By Kenton X. Chance
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves on Monday addressed the nation on the alleged incident that led to the removal of 23 United States Peace Corps volunteers from St. Vincent and the Grenadines in late August.
Gonsalves, who is also Minister of National Security, flanked by acting Commissioner of Police, Colin John, told a press conference in Kingstown that CCTV footage does not support the claim by the 70-year-old female volunteer that she was assaulted and groped in Kingstown around 7:30 a.m. on Aug. 20, 2018.
Before making the statement, Gonsalves said that he nor the police would take questions on the issue because an investigation is underway.
He told the press conference and live media audiences that two officials from the United States embassy in Barbados — which is accredited to SVG — are assisting in the investigation.
The prime minister said that on Aug. 20, 2018, a 70-year-old female Peace Corp volunteer alleged that she was assaulted around 7:30 a.m. in the area around the Leeward Bus Terminal – which is located towards the western end of the city.
The volunteer had arrived in SVG on Aug. 16 following her initial five-week training in St. Lucia
She was placed with a host family in a rural area and had made a familiarisation visit by bus to Kingstown with her host family on the following day, Aug. 17.
The visit, among other things, was for her to learn the bus route from her host family in the countryside and to the Peace Corps training site, Gonsalves said.
Following the alleged assault, all the Peace Corps volunteers were sent to St. Lucia for what he was advised was an initial two-week period, the prime minister told the media.
On Aug. 28, Gaïna Dávila, acting public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, confirmed to iWitness News that the volunteers had been removed from SVG.
The embassy, however, told iWitness News on Tuesday that the development is not linked to crime in SVG.
“They were not relocated because of the perceived ‘crime situation. They were relocated because of a potential specific safety concern,” Dávila said, but did not elaborate.
Gonsalves said that the gist of the allegation made by the volunteer is that at or about 7:30 a.m. on Aug. 20, she disembarked her bus, began to walk and inquired of the direction of the Peace Corps office.
The office of the Peace Corps is located in New Montrose, about a quarter mile from the bus terminal.
“As she was walking, she alleged that she was grabbed from behind in a bear hug, her arms were pinned and she was pushed into an alcove next to an empty market table and partition.
“In the process of the alleged assault, she was punched in her stomach, her buttoned blouse was ripped open, her breasts were grabbed and squeezed, her head was slammed on a vendor’s table and she was spat upon at the back of the neck. Those are her allegations, in a nutshell.”
The prime minister said that the volunteer alleges that there were two assailants, both of Middle Eastern descent who did not speak with a Caribbean accent.
“The volunteer further alleges that both of the alleged assailants were wearing olive green pants tucked into the top of their black boots, and a dark-coloured long sleeve shirt tucked into the pants and one of them had a scarf, a lot of cloth fabric around his neck. He had a full beard. The other alleged assailant had no beard,” Gonsalves said.
He said the volunteer further alleges that during the assault upon her, her assailant spoke many angry and derogatory words about the American president, the Peace Corps generally and the female Peace Corps volunteers.
“She gave details about these angry and derogatory words, which she alleged were spoken,” Gonsalves said, but did not elaborate.
The prime minister said that the volunteer received directions from passers-by and made it to the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital — located about 500 metres from the bus terminal where the alleged assault occurred.
She was attended by a doctor and a nurse at the hospital, the prime minister said.
“I have been advised that the doctor’s medical report confirms scratches to the face, neck, upper arm and check and bruises to the left upper arm, left breast and left abdomen of the volunteer.”
He said that the police were called to the hospital and met the volunteer there, along with Cuthbert James, otherwise known as Mr. Cool, the local Peace Corps coordinator.
The prime minister said that the volunteer volunteered to take the police to the location where the alleged incident had occurred three or so hours earlier.
“As they drove in the general area where the assault is alleged to have occurred, the volunteer’s bag was observed on a table. In fact, she pointed it out. The police retrieved the bag and the volunteer identified the contents as her own.
“She noted the missing items were a Peace Corps folder and an identification card with her home address in the USA.
“Later, she said EC$60 was in a folder in the bag, which was not touched. The alleged disappearance and the alleged return of the volunteer’s purse, not the bag, with keys in it, remains among the many puzzles for the police.”
Gonsalves said that the police are still conducting their investigations into the matter and have been in touch with the relevant officials from the US embassy in Barbados
He said two such officials visited SVG on Aug. 27 and have been working on the investigation with the police.
The police have made available to these officials, footage from the CCTV located at a nearby building.
“I have been advised that the CCTV footage shows, among other things, what appears to be a bag being placed by the volunteer on a table, the very spot from which the bag was later retrieved. There is no evidence on the CCTV footage of the alleged incident.”
The alleged assault is said to have occurred in the general vicinity where the Aug. 20, 2018 stabbing death of 48-year-old security guard Brenda Layne of Chauncey/Rillan Hill occurred in Kingstown around 7 a.m.
That assault was captured on CCTV, leading to an arrest and murder charge being brought against 19-year-old Kesean Cain of Diamond.
Gonsalves said a sketch artist’s rendition of the volunteer’s description of her alleged assailants have been made available to SVG police, courtesy the relevant officials of the US embassy.
He said the artist’s sketches of both assailants are being circulated to the public to aid the on-going investigation.
The prime minister said the police are addressing the matter at the highest level.
“Since the alleged incident, the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the American ambassador spoke on two occasions on the matter and representatives of our two governments are cooperating fully on it.
“I have decided to speak on this matter today because of much fake news which has been in circulated about it, including in local newspapers and in an online publication.
“In the case of the latter, the brazen falsehoods are uttered that one of my sons has allegedly organised a mongoose gang, a group of thugs, going about smashing vehicles belonging to the Peace Corps volunteers because of their alleged links to the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America.
“These crude falsehoods are published with the purpose of hurting the ULP (Unity Labour Party) government and its leader but, in effect, do nothing but damage the good name of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the minds of unsuspecting people.
“All patriotic Vincentians at home and abroad should join in the condemnation of these purveyors of fake news locally and regionally.
“Meanwhile, the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines continued its on-going work of making St. Vincent and the Grenadines safer and more secure for our citizens, residents, and visitors alike.”
The prime minister said Kingstown has not been informed about the possible return date of the volunteers to SVG.
He, however, said the government of SVG will “naturally be quite pleased to have the volunteers return soonest”.
Gonsalves said he has been in touch with the local Peace Corps representative and he is hopeful of their return.
The government and people of SVG highly value the contribution of the volunteers, he said, adding that has always warmly welcomed the volunteers.
“Indeed, at the end of each volunteer’s tour of duty in SVG, I, as prime minister, personally sign a specially designed certificate of appreciation for each volunteer.
He said the government and people of SVG make every effort to ensure the volunteers’ safety and comfort. We see the volunteers as persons of humanity and for the further strengthening of the United States and SVG.
He said that the government is satisfied that the volunteers have been true to the ideals that President John F. Kennedy had set the volunteers when he established the Peace Corp in 1961.
“You would, no doubt, appreciate that, as I intimated at the commencement, that neither the prime minister nor the police would answer queries about the details of the on-going investigation in which there is much still to be discovered and or clarified. There are many pieces of this puzzle still to be put together.”