Ken Chaplin's close call with gunshots, ganja and a hostile crowd

Ken Chaplin's close call with gunshots, ganja and a hostile crowd

Former press secretary recounts his life with several dangerous encounters


Sunday, August 04, 2019

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This is a reprint of an article in the series 'Death Postponed' which focused on the late former FIFA referee, Jamaica Observer columnist and former press secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister, Ken Chaplin, who died last Tuesday at age 89. The article was first carried in the Sunday Observer of April 29, 2012

THERE was more than the smell of ganja in the air during a 1970s afternoon clash of then perennial foes Tivoli Gardens and Boys' Town. For Kenneth Adolphus “Ken” Chaplin, the officiating referee, there was the threat of death.

Chaplin, now 81, laughed heartily as he recalled the incident for the Jamaica Observer recently, but the events of that fateful day were far from funny.

The newspaper columnist, retired civil servant, and press secretary for four prime ministers recalled that this was just one of a handful of close shaves in his life, as he recounted how thousands of spectators invaded the field at Boys' Town's football ground on Collie Smith Drive in the heart of Wilton Gardens (Rema) in South St Andrew that day.

“When I arrived at the grounds, spectators were already encroaching on the field of play. I had my reservations as to whether I should start the match at all. Locksley Comrie (former Jamaica Football Federation president) of Boys' Town said that while most of the people had paid to watch the match, some had not, but he urged me to start the match anyway.

“I told him that I couldn't start the match under this condition, that he had to get the people off the field,” said Chaplin.

But this would mean refunding the admission fees and Comrie wasn't sure who had paid and who had beat the gate.

“I told him that I would go ahead, against my better judgment, because I knew that they would come back on to the field when the match started. There weren't sufficient barriers, only one strand of rope to keep them back. As soon as the match started, they came back onto the field, to the extent that I couldn't see one of my linesmen, Icar Lawrence (former Kingston College and Jamaica footballer),” stated Chaplin, who writes an opinion column for the Sunday Observer.

Soon, the dreaded moment arrived, and the next few minutes would leave the veteran referee perspiring profusely, even though there was not much football action.

“A goal was scored by Tivoli and I didn't see it because of the crowd. Icar couldn't see it either, because the crowd was in front of him. I ran over to Icar but he couldn't help me. I eventually gave a goal and the crowd invaded the field because there was no crowd-control mechanism,” Chaplin recounted.

“One man came up from behind me with a beer bottle in his hand and he said in a course voice, 'Ref, dat a goal'. Right after as I turned around, another man had an object in his hand and was smoking a ganja spliff. He walked up to me and shouted out: 'Ref, dat a nuh goal', and he blew the ganja smoke in my face. The puff was so heavy that it almost knocked me out.

“I thought that that was it for me; that I was about to see my Maker. At the same time, a fight started between Tivoli and Boys' Town supporters and I didn't wait to see what started the fight. I should have blown off the match, but I couldn't at the time because it would bring attention to the referees. So, I disappeared from the field into the referees' dressing room and watched from there while the two groups of spectators struggled.

“I feared for my life. I felt they were going to turn on me but I got off the field before,” said Chaplin.

As the smoke cleared later in the afternoon, the referee and his team left the grounds without harm. The two policemen, who had been on duty to keep things under control, mysteriously disappeared shortly after a majority of the over 3,000 spectators got into skirmishes and bloody battles. Law enforcers confirmed reports that several shots were also fired at the grounds.

The Kingston and St Andrew Football Association later replayed the match without spectators at a neutral venue — Up Park Camp.

“All the officials of the teams were missing,” Chaplin said. “We had to wait until most of the crowd had left before we could move out.”

Chaplin — who was a referee for 37 years, 18 of them as a Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) official — was undaunted by the incident and went on to officiate in over 500 matches.

Subsequent to that, Chaplin was threatened with violent death by former Trench Town Comprehensive, Boys' Town and Jamaica forward Devon “Roots” Lewis after a Manning Cup match. Ironically, Lewis was the one who died violently many years after, and Chaplin was one of the pall-bearers at the funeral.

“Devon Lewis was one of the most promising footballers who I had seen; he was one of the best youngsters I had seen in the game at that time. I did a Manning Cup match with Trench Town and Wolmer's and gave a free kick to Wolmer's in the Trench Town half. Trench Town were organising their defence and stopping the game so that the defence could be placed in position, which was wrong, according to FIFA rules, because you were taking away the advantage from the team against which the offence was committed.

“I blew quickly for the kick to be taken and Trench Town were still organising their defence and a goal was scored. After the game, Devon came up to me angrily and said, 'Ref, I am going to take care of you'.”

Over the life of his career the former executive director and later, executive chairman of the Government's news agency, Jampress, was no stranger to football controversy. This was proven by his string of tales which began soon after he started blowing whistles in 1953.

It was he who dismissed three players from top English team Chelsea and two from the Jamaica team — captain Frank Brown and forward Lascelles “Dallas” Dunkley — when both teams met in a friendly at the National Stadium in 1966. The match ended prematurely after bottles were thrown onto the field following a round of rough play, and Chaplin and his team of referees had to be escorted off by police. He believes that it was due to a political issue that involved Jamaica and Britain which caused tensions to rise.

“At that time, Britain was moving to impose immigration restrictions on Jamaica and other Caribbean countries and that got the crowd angry. So the spectators came there with a feeling of hostility against the English players and I was caught in it. Luckily, I got out without any injury,” he told the Sunday Observer.

But it was in the Central American nation of Guatemala where Chaplin felt most fearful. Initially selected to officiate a match between Haiti and Guatemala during the 1970s, Chaplin was brushed aside by the Guatemalans, who did not send him an airline ticket for the travel and instead arranged to have another referee officiate. However, FIFA heard of the Guatemalan plan and reappointed Chaplin to do the match, which ended 1-1.

“As I arrived at my hotel in Guatemala City I got a note saying, 'Chaplin, reports say that you favour the Haitians'. That made me very afraid and I did the match under great stress, as I was refereeing under fear. In the end, the FIFA inspector gave me a good report that the match was flawless,” said the former two-term president of the Jamaica Football Referees Association and FIFA honoree.

Chaplin, who also served as secretary of the Press Association of Jamaica for several years, came under fire from left wing political groups and individuals after a resolution, moved by socialist state Cuba during a press meeting in Mexico that would have put pressure on then Opposition Leader Edward Seaga, was defeated.

“As secretary of the Press Association of Jamaica, I led a Jamaica delegation to Mexico City (for the First Congress of the Latin American Federation of Journalists) in June 1976 that included (then Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation, western bureau chief, now Observer opinion editor) Gloria Maragh, who served also as translator, and Ben Brodie. Cuba moved a resolution that Seaga and the JLP were creating violence so that Manley would not win the 1976 election.

“Now, as head of the Editorial Department at JIS, it placed me in a very ticklish position, so I spoke to say there was no hard evidence to support that resolution. The resolution was defeated. When I returned home, I came back under fire. People in the JIS and in the prime minister's office, mainly the leftists, raised one hell of a campaign and made all sorts of accusations. That was the worst experience I have ever had in my professional life; the verbal abuse and the verbal attacks were fierce.

In the midst of it all, Chaplin was replaced as head of the editorial division at the JIS by Elaine Thomas, and was reassigned the post of chief public relations officer, below Director of Public Relations George Lee, who served as Portmore mayor.

“Ralston Smith was head of the JIS at the time. It caused me a lot of stress. People could have attacked me and killed me and said that I was a political activist. Things cooled for a while when I became Manley's press secretary, and after the 1980 election I was put back as divisional head,” said Chaplin.

Interestingly, it was Chaplin who got the job as chief media coordinator in 1977 when Cuba's Fidel Castro visited.

Stretching his legs across political lines as press secretary to prime ministers Hugh Shearer, Michael Manley, Edward Seaga, and P J Patterson, Chaplin was key in the aim to maintain peace in Corporate Area communities, mainly during the 1970s and 1980s, even at times when anarchy threatened to gnaw into the fabric of official authority.

As a member of Manley's Peace Advisory Council, he worked with gang leaders in the Corporate Area to try and establish a lasting peace to. He had to visit their communities, know their territories and hold meetings.

“That was challenging. I felt fearful at times. I had a firearm then and whenever I was going to visit the men in the communities, I had to leave the firearm at a police station. I felt that they would have held me up and taken it away, so you can't take the chance,” said Chaplin, who served as director of communication of the Jamaica Constabulary Force before taking the job as Manley's press secretary.

“You had some terrible gunmen who were supporting the peace movement, but what I found with them is if you showed them respect, they would in turn respect you, which is a central element of community relations,” he said.

Among the noted gangsters with whom Chaplin met were “Biah” Mitchell and Claudius Massop of West Kingston, who were both killed violently, and Aston 'Bucky' Marshall of the Matthews Lane area, who was shot dead in the United States.

“I have lived dangerously, but somehow I survived,” the elderly gentleman said nostalgically.

Amid his many bruises, Chaplin has several decorations, including the Order of Distinction (Officer and Commander classes), as well as PAJ and JFF awards.

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