So close to death in volatile Tawes Pen
‘We want $1.5 million from Butch Stewart fi let you go,’ gangsters demand
IT was just over a week after feared One Order gang leader Oliver 'Bubba' Smith had been cut down at Festival Road in St Andrew in July 2004.
Smith was shot in the head with a high-powered rifle late one evening and I along with two other colleagues (one now deceased, himself a victim of the gun) rushed to the scene.
While at the scene I did not know who the victim was, even though well-known cop at the time deputy Superintendent Cornwall "Bigga" Ford had allowed us a peek at the dead man's face.
It was only after another cop on the scene whom I knew for some time silently informed me that the dead man was in fact Oliver 'Bubba' Smith, the leader of the notorious One Order gang.
During Bubba's reign of terror he was at odds with his opposite number and leader of the rival Klansman Gang, Donovan 'Bulbie' Bennett.
In the early 2000s the old capital of Spanish Town was under the gun.
In 2003 alone, 130 murders were committed in the historic town as both gangs battled for extortion rights.
It was in that setting that Bubba lost his life and in the immediate aftermath of his death I was given information that persons residing in Tawes Pen, said to be the headquarters of the One Order Gang, were willing to tell their side of the story as they were being painted in a bad light by the police and the media.
I was instructed not to come with the police or the people would not speak openly.
My contact gave me a number for an individual who would meet me on Wellington Street and guide me inside Tawes Pen to speak to the people on the ground.
I am always hungry for the story but with my experience of covering crime and the viciousness of the gunmen in Spanish Town, I was a bit apprehensive.
However, after consulting with my senior editors in the newsroom I decided to take the gamble.
So off we went - photo editor Michael Gordon, driver Llewellyn Forest and myself.
While on the way to Spanish Town we ran into a TVJ news team consisting of ace cameraman Oral Napier and anchor Kerry-Ann Lee.
Napier and myself had formed a bond and we usually shared information, as he would call me when I was absent from a crime scene and I would reciprocate.
So when he asked me where I was headed, I was obliged to give him the information and he gladly joined the train.
I honestly felt a bit relieved, as at least I had company and the fearless Napier at that.
Upon reaching the Number 5 cemetery I called the number and a male voice answered and told me to park in front of Ellerslie Pen, which is opposite Tawes Pen, and wait.
After about five minutes a group of men came out of Ellerslie Pen and approached the news team.
I was soon to realise that the man who had answered the phone was the heir apparent to Bubba, Andrew 'Bun Man' Hope. With him was a muscular man whose nickname was 'Tickarus'.
I had known Tickarus before, as I had visited the outskirts of Ellerslie Pen after the police had fatally shot a man and he was most vocal in condemning the act.
I had gone across to him and asked him to explain his side of the story and soon we began chatting casually. Seeing that he had cooled down, I used the opportunity to ask him if there were any bright teenagers in Ellerslie Pen who were excelling in school despite their poverty-stricken lives.
He answered in the affirmative and invited me to visit the community when things had cooled off.
We nodded to each other before Hope instructed us to drive into Tawes Pen. We slowly drove in and pulled up at a spot that appeared to be in the centre of the massive garrison.
Soon, community members, including the sister and mother of Smith, gathered around and started to speak to us candidly.
All seemed to be going fine and I literally began to let my hair down as at the time I wore locks.
But after about half an hour, things began to go awry.
A white car with four men on board drove up and immediately started to bad mouth the Observer.
It happened that a few days before, a sign was posted on a Hardware store close to the Dovecot Memorial Gardens demanding extortion money. The sign was signed by someone claiming to be part of the One Order gang.
An Observer team had gone to cover the story and a photographer had shot a picture of a cop searching a young man who had arrived in a vehicle being driven by a rastafarian who claimed to lived in Tawes Pen and denied that the One Order gang had anything to do with the letter.
The photograph appeared on the front page a day before our visit and the men were incensed that an elder of the community was being painted as a gangster.
The rastafarian, whom I later became friends with, was called 'Father'.
The men were clearly agitated and seemed to want blood.
"We nuh want dem Observer man yah bout yah you know. Look how them put Father pan the front page like him a gangster. Unu fi lef bout yah!," a tall brown man said as he felt his waistband.
Then the men's attention turned to me. They started circling me like a pack of hyenas and one was even bold enough to let me feel that he was packing a gun.
"All da rasta one yah. If matches stick light a Spanish Town him reach yah. Hey boy we a go kidnap you and put you inna di cage. We want $1.5 million from Butch Stewart fi let you go. You look like you a good reporter so him wi pay di money," the tall man said menacingly.
All this time Hope seemed all unconcerned as he sat metres away reading a tabloid.
My heart raced. I was the father of two young girls and certainly this could not be the time to die. I wanted to see them past the worst. They were the apples of my eye. How would I escape this? What could I do?
I began to survey the area and my heart sunk when I realised I was in the belly of the beast and it would be madness to make a dash for it.
I tried my best to appear calm and took a cigarette from my pocket, lit up, took a long drag and exhaled.
All this time I was thinking up an escape strategy.
I looked into Kerry-Ann Lee's eyes and saw genuine concern.
Michael Gordon seemed to appear unconcerned and was snapping away but inside I knew his style. He was also thinking up a strategy.
But the men were not letting up.
I looked across at Hope again and saw a hint of concern in Tickarus' eyes.
He slowly moved towards Hope and mumbled something in his ears.
At that moment the tall man mentioned $1.5 million again and the light bulb lit up in my head.
"$1.5 million brethren? A just dat you value me for? Better you say five million, gimme one and share up the rest. $1.5 million?" I said bravely through a wry smile.
It seemed to have done the trick.
The men lightened up and one chuckled and said "Rastaman you a joke out you life you know."
At that point Hope looked up and calmed the situation down.
"We can't do the media nutten. Too much heat deh pan we already. Dat going bring down more heat," he said in his usual soft tone.
I put on a brave face outside but internally I was trembling like a badly tuned truck.
It was after Hope's edict that Forest started to declare that he was born in Tawes Pen and reminded the tall man that he knew him for years.
The tall man also knew Gordon and both exchanged pleasantries as if nothing happened.
"Me know you and you know me," Gordon said.
"Yes big man me know you," the tall man replied.
"Then you woulda really do that to me brethren?"
The man looked way and did not reply.
Two men, barely out of their teens, then came across to me and said "Ras come yah."
They escorted me some distance away from the scene close to a mural of 'Bubba.'
'Ras you lucky nuh B.....," one of them said.
I nodded in approval and hastily returned to the spot where the news crews were gathered.
I was dying to make an exit but did not want to appear like a coward so I waited for about 20 minutes before giving the eye signal to Gordon and Napier that it was time to go.
Naturally, we beat a hasty retreat.
I was in no mood to return to the office and both crews went to a watering hole situated on the outskirts of Spanish Town to soothe my still trembling mind and body.
Eventually, Hope and Tickarus would both be killed in the ongoing feud between both gangs.
Tickarus was killed after gunmen fired on a vehicle in which Hope and Member of Parliament for Central St Catherine Olivia 'Babsy' Grange were travelling in after they attended a peace meeting.
Hope was gunned down while in his car months later.
I have made numerous visits to Tawes Pen and Elleslie Pen since and I have been accepted and treated with respect.
To this day, I still think it was Tickarus who saved my life.
Karyl Walker is Editor of the Crime and Court Desk at the Jamaica Observer.