Trinidad Prosecutor Dana Seetahal's Gangland Murder Goes Unpunished
The night of May 3, 2014, in the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, federal prosecutor Dana Seetahal sat before a slot machine.
Gambling was her favorite form of relaxation and one of her only hobbies. Her law enforcement career had left her little time for much else, and the brainless churn of numbers on the screen was an effective stress reliever. Seetahal was a regular customer at the Ma Pau Casino, which is tucked into a row of bars and restaurants in the middle-class Woodbrook neighborhood of the city of Port of Spain.
The interior was pleasantly lit in soft tones of orange and blue, machines dinged and donged, and a security guard stood by to make sure no nonmembers got through the door. Seetahal likely consumed some alcohol while she played, as was her habit. A friend of hers, Wesley Gibbings, had once seen her on the street outside the Ma Pau smoking a cigarette and swaying from side to side, visibly tipsy. This view of her surprised him – Seetahal was usually tightly in control of herself.
Security video shows her leaving the casino shortly before midnight. She climbed into her Volkswagen Touareg SUV and headed onto Wrightson Road, circled a roundabout with a billboard in the middle advertising Colcafé coffee, and turned right onto the quiet residential street Hamilton-Holder Road. This was her favored route home to the fortified skyscraper called One Woodbrook Place, where she had her apartment.
Seetahal was 58 years old and unmarried. She never discussed her romantic life in public, which was kept a mystery even to some of her close friends. Most assumed she was bisexual or closeted but chose not to say anything for fear of prejudicing the trials she routinely attempted to win. Trinidad and Tobago is a famously gossip-happy nation – the local habit of exchanging intrigue is known by the slang name movelang, a French Creole term meaning literally "bad tongue" but understood to stand for "scandal without evidence" – and it had been a major accomplishment for Seetahal to largely avoid this kind of banter, even though she was a local law enforcement celebrity and had written a column about legal affairs for the Trinidad newspaper the Guardian.
She had the gift of making each of her friends feel like her closest confidant, even if they weren't. But nobody knew the whole person. "Almost everyone she was close to felt like they were her special person," said her friend Darren Bahaw. "It was my Dana, and it was your Dana. She made time for everyone."
May 3 turned to May 4 during her brief drive, which was interrupted when a Nissan Wingroad suddenly roared in front of her and hit the brakes. Seetahal had to brake to avoid rear-ending it. The spot was in front of the Woodbrook Youth Facility, a complex of gray buildings that features a basketball court and a soccer field.
A panel van pulled alongside Seetahal's Volkswagen, and a team of men piled out. They carried pistols.
Seetahal died in the ensuing fusillade of gunfire. Investigators later determined she had been shot five times – twice in the head, twice in the right forearm she raised to protect herself, and once in the chest. In all, fifteen rounds had been fired. The muzzles had been pointed close enough to her face to leave visible gunshot residue.
Murder was a nightly event in Port of Spain, but usually limited to desperate neighborhoods such as Laventille and Beetham Gardens, where local gangs allied with smugglers tried to bully and murder themselves into better positions. Trinidad was averaging about 400 murders a year, and most of those went unsolved. But the mayhem didn't usually spill onto the better streets of Port of Spain.
Professional, Mafia-style hits such as the one that took Seetahal's life were almost unknown – the local method of homicide was much more disorganized and unpolished. This was something entirely different, and entirely terrifying, directed against a famous prosecutor.
The news spread immediately around town, even to Miami and neighboring Caribbean countries for whom Trinidad and Tobago had once served as a model of order and prosperity. "Why did this happen? was the question everyone was asking," the Jamaica Observer reported the next day. "It was the first assassination of a senior member of the criminal justice system, a major blow which threatens to reverberate throughout the system and strike it at its very heart."
Many compared the gaudy slaying to a local version of the JFK assassination: an attack not only on a beloved local authority figure but also on the integrity of the system itself. Trinidad had been slipping further each year into a spiral of violence, ever since transnational drug gangs had figured out it was easy to ship bulk cocaine in from Venezuela or Colombia, break it into parcels at safe houses, and then send it onward to the United States or Europe. Hers became Trinidad and Tobago's 170th slaying to be reported that year – a dizzyingly high number for a relatively small country, which now had a murder rate 20 times that of France. And it was only spring.
"Every single Trinidadian thought we had crossed a threshold," recalls Dion Abdool, the vice chair of the Trinidad and Tobago Transparency Institute, a corruption watchdog. "Everyone had the same idea that next morning: We had gone beyond what is expected of a civilized country."
Police were careful not to speculate publicly about suspects, but immediately they had theories. The killing had to have been pulled off by drug traffickers from South America, probably not native to the country. Nobody else would have had the expertise or the determination.
Top prosecutor Dana Seetahal's murder transfixed the nation.
Photo by Maryann E. Auguste/AELL Photos
Port of Spain is a waterfront city on swampy lowlands with partial views of the harbor, a mesh of undistinguished five-story concrete buildings in the retail heart of downtown, a massive open field called Queens Park Savannah, and a few gently crumbling churches from Spanish and British colonial times. It's just 500 miles from Caracas and about the same distance from Miami as New York. Tens of thousands of Trinis have fled to South Florida over the years.
To the south of the capital is the notorious slum quarter Laventille, which a police spokesman described as a "labyrinth, a mini-Vietnam," and where closed-circuit cameras mounted on poles are usually gone within hours, either stolen or thrown in the trash. The businessmen of the neighborhood prefer no prying eyes.
The steel-pan style of Caribbean music was said to have been invented in Laventille in 1937 after locals made their own percussion instruments out of oil drums and frying pans (a highly sanitized version of it is played poolside at the Hilton on Lady Young Road).
A theater of violence plays out within Laventille on a nightly basis, and it is there that investigators suspect the drug gangs from outside the nation took root and found allies before they rose up and outward into the better section of town to kill Dana Seetahal.
No prosecutor works very long without developing a portfolio of angry criminals who desire revenge, and Seetahal had tried the highest-profile federal cases of the nation. Her record was a gusher of leads; her entire career was scrutinized. Seetahal had a bafflingly vast array of potential enemies. But one case in particular jumped out, and it was one of the first mentioned by those who knew her.
In December 2013, agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection were conducting random x-rays of containers coming into the port at Norfolk, Virgina, when they detected suspicious patterns emanating from a 20-foot shipping container full of cans of orange juice. Investigators opened the cans individually, and, inside many of them, found a strange mix of orange juice and white powder pressed into cylindrical molds. "This was a very unique concealment effort," a Homeland Security agent said. When all of the cocaine was weighed and assayed, it came to 732 pounds. The American street value was about $100 million.
The juice was "Trinidad" brand, and it had been canned in a warehouse outside of Port of Spain owned by the larger local beverage-maker on the island, SM Jaleel & Co. Ltd. The company immediately took out ads in newspapers denying involvement.
"Given that SM Jaleel ships over 6,000 containers per year, along with the unblemished reputation around the world for over 30 years, SM Jaleel is a natural target," the ads reads. Another statement said, defensively, "It has become common knowledge that the criminals involved in drug trafficking have been using mechanisms to transport cocaine, inclusive of items such as fruit, car parts, lumber, hardware, and various others. It now appears that someone may be trying to utilize our company's product in this regard."
The company had even more reason to be under the microscope. The previous month, a Royal Navy sailor had died in London after drinking one of the company's cans of Pear-D soda. An analysis revealed the can was full of liquefied cocaine.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents flew to Trinidad to investigate but could find no further evidence tying Jaleel to the Norfolk shipment. "From captain to cook, they will all be taken down," the Trinidad's bluster-prone national security administrator, Gary Griffith, promised the local newspaper Express, which also reported that a top political financier was a suspect along with five associates.
But many observers thought the locals were only useful dupes for foreign interests.
"The entire modus operandi smelled of Mexican cartels," said Darius Figueria, a research professor at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad's top educational institution. "The
Dana Seetehal was working on this case in partnership with the U.S. DEA when she was killed. Figueria thought the connection was plain. "Would an ordinary gangbanger on the streets have the means or the access to do this?" he asked. "If you're a Mexican drug lord and you want to send a message as to who has the potency, this is the way to do it."
Nearly everyone in Trinidad and Tobago suspected a certain amount of government involvement with the Seetahal murder. What came as a surprise was how banal – and even obvious – the involvement would turn out to be.
Susan François at her sister Dana Seetahal’s memorial service.
Photo by Maryann E. Auguste/AELL Photos
Within the politics of a multiracial society like Trinidad and Tobago, the strategy of direct confrontation with criminals rarely works. The accommodationist style is the preferred choice, and it has been a matter of government policy for years. The government makes peace with the criminal gangs in Laventille by buying them off through public works projects and especially by putting the kingpins in charge of the construction budgets.
"The euphemism for them is 'community leaders,' " explained Judy Raymond, the droll editor-in-chief of the Guardian. "But they are really thugs."
One of them was Anton Boney, a charismatic 30-year-old whom everyone called "Boombay." He was arrested in 2014 and charged with murder, among other crimes, the result of an ongoing war in Laventille. The story goes that he had a favorite horse, a kind of mascot, that was allowed to graze freely in a lot at a major intersection. But the horse was conspicuously kidnapped after Boney was taken to jail – a sign to the neighborhood his reign was over.
He defended himself as a philanthropist in an interview with journalist Mark Bassant. "Most people might strive to make something of themselves and move out, but I choose to stay and help the people along and give something back to the community," he said. Indeed, he was a frequent winner of government building contracts and was said to have even employed uniformed police officers.
"I have never met a 'community leader' who was not in some way involved in some sort of shady operation," said Darius Figueria, the University of the West Indies crime researcher. "The police and the media anoint these people as leaders without understanding the nature of what is underneath them. This is why this drug trade flourishes."
In a Guardian column a decade before her death, "Organised Crime Is Here," Dana Seetahal had railed against the practice. "How do we take back our lives and our country from these Mafia-like elements?" she asked. "For years we have vacillated and buried our heads in the sand... The security forces will be undermined in attempting to control organised crime and its fallout as long as politicians continue to consort with gangsters of all descriptions – and known criminals are elevated to the status of 'community leaders.' "
After her murder, however, police official Wayne Myster lamented that the system was in place to stay: "They get the government's money, and some goes to buy guns and some to the maintenance of the criminal syndicate. And if the payments stop, we see an upsurge in killings. So the government is trapped."
One of the most public examples of legalized bribery to gangs involved Life Sport, a group that sought to channel the energies of would-be young criminals into soccer, cricket, and basketball games played in public venues. The origins of its name – which sounds better suited to an energy beverage than a nonprofit – are shrouded in mystery, as were its finances. The group somehow won a $4.5 million contract to help, as its organizers put it, "the dregs of society" pull themselves up from poverty. It was not widely disclosed at the time that one of the prime beneficiaries of Life Sport was the group Jamaat al Muslimeen – translated as "Group of Muslims" – which had once tried to overthrow the government in a disastrous coup attempt a quarter-century ago.
On July 27, 1990, the group had stormed into Red House – the scarlet-colored seat of the national parliament – and held the prime minister and most of the cabinet hostage. Somebody set the main police station on St. Vincent Street on fire, and cops scattered, leaving prisoners in holding cells for dead. Other downtown buildings were also set ablaze. The group's leader, a former policeman named Abu Bakr, called for calm. The government TV channel, meanwhile, broadcast The Little Mermaid while the capital burned.
Negotiators secured a surrender with one condition: a guarantee of amnesty, made in writing. The government immediately reneged and tried to execute Bakr and his inner circle. But a judge upheld the agreement, and nobody was ever prosecuted. Bakr even filed for damages to his mosque. And true to the government's strategy of buying off its enemies, politicians were soon courting the Jamaat al Muslimeen for votes in the next election cycle.
"That coup affected the nation, the society as a whole, physically, psychologically, and otherwise," Police Inspector Roger Alexander told Danny Gold of Vice Media. "It showed the weakness, and when weakness is exposed, many people take advantage."
Now the Jamaat al Muslimeen had a stake in the giant Life Sport contract, which mushroomed to $17.5 million within a year before a 2014 audit revealed a bonanza of rip-offs. One company asked for $1.3 million in public money for "videotaping." Another company, Dustbin Divers Maintenance, invoiced $17,000 for a single day of what it called "transportation." A third charged $600 to polish some refrigerators in the office. The program was said to have been stuffed with local beneficiaries with curious names such as "Kanye West" and "Michael Jackson." Trinidad's papers burst with news about the scandal, and there were calls for resignations and firings.
The embattled minister of sport, Anil Roberts, was the target of special public scorn over Life Sport. He had recently earned the nickname "Two Pull" for an embarrassing episode unrelated to the scandal. Somebody gave the TV6 television station a video showing a bald-headed man ("closely resembling" Roberts, as the newspapers put it) in a hotel room, rolling what looked like a marijuana joint in the company of two attractive women.
Soon after, Curtis "Tallman" Gibson, a bodyguard for the deputy director of physical education at the Ministry of Sport, was shot to death as he lay in his bed. His boss disappeared into a government protection program as threats were issued against other officials.
The government's dangerous financial compromise with gangs was more than just a sideshow to the assassination of a prosecutor. The two would turn out to be entangled in a startling way, though nobody put the pieces together at first.
Abu Bakr led an insurrection in Trinidad and got away with it.
Photo by Andrea De Silva/Reuters/Newscom
While the Life Sport debacle was standard corruption du jour and an easy subject for national snickering, Trinidad's large journalistic class didn't quite know what to do with the Seetahal murder, even though it was arguably the story of the decade.
An explosion of chatter – the famous "bad tongue" of movelang – usually erupts in times of public unease. It is a spoken form of the calypso songs that sugar plantation slaves used to sing about their masters. The subversive style of passing along information still influences the local style of conversation, which tends to be drenched in half-fact and innuendo. Speaking in "calypsonian" is a way to start a conversation – or a rumor – without saying something explicitly.
But even the reliable street calypso was barely breathing when it came to the subject of Dana Seetahal. Corruption like Life Sport was easy and fun; this was hard.
Police stopped giving interviews after the first week. They were said to be studying the closed-circuit camera footage from the Ma Pau Casino and perhaps the cell-phone video of a witness to determine if anyone followed her out of the parking lot. But the results were never disclosed. Neither was the evidence – if any – gathered from a wiretapping of some local criminals.
The newspapers were left to write only vague and empty updates about the "ongoing investigation," with very little independent
"This was clearly not a crime of passion," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield told the Guardian. "It was not a crime of opportunity where someone felt they should steal her handbag and then found they had to shoot her. This was a well-planned and orchestrated hit. This is not something you plan easily. It is organized crime with an international player that has a crime organization with presence in Trinidad and Tobago."
At one point, the acting police commissioner, Stephen Williams, implored the media to stop publicizing a count of the days that had passed since the murder. "She was close to me, so it was painful to me as a person who is not even a relative, so I wonder if you gave any consideration to the issue of the family?" he said after the hundredth day.
"Solving the crime means covering all the levels," Williams said a few weeks later in an interview in his private conference room. "This is a top-priority investigation, and we have taken a decisive approach. We want results over rumors."
He acknowledged the investigation was "heavily technology-based" and was being conducted in partnership with various U.S. agencies, which he declined to identify. "We're dealing with CCTV and telephonic communications," he said. Beyond that, he revealed nothing.
At first, the Life Sport scandal seemed just another mordant joke on Trinidadian society, a subject of amused calypso and a blatant piece of shameless incongruity, like official payments to gangsters to build a police station, or an insurrectionist leader demanding compensation for his damaged mosque.
Then came the news in late July 2015 that 11 men associated with Life Sport had been arrested and charged with Seetahal's murder. Among the biggest names was Rajaee Ali, the 29-year-old former coordinator of the program in the town of Carapo and an associate of Jamaat al Muslimeen. He was already in jail for conspiring to murder a DJ from the radio station SLAM 100.5.
As it happened, the 11 made their initial court appearance on the 25th anniversary of the coup d'état led by Muslim activist Abu Bakr, who himself watched from a bench in the back of the courtroom. He was not among the accused, but had been detained for two days in July while police grilled him.
Police didn't disclose the evidence against the defendants or fully explain why they might have wanted to kill Seetahal. The prosecution asked the court to place a seal on evidence disclosed in the preliminary hearing. But the implication seemed clear: Seetahal had been investigating the program.
Director of Public Prosecutions Roger Gaspard admonished reporters: "I have a legal duty to remind you that you are not to publish any material which has the potential to prejudice either the state's rights or the rights of the accused persons to a fair trial."
Rajaee Ali, one of the biggest names accused of the killing, was already in jail when charges came down.
Few expected that to happen anytime soon. Courts in Trinidad are routinely jammed. Defense attorneys and prosecutors alike have learned that filing even a trivial motion can tie up proceedings for months. The average length of a simple homicide trial is about a decade – a complicated conspiracy scheme such as this one is expected to take even longer.
Complicating matters is a widespread fear within the judiciary that anyone who looks into the assassination will be killed. Seetahal seemed invincible, after all, until her last night at the casino. Acting Attorney General Stuart Young told parliamentary officials he was forced to hire an outside prosecutor "because the state attorneys who were asked to do the case feared for their lives."
A group calling itself Justice for Rajaee Ali put out a statement on Facebook. "Rajaee has been wrongfully accused of being a gang leader," the group said. "Numerous attempts have been made to defame and assassinate his character."
Aishah Ali, a spokesman for the group, said via email there is no evidence tying the "Life Sport 11" to the crime. "As to date, no motive has been established or evidence brought forward to suggest that Rajaee and the other 11 [sic] accused have a hand in this murder," he wrote. "The arrests of Rajaee and others appear to be a very well-calculated plot by persons who maintain a position of power to influence the unjust legal system of Trinidad and Tobago and maybe even by those who are actually guilty of the crime."
Asked if he wanted to correct any misinformation in the local media, Ali replied at length:
"Anyone who took the time to get to know Rajaee will learn that he is God-fearing and humble. Reports that Rajaee is a godfather, don, and gang leader are all false. Rajaee lives in an area known as Carapo. He lives in a small wooden home and teaches classes at an unfinished mosque in the area. All claims that Rajaee benefited from million-dollar government contracts are preposterous. Many people can attest that Rajaee is a very respectable and helpful person always willing to help those in need, but many persons are afraid of law enforcement personnel who have threatened their livelihood if they highlight the good that Rajaee has done."
In a nation where Abu Bakr was able to shake the government to its foundation and escape punishment, the cynicism runs as deep as that of many Americans who were never satisfied with the Warren Commission's conclusion that a frustrated pseudo-intellectual lightweight Marxist named Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in putting a bullet through the head of the commander-in-chief.
The comparison of Dana Seetahal to John F. Kennedy now goes beyond the slaughter of a likable public figure. It also extends to the fatally ambiguous resolution, where the truth of whatever happened may be forever lost in a haze of official secrecy and the silence of the guilty. The mystery will likely lurk in the national subconscious like a grassy knoll.
It will likely not come from the court system anytime soon. The case is not expected to reach a courtroom for at least another four years, and a cluster of motions and adjournments have bogged down the progress. A preliminary inquiry is not yet finished, and a key piece of evidence is already gone. Officials cleaned the blood from Seetahal's Volkswagen Toaurag and repaired the bullet holes in its exterior before putting it out to public auction. "Dana's Death Car for Sale," proclaimed a headline in Trinidad and Tobago Newsday.
A generally accepted set of facts might never coalesce around who killed Dana Seetahal and why, leaving the collective beliefs of the nation to revert to the place where they have always lain – within the subversive discourse of calypso that has hummed in private conversation ever since the Spanish brought over the first African slaves to chop sugar cane – and to wonder about the whims and crimes of the powerful.
This story is adapted from The Calypso Killing: A Caribbean Murder Mystery, to be published March 8 by the journalism cooperative Deca. Download the full ebook at decastories.com.