthday, and instead of going on the town with friends to celebrate another milestone, it was marked by a bitter gunfight in Jones Town, as police tried to capture Starkey.
"They had a dance the Saturday night and the Sunday morning about 4 o'clock we went to a house along Myers Street and cordoned off the place. Ruddy Dwyer and Tony Hewitt were the senior men on the operation. The only time since I heard more gunshots than on that operation was when (Reneto) Adams led a team into Tivoli Gardens in 2001.
"A group of men fired some shots because they realised that we had Starkey in the dragnet. It was like the whole of Jones Town had started firing. We took up positions in an open building with just walls... no roof, no windows and all we could hear was pow, pow, pow!"
The men were firing M16s, and every time they fired, the bullets dug out the concrete of the walls of the old building in which they had taken cover, Benjamin said.
"Debris was dropping in your eyes, in your head. If Starkey was firing the gun on automatic, it would have knocked off our heads, but he was doing spot firing because the police were closing in on him. He was coming towards us and when he was coming over the wall, his rifle stuck on the barbed wire and that was history with him. He was eventually neutralised. That morning he and eight other persons were killed in the operation," Benjamin said.
But it was not all smooth sailing on that mission, as the lawmen ran out of ammunition and had to go to Mobile Reserve headquarters for more.
It proved a life and death challenge — getting into Jones Town from Harmon Barracks where the Mobile Reserve is located — as the police could not travel from the top of Arnett Gardens, known as Havana, nor the section in which the Admiral Town Police Station is located, because men loyal to Starkey were guarding those areas.
The option was to head through Wilton Gardens, deemed safer since men from that community were at 'war' with those from Arnett Gardens and no one would cross the borders to go after them.
However, safe passage was never on the cards for the police, as gunmen continued to pelt the police truck with bullets, hitting out the windscreen and injuring two policemen before the team got to the police base and back with the supplies.
"That morning it was scary, and you ask yourself, 'why should I be here? Today is my birthday. But then it was a part of your job and while you are there you should enjoy it while you can," Benjamin said.
That was not the end of the story for Benjamin, who was involved in several other shootouts with some of Jamaica's notorious mercenaries.
He was there with his colleague GC Grant in the 1970s when Derrick "Shabba" Adair, a jockey-turned-gunman, shot up a vehicle at Bump, Tivoli, and later, almost at the same spot, when another gunman with ties in St Kitts turned the heat up on four of them; all escaping unhurt.
In 1986 though, he got caught up in a shooting incident that almost claimed his life... again.
"I had gone up to Arawak Drive in Cassia Park where Stamp Electronics was at the time to fix the radio in my car. While I sat in it, a man just ran up to the side and said to me, 'Mr Benjie, dem a hold up the place', and by the time I held up my head, it was a man who had seen that other man telling me that a robbery was in progress who just come up (to the car) with a chrome semi-automatic pistol. All I could do was fly through the passenger door, which was open, and take cover at the front of the car. The man was pointing and firing straight at me, but he was missing.
"Every time I saw the man firing I saw death in front of me. I saw my children. He fired at me six times and then I got a chance to fire at him."
The gunman's weapon had jammed and Benjamin finally had a chance to run across the road to comparative safety in another yard.
"Although his gun was small, the muzzle of the gun was big like a cup. Everytime he fired I said to myself, 'mi dead'. Another policeman was inside the yard and took on the others. My gun jammed so I had to clear it. I fired back and the guy ran," he said.
As things turned out, the gunman and others who were committing the robbery rushed to a getaway car parked nearby. That Russian-made Lada motor car was driven by a policeman who was on suspension, and who was eventually taken into custody after the vehicle was abandoned at Orange Villa.
"I have been through some scary situations, but God has been good to me," said the man who spent 37 years at Criminal Investigation Branch, and who did detective work from 1975 until he retired in 2010.
For his efforts, Benjamin was honoured with the medal of gallantry in 1983, and the badge of honour for meritorious service in 1994.