Death postponed: I thought I was going to be killed — 'Bigga' Ford
Top crime-fighter says gunfight with notorious killer was the toughest he has faced
IT could have been billed as 'the showdown at the dump'. The 'Wild West' style events that unfolded in 1991 when a police team that included veteran crime-fighter Cornwall Anthony "Bigga" Ford took on notorious gunman Nathaniel "Natty" Morgan and his cronies near to the Riverton City dump, may have enjoyed top billing if it had been the subject of a publicity blitz or movie script.
The running gun battle went on for days, but when the smoke cleared from the dump, Morgan lay dead and the city of Kingston sighed with relief, as the inner-city terrorist had been stopped in his murderous tracks.
Morgan, said to have been a cold-hearted killer, had spread mayhem across sections of the capital city, committing various crimes, including multiple murders. Among them was the slaughter of seven men in Seaview Gardens as they socialised at a wake on February 25, 1989. The victims were all put to lie down before being shot in the back of the head. Among the seven was veteran Gleaner photographer Errol Gibbs.
The 'Seaview Massacre', as the killings came to be known, drew the condemnation of society, who clamoured for police to end Morgan's reign of terror. He was caught, but somehow 'vanished' from police custody while awaiting a hearing at the Gun Court. He retreated to the swamp near the dump from where he maintained his murder and extortion business, a thorn in the side of law enforcment.
The police then named Natty Morgan as the most wanted fugitive, and blamed his gang for 19 murders, 41 robberies, shooting with intent, arson, attempted robbery and three cases of abduction.
The manhunt took the cops to edges of the dump.
The bitter gunfight that unfolded in Lakes Pen and Riverton was, to Ford, arguably the worst of his near 35-year career fighting crime as a member of the Jamaica Constabulary Force. He could have sworn he was about to face the grim reaper.
"I had the feeling that I would have been shot. I honestly believed that I would have been killed down there," Superintendent Ford, now the head of the Flying Squad unit of the Criminal Investigation Branch of the police force, told the Jamaica Observer.
"I remember it well, while we were down in Riverton looking for 'Natty' Morgan. The terrain was bad, the whole environment was terrible. As close as I am sitting to you doing this interview, when we were in Riverton, I could not see you. I could not see the person next to me. What we had to do was tie strings on our police personnel. So we had some long strings so that you could reach out to the man in front of you and the man behind you. It was because of the smoke, the smog, the whole environment, and it was one of, if not the most difficult operation that I have been on," said Ford.
The trading of bullets between the crack police team and the gunmen was relentless, regardless of the time of night or day. The police, on one hand, were determined to deal decisively with the notorious gunman, while Natty Morgan and his cronies were equally determined to defeat the law.
Carrying their high-powered weapons and using the smoke from the burning mounds of debris on the dump to their advantage, the gangsters managed to keep the armed forces at bay.
For the cops, including Ford, each moment of that encounter was fraught with danger.
"He (Morgan) had a group of dangerous men fighting with him. It was their turf and they knew the turf more than the police did. We were new to it, so we had to sleep down there night and day in the bushes, and we had to carry rations and other stuff. It was a telling experience," Ford said.
Days after that blazing gunbattle, Morgan met his 'Waterloo', as the police got a tip that he would be carrying off a major robbery in St Catherine. Quickly, a team of law enforcers led by Garnett Daley and including Ford, Kelso Small, Donovan "Hucks" O'Connor, Jomo Smith and about 15 others, set up a net to nab the feared criminal.
"It was a team effort," Ford said. "That time I was an inspector and I was like the foot soldier. We were working through a source who gave us some information that 'Natty' and his men were going to rob a place that Friday night. We got the go-ahead from the police high command, at the time Roy Thompson was commissioner, we got the route where they were going to travel and we set up our thing.
"Three people including Natty Morgan were in the vehicle, a small truck, but one man eventually escaped, while 'Bomber' and 'Natty' Morgan remained. The truck developed some mechanical problems and it broke down on the road near to where we were waiting. We went down slowly toward them and when they saw us come out of the bush on the Lake's Pen Road near to the Cotton Farm, they started firing at us.
"Those times we didn't have bullet proof vests -- it was strictly 'ital' we were fighting them. We were fearless those times and we were young boys. It happened sometime after 10 o'clock at night and the place was like daylight based upon the amount of gunshots that we and them fired. The place was more like midday. When we killed them, we found out that they were firing M-16 guns," Ford said.
News reports at the time were that the bodies of the two had been peppered with cops' bullets and Morgan's face rendered unrecognisable.
One policeman, constable Nicely was shot in the mouth during the operation. "Nicely got shot when a bullet ricocheted from a pump that was near a field, and just buss up his mouth," said Ford upon reflection.
One of the depressing things for Ford was the opposition that he and other police personnel encountered during the time spent trying to capture Morgan.
"We were getting a lot of opposition from one Catholic priest in particular. He pressured the police and at one time he wrote an article saying that we were not police, we were mercenaries. He named us too, some by our aliases. He named Bigga Ford, Hucks, Spungie (former bodyguard of Bruce Golding), he used all of our road names. He gave us hell with the thing, but we still survived. People must understand that it was from those times that we were feeling pressure," Ford said.
Although he escaped unhurt in that tense police operation, Ford, now 54, was not so lucky on other occasions, as he was shot twice in separate incidents in the Corporate Area.
He was first shot in the late 1970s as robbers made a getaway after holding up a supermarket.
"I was shot in my leg in the Red Hills Road area," Ford recalled.
"I got a call that there was a robbery at a supermarket. Our car drove up, and I was the shotgun rider at the time. A car drove up as we were approaching the supermarket and it turned out to be the robbers who were just leaving. They just started firing at the police car and I got shot in my leg.
"It was tough, because in those times there was no medicine in the island, so I had a problem. I had to source medicines and drugs from friends overseas to get me back on my feet," he stated.
"The other one occurred a couple of days before Christmas 1980.
"I went into a store in Half-Way-Tree to get some stuff for the kids. While I was in there shopping, I heard a sound behind me saying 'don't move', but actually a robber was talking to the cashier and not me, so when I glanced behind me, I saw a man with a gun pointing at the cashier. When I turned around and confronted him, the robber said to me 'you deh ya too? You a go dead'.
"So I said, 'wha' you a go kill mi for, mi know you? But I realised that he was backing up to the door, so my intuition told me that once he touched the door, he would shoot. So I watched him, and when he touched the door, I moved, and he fired four or five shots and one caught me in my buttocks.
"I pulled my pistol, fired some shots at him, but by that time he was outside and he started firing some shots on the door, so I had to release the door and take cover. By the time I rushed out, he dashed into a car and took off.
"With assistance, I was taken to Medical Associates Hospital where I was properly treated. It wasn't life threatening, but I got shot, so I was under pain, stress, right in the Christmas," he recalled.
Ford and a team of policemen did their checks on the shooter and their intelligence gave them a fair idea of who he was. The burly crime-fighter went on a radio programme shortly after with an appeal to the man to give himself up before the police came for him. By that same afternoon, the suspect had turned himself in at a Corporate Area police station. He was subsequently arrested, charged and later convicted.
Ford believes that the strong spiritual platform on which he bases his life is the reason he survived his several close shaves.
"I have had several near-death experiences and I have come under a lot of pressure, but once you believe in the big man upstairs (God) and you are working, things will be alright. He has survived some of the most violent events in Jamaica's history, including the Gold Street Massacre of April 1980, when gunmen launched a precision attack on the Central Kingston community that left five dead and numerous others injured.
"I came through the 1980s, so I saw the whole gamut of the violence, meaning that I saw everything -- Gold Street Massacre, I was in Rema when the people were killed, I have seen it all and I can talk about it.
He was also part of the violent clash between police and civilians in Tivoli Gardens in West Kingston in 2001, giving back-up support to Reneto Adams and his team.
"I have been on operations where police died -- it was tough. I have been on operations when several civilians have died too. If you don't know your God, you can't survive. You need to know the big man upstairs and you have to pray. You also need to have the support systems around you -- family, friends. When you do good deeds for some old people, they say 'God bless you mi son', and those things carry you through.
Ford was realistic about the cycles of life and death, however.
"Irrespective of who fires the gun, someone will mourn. So if the criminal kills me, my family and my support staff will mourn. My mother is 92, so if anything happens to me now, she is going to die with me.
"I am the breadwinner for my family, but the killers have their family and support around them, so when they get killed, their people will mourn too," he said.
He was also practical about criminals and how they should be dealt with by the police.
"You have some men out there with guns who can't be tamed. We are making some inroads, we are trying dialogue, peaceful negotiations, counselling, mediation, but you still have some youngsters out there who can't be rehabilitated, and you need to have some serious policemen to confront them, face them and deal with them.
"... look at the one called Hunk of Gold (Richard Hylton). We told him to come in and he wouldn't, and even when he was going down, he shot a policeman. He was a very vicious youngster, but we have the capability and the people in the police force to handle such things," said Ford, who grew up as a Catholic youth born and raised in Hannah Town,
The murder of his brother in the 1970s did not influence his decision to join the police force, Ford insisted, in a bid to discredit an ongoing rumour that he joined the constabulary to seek revenge.
"My brother was killed, but those persons who are saying that I joined the police force to get back at criminals for that, don't know a thing about me. As a youngster, I joined the police youth club and it was out of that, that we got a lot of mentorship, and I then joined the police force in 1976. My brother was there with me in the youth club too.
The police youth club was one of the avenues for most youngsters back then running match-ups in cricket and football.
He commented that he at no time felt the urge to join any of the numerous gangs around while he was growing up in Hannah Town.
"... they were not fashionable. You had the Spanglers Gang, the Metticks Gang from Wellington Street and others. We were school youth and we had the opportunity to play sport and those times sport was the avenue, because you hear people talk about Tivoli, they had the best sports programmes at the time, with Operation Friendship and Seprod playing their roles. The best football field was at Seprod. All of those things came to us as youngsters, so gangs were never our interest, because we had avenues.
"So out of the police youth club, nine of us joined the police force in that period. I am the only one left in the force from that batch, all the others have migrated, so I am the only one holding the struggle," Ford stated.
This is the 12th in a series of close encounters by Jamaicans, some of them in prominent positions of society.