Santa Cruz, St Elizabeth — They are a source of relaxation and light entertainment for many people at bars and gambling halls across Jamaica.
But police say gaming equipment popularly referred to as poker boxes are also a growing target for criminals desperate to earn in Jamaica’s tightening economic environment.
“Poker boxes are expensive, so once you [business operators] have them, they [criminals] going to come,” Superintendent Dwight Daley, head of the St Elizabeth police told the Jamaica Observer by telephone late last week.
Daley said upscale gaming boxes including those with touch screen technology are worth as much as $500,000 each and are much in demand, while older versions can be sold for up to $300,000.
Daley is urging the authorities as well as gaming operators to “engage technology” by attaching tracking devices — similar to those used on motor cars — to their poker boxes and other equipment. He suggested technological methodologies which would mean that “once it moves from the location it sends an alert to your phone”.
Said the St Elizabeth police chief: “If businesses think along those lines and engage in that sort of [protective] activity, I am sure we would be better able to track these people.”
Poker boxes were said to be the main target of criminals who broke into a bar in the Hampton area of traditionally low-crime Malvern, atop the Santa Cruz Mountains, in the early hours of Wednesday, April 13.
The criminals also allegedly stole assorted, expensive liquor and musical equipment, and reportedly raped the bartender who was staying on the premises.
Worst was to follow, as the fleeing, heavily armed criminals, who found their escape plans disrupted as daylight broke, shot dead two residents, a construction worker, 37-year-old Mickel James, and 51 year-old farmer Courtney Smith.
James was said to have been among a group of angry people chasing the hoodlums, while Smith, who was headed for his farm presumably unaware of danger, was apparently mistaken by his killers as one of their pursuers.
With the assistance of residents, police later cornered the alleged getaway vehicle and held the driver, 37-year-old farmer, Carlos Beckford of Brompton, western St Elizabeth.
Beckford was reportedly intercepted on a little-used road which links Malvern to Mountainside and other Pedro Plains communities, close to Ivor Cottage, which is about two miles downslope from Malvern.
A remote, blissfully quiet farming community, Ivor Cottage clings to the southern slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, just above the farm-rich Pedro Plains which rolls away to the Caribbean Sea and St Elizabeth’s capital Black River, several miles away.
Police are still hunting for four men who escaped into bushes when the car was intercepted. Residents told the Observer that the men initially fled on foot through bushes after failing to connect with their getaway car as dawn broke. It was during that time that Smith and James were murdered.
The killers eventually linked up with their getaway vehicle, just west of Malvern, residents say.
A few days after his capture, Beckford was formally charged with murder and related offences. He is now before the court.
Police say stolen poker boxes were found abandoned in bushes. Smith’s cellphone was said to be among the items found in the captured getaway car.
Daley told the Observer that the criminals were believed to be part of a network focusing on the theft of poker boxes. The criminal group operated from communities in western St Elizabeth, including Brompton, Spring Park, and Speculation.
An operation in those communities uncovered disassembled poker boxes hidden in bushes, Daley said. However, efforts to find men suspected of being involved failed. “They seem to have fled the area,” Daley said.
Citizens who believe they have useful information about the fugitives are being urged to tell the police by using police emergency numbers or contacting officers who they know and trust.
Residents and police appear to be agreed that the criminals who targeted Malvern on April 13 had been “checking out” the area for some time. “They were there playing the boxes two or three days before,” Daley said.
Residents who spoke to the Observer concurred. However, locals apparently paid little or no attention to the strangers in their midst.
It’s an attitude Daley is anxious to change. “When you see suspicious men, tell the police,” said Daley.
And, in addition to placing tracking devices on expensive equipment such as poker boxes, business operators should invest in surveillance cameras, he said. “When something happens, make sure those cameras are not erased,” he added.
Residents insist that, in living memory, nothing quite like the events of April 13 has ever happened in Malvern, where crime is usually confined to farm/livestock theft and rare cases of shop-breaking.
“This was a one-off,” said 68 year-old retail store operator Owen Mills, who was born and grew up in the community.
However, police say the Malvern incidents reflect a worrying uptick in violent crimes across St Elizabeth, with 15 murders since the start of the year up to last Thursday, compared to nine for the same period last year.
Deputy Superintendent Rohan Elliott, who leads criminal investigations in this south-central parish, told journalists, following the monthly meeting of the St Elizabeth Municipal Corporation on April 14, that in a 72-hour period up to then, several murders, including those in Malvern had happened across the parish. He listed lotto scamming, land disputes, and a drug deal gone sour, among the motives.
Daley told the Observer last week that apart from shop break-ins and robbery, such as happened in Malvern, lottery scamming represented a major worry and was a source reason for a number of murders.
“St Elizabeth is suffering from scamming, as is the case with other parishes,” Daley said.
He said the police were working closely with the Financial Investigations Division (FID) “as we seek to take profit out of crime. We have a dedicated team known as the Proactive Investigations Unit and they are tasked to investigate lottery scammers...” Daley said.
While grateful for assistance from citizens, Daley cautioned that people should not take matters into their own hands as happened in Malvern with tragic results.
He said the St Elizabeth police was actively involved in visiting communities, meeting locals in groups and urging that the best way to assist law and order is to exercise vigilance and to constantly inform the police of happenings in an accurate and timely fashion.
While community action such as neighbourhood watch programmes had the potential to be of great help, Daley regretted that in some cases such groups had grown dormant. Many people were reluctant to exercise the required discipline, such as keeping minutes (record-keeping) as part of keeping formal community groups accountable and well run, he said.
“Many people just prefer to be informal,” he said.
The need for community vigilance was emphasised by councillors, including Donald Simpson (Jamaica Labour Party [JLP], Malvern Division), Cetany Holness (JLP, Junction Division), and Layton Smith (People’s National Party, Myersville Division), during discussions with journalists following the April monthly meeting of the St Elizabeth Municipal Corporation.
All three felt the organisation of neighbourhood watch programmes would be of great help.
Smith said the situation was of particular concern in Myersville, where cattle stealing had become increasingly prevalent. Thirteen cows had been stolen in the first two weeks of April, he said.
“Citizens have to start looking out for each other and report some of the strange things happening in their area because police alone can’t do it. My advice to people in my area, look out at nights, particularly, organise your own neighbourhood watches... We have to find some ways and means like doing [watch] rotations ...” Smith said.
However, for deep rural communities, such suggestions are far more easily spoken about than implemented.
In Ivor Cottage last week, a group of young farmers laughed when asked how best they felt they could help the police in protecting their community.
“But wi nuh have no gun,” one man eventually responded, still laughing.