Highgate bank robbery claims six lives
Crimes that Rocked the Nation
A brazen daylight robbery which netted a mere $25,000 claimed six lives, including that of 42-year-old Special Constable Dudley Mason who was on guard duty at the Bank of Nova Scotia in Highgate, St Mary on March 17, 1982.
But three men charged jointly with Mason's murder walked free from the Home Circuit Court in Kingston, after a trial that attracted attention islandwide the following year. The plans for the robbery were hatched, the court was later told, in Arnett Gardens, Kingston. Cops who were quickly on the scene cut down five men in a hail of bullets not far from the bank.
Originally before the court on the capital charge were George Gillette, 20 and Walter Burns, 25, mechanic, both of Highgate, and Vincent Morris, 23, of Arnett Gardens, Kingston.
Burns was the first accused freed after Chief Justice Kenneth Smith upheld a no-case submission put forward on his behalf by his attorney Norma Linton. He was accordingly discharged and trial of the other two continued.
The Crown's case was presented by the former Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Velma Hylton and Crown Counsel John Moodie. Attorney L H (Bunny) McLean appeared for Morris and Howard Hamilton represented Gillette.
In the course of the in-camera trial in the Home Circuit Court in July 1983, the first prosecution witness testified that on March 16 Gillette came to his house about 11:30 am and asked him to take him to Kingston. He took Gillette to Caymanas Park. Gillette owned two race horses, Little David and Kingtoll.
Gillette went to a certain stable and they spent about two or three hours at Caymanas Park. They left and while he was travelling along Spanish Town Road Gillette told him to turn on Maxfield Avenue. On reaching the traffic lights along that road, Gillette got out of the car and spoke to a man who was on the left side of the road.
Gillette returned to the car and told him to go to Mona where he spoke to a "Chinese man". He then directed him to drive to Arnett Gardens, stopping on the way to buy food at a restaurant on Old Hope Road.
They reached Arnett Gardens about 6:00 pm and Gillette got out and went into a house. The witness said he got out and sat on his car and ate his food. Gillette came out of the house about 15 minutes later and was accompanied by about two or three men. Morris was one of the men. The witness said he had not known any of the men before that evening.
The witness told the court that the men, including Gillette, went through a pathway and about six or seven of them returned from the pathway and Gillette and Morris were among the group. The time was then about 6:30 pm.
About three hours or more later, the witness said, he asked Gillette if he was ready to go home. and he responded: "Cool man." Gillette then asked him to take two of the men for him and he agreed. Morris and another man entered his car and both men took some clothes with them. Gillette was sitting in the front seat of the car and the two men at the back. They left the other men at Arnett Gardens and he headed for home, travelling by the Junction Road.
When he reached Brandon Hill, St Andrew, the witness testified, he saw a car coming fast behind him and he pulled over to give the car way but the car did not pass him. When he reached Lewis Store, St Mary, Gillette asked him to let one of the men out and told him not to drive off until the car lights caught him. The brown man he had let off went into that car.
Gillette told him to drive to his house at Cromwell Land where he stayed for about five to 10 minutes and returned with a bunch of keys and something looking like a folded flour bag. Gillette, who had something like a radio in his hand, placed the flour bag in the car and told him to drive to his (Gillette's) father's bakery at Highgate.
Gillette opened the bakery and he (witness) and Morris went inside with him. He told them to take bun and bread. Gillette had two tin containers which contained something which he placed in the car's trunk. On Gillette's instructions, they next went to a house at Cromwell Lands where he saw five men on the verandah.
The witness recognised the five men as he had seen them at Arnett Gardens on the evening of March 16 and the one who had got out of his car was among the five. It was then 1:00 am on March 17 and Gillette called someone's name about three times and the door was opened. The witness, Gillette, Morris and the five men entered the house and a lamp was lit.
The witness said he heard Gillette call Morris "Spurline". The witness said he left the house about 1:45 am after the men had removed the things from the car. Before he left, Gillette asked him to check him in the morning at the same hous.e.
About 8:30 am he returned to the house where he saw the five men, Morris and Gillette in the kitchen. Gillette asked him to fetch Burns at his garage at Highgate and he took him back to the house, then back to the garage. Burns took one of the containers from the bakery and poured gas, which was in it, into a van.
The witness said that when he returned to the house he saw the van there and Burns was inside the house, as well as Gillette and Morris. He did not see the other five men. At that time it was about minutes to 11:00 am.
The witness said he heard Gillette say: "I will monitor it with the van and the car will follow." The witness stated that he asked: "Follow wha?" and Morris said he was to take instructions or he would be dead. Morris asked him if he did not love his family.
Gillette told him to go down to Highgate and wait and when he saw the van he should follow it. The witness said he went and stopped at the intersection of Richmond and Highgate roads. He saw the van driven by Burns go along but he could not see who was in it. The van stopped at the road which led to Highgate and Gillette came from the van and told him that when the van moved, he was to move and anywhere that it stopped he was to stop.
The van drove toward Highgate and he followed. A few chains down the road Gillette told him to turn back. He noticed groups of people standing at Pear Tree Grove. The witness said he told Gillette it seemed as if something had happened and Gillette did not answer. The witness said he continued driving and when he came to a town called Mongrave he saw a crowd there and police. The witness said he stopped and asked what was happening and he drove with Gillette about two miles from there.
The witness said Gillette told him to turn back and while driving about a mile from there, Gillette said: "See one of the men deh." He asked to be let out of the car. The witness said he did not see anyone, but Gillette went up a little track and he went back to Mongrave square and stopped. The witness said he was drinking a beer when he saw Gillette trotting down the road. He asked him what had happened and Gillette said he had gone in the bush to ease himself; he heard gunmen were there and he ran out.
Some children were coming down the road and some policemen were behind them, the witness said. The police were on foot and they came and spoke to Gillette. They asked Gillette about his presence in the area and Gillette said he was going to the race track and he went to ease himself and he heard that gunmen were in the bush so he ran out.
The witness said the police searched his car, and then took Gillette and himself to the Port Maria Police Station. While there he saw Morris being brought in by the police.
He testified that on March 23 he went to Mizpah Funeral Parlour where recognised the bodies of the five men he had seen at Arnett Gardens and at the house at Cromwell Lands. The witness was shown a two-way 'Walkie Talkie' radio and he said it looked like the one Gillette had.
He was shown a leather pouch with a long strap and he said he saw one of the five men with one like it. He was also shown a cloth bag which he said looked like the one he saw Gillette with.
Another prosecution witness testified that he was standing outside the bank at Highgate about 11:45 am on March 17, 1982 when he saw a yellow-looking car drive up and park behind a truck. He saw two men with guns jump off the wall and land about 30 feet away from him. One of the men ran behind him and one in front of him.
The man in front of him removed his gun from its holster and told him to go inside and lie down ,and he obeyed. While lying down he heard gunshots. He heard a voice inside the bank cursing and threatening to shoot. Sometime after that he heard gunshots outside. When the shots stopped he got up and noticed that Mason had been shot. He recalled seeing the third man running out of the bank. On March 19 he went to Mizpah Funeral Parlour where he saw the bodies of the three men who robbed the bank.
A bank employee told the court that on March 17, 1982 about 12 members of staff and two special constables, including Mason, were at the bank. The special constables were usually armed with revolvers. About 11:30 am he heard several explosions. The witness said he saw a man jump over the counter from the customer's side to the teller's side.
The man had a gun in his hand and he asked for "the manager boy" and also asked for money. The man had something like a pillow case which he gave someone to hold while he took money from the teller's cage and placed in the pillow case.
The man said "the vault", and an employee accompanied him to the vault. Tellers were called and told to open the vault from which money was taken and given to the man who placed it in a bag.
The witness further testified that the man asked if that was all the money they had, but no one answered. The man then left the vault and went out of sight. Everybody in the main office of the bank was lying on the ground. There were other explosions. When the explosions stopped, the witness said, he looked out and saw three men running to a parked car which was at the entrance to the bank's compound. The car drove off toward Port Maria.
He did not see any of the security guards when the men drove off. People started getting up and he later saw Mason being lifted out of the bank. Mason had blood on his chest. The witness said that about $22,000 to $23,000 was missing from the bank.
The witness said he knew both Burns and Gillette. Cross-examined by attorney Hamilton, he said that both men were residents of Highgate. Burns operated a garage and Gillette worked at a bakery. On March 17, during the course of the robbery, both men were not in the bank, the witness stated.
After hearing from further prosecution witnesses, the Crown closed its case. Morris and Gillette gave unsworn statements from the dock after the chief justice had overruled no-case submissions made on their behalf. Norma Linton had submitted that there was no case for Burns to answer and that if the Crown was operating on common design, the Crown must prove that Burns committed unlawful acts and the Crown had not proven that.
She said there was no evidence that Burns spoke to any of the men who committed the robbery or that anyone discussed robbery with Burns. Miss Linton said that Burns came into the picture only on March 17 when one of the prosecution witnesses went and called him.
The chief justice, in upholding her submissions, said there was not sufficient evidence upon which a reasonable jury could feel sure that Burns had participated in any robbery.
Morris, in his unsworn statement, said: "I did not rob any bank. I did not plan with no one to rob any bank at any time." Morris denied that the police held him with any 'Walkie Talkie' radio and said further, "I did not threaten no one."
Morris said that when the last statement was taken from him, a policeman told him that if he could say something in his statement to implicate Gillette, then he would free him. Morris said he told the policeman that he did not know anything about Gillette and he (Morris) was charged.
Gillette, in his statement, said his name was Terrence Lister St George Gillette and he was a part-time businessman. He said he helped his father in his business and he owned racehorses. He said that on March 16, 1982 he contacted one of the prosecution witnesses who agreed to take him to Caymanas Park. They went to Caymanas Park and after dealing with his trainer he decided to go to the home of the jockey. He said he and Morris would meet at the jockey's home the day before the race...
Gillette told the court that he next went to Arnett Gardens to meet Morris and the jockey. He said he and Morris owned one of the horses that was going to race the next day. On arrival at the house in Arnett Gardens, he and the witness went inside and he saw six men and one was the man who spoke to him at the traffic lights. He was going to put down the food when one of the men whom he later learnt was called Braba told him that he had a plan to discuss with him.
Gillette said he asked him what type of plan and Braba said he wanted to rob the bank at Highgate. Gillette said he told him that he would not be a part of any plan like that. Braba turned to him and said: "Listen to me man, you already part of this thing ya because yu know yu mother come a town regular and wi know whey she go." Gillette said Braba also said "and if you don't help, wi a go just kill her."
Gillette said Braba started to tell him what he required from him. He said he wanted his two 'Walkie Talkies' that he used to train his horses, some food for the men for the night, some petrol and two vehicles to watch on either side of the town. Braba asked whose car it was and the witness said it was his. The man said "then we now have one already". The witness complained that he did not want to be involved and Braba asked if the witness did not love his family.
While Braba and the men were talking, they issued threats and told him that he and the witness would not really be involved, they would only be watching at the other end of town for the police. Later in the night Braba told him he would be sending a man with him and they would follow behind in a car. A brown man came into the car and on their way to St Mary he (witness) was questioned by that man as to where he lived.
The brown man told the witness to stop at his gate when he reached and told him (Gillette) that when he reached his house he was to carry something that could easily be traced back to him. The brown man came out at Lewis Store and warned the witness and himself to proceed to Gillette's house because they were coming behind.
On reaching home, he went inside and took out the radios and a towel. When he gave Braba the things, he gave him back the towel and said it did not have on any mark. "Braba" said he wanted something with his name so that if he did not co-operate, he could leave it at the bank.
Gillette said: "I went back inside the house and I found a pillow case with my sister's name on it and I took that back to him and he accepted it." Braba asked him for the food and he went to the bakery where he collected bread and petrol. He said he went to a house where Braba said he would be staying. The witness told "Braba" that his wife and children would be fretting as he was used to going home at a certain time and "Braba" said he could go but he should remember Morris and himself were still "his possession". If there was any slip, they would kill them. The owner of the house told the witness to bring Burns in the morning because Burns always had a spare car at his garage.
The witness returned with Burns in the morning. Gillette said that Braba asked him to show him how to use the "Walkie Talkie," called them together and gave instructions that the witness should wait at the crossroads and he (Gillette) Burns and others at the Port Maria end of the town. Gillette said that on reaching the roundabout at Highgate they decided not to stop but to drive up to the Fraserwood Road where he met the witness. He came out of the van and went into the witness' car. He told witness it would be safe if they left and went to Caymanas Park.
Gillette said that on their way through a shortcut, he saw one of the men who was at the house and he told the witness to turn back and drive by way of Guys Hill. On reaching the square at Mongrave, the witness let him out to urinate and when he was through he went to the bar where witness was. They came out of the bar and a policeman asked him if one of his horses was trying on that day. Gillette said he was stepping off when he was accosted by another policeman and taken into custody.
He said on the morning of March 18, a prisoner whispered to him that if he mentioned Braba or Johnson's name, his mother would be killed. Gillette said when he was being questioned by the police, he tried not to mention the names of both men because he feared for his mother's life.
The jury, after retiring for about 30 minutes, returned not guilty verdicts in favour of Morris and Gillette, both in respect of murder and manslaughter. They were accordingly acquitted. After the acquittal, Velma Hylton submitted that she wished to have the indictment transferred to the High Court Division of the Gun Court. She said that the DPP would have to take a decision in regard to Burns, the third person named on the indictment, who had earlier been acquitted on a no-case submission put forward by his lawyer.
Objection was then taken by attorneys Howard Hamilton, who represented Gillette, and L H McLean, who represented Morris, to the indictment being sent to the Gun Court in light of what they said was the clear direction given to the jury dealing with the plan to rob.
The Chief Justice thereupon transferred the case and said this was not for him to decide and the attorneys could take up the matter before another court. The chief justice ordered that the two accused enter into new bail bonds in the sum of $50,000 each to appear before the Gun Court at a later date. The men were then each granted bail in the sum of $50,000.
Author's note: I thoroughly enjoyed writing this series and I felt gratified to learn that the material is now in the archives of the Supreme Court and was lapped up weekly by the Norman Manley Law School community, in addition to the numerous overseas researchers. Special thanks to the living relatives of family members whose lives featured in these dramatic events. But even more so, to my loyal readers who kept me going from week to week. - Sybil E Hibbert