In February, James Robertson won re-election to the Parliament of Jamaica. It was the latest in an unbroken string of victories for the 50-year-old politician since winning his first campaign in 2002.
During that time, Robertson, a member of the conservative Jamaica Labour Party, has survived a political career that would have derailed many. He was reelected in 2012, when a backlash against the JLP’s association with a drug trafficker forced the prime minister to resign, and the rival People’s National Party (PNP) nearly swept the elections. When he tried to push out his party’s leader in 2013 and lost, he kept his deputy leader position in the party anyway. But those episodes were child’s play compared to what he faced in 2010.
That year the U.S. State Department revoked Robertson’s visa for reasons never made public. Then he was accused of murder.
The accusations against him dominated headlines in Jamaica. But Robertson was never charged and has denied the accusations, attributing them to political enemies. He’s never been charged, let alone convicted. His accuser, a small businessman, has left the country. Officials made no comments. The news media eventually dropped the story. The matter seemed to simply disappear.
Leslie “Les” Green, a former assistant commissioner of police for the Jamaican Constabulary Force who has since retired, revealed to the Miami Herald that he investigated accusations that Robertson tried to arrange at least two murders, and found enough evidence that he recommended that prosecutors charge the politician.
“Investigations have been conducted alleging serious offenses against Robertson and others,” said Green, who is English and a former Scotland Yard detective. In 2006, the Jamaican government hired him on contract to help professionalize the force. “The Department of Public Prosecutions made a ruling there was sufficient evidence to charge Robinson.”
But after carefully assembling his case, Green said, Jamaica’s Ministry of National Security refused to offer to protect one of the key witnesses. The witness fled, and the case fell apart.
The guilt or innocence of Robertson aside, the episode highlights a problem holding the powerful accountable in a region dogged by violence. The U.N.’s Caribbean Human Development report noted in 2012 that Latin America and the Caribbean made up 8.5 percent of the world’s population, but tallied 27 percent of its homicides. Jamaica has the highest homicide rate in the Caribbean.
Day at the dealership
On a sunny afternoon in 2008, Ian Johnson was finalizing the purchase of a silver Mitsubishi Pajero at Motorsales of Jamaica when he saw James Robertson enter the dealership. Johnson owned two convenience stores and a construction company in St. Thomas, the parish Robertson represented in Parliament. He was active in the JLP and had raised money for Robertson’s previous campaigns.
Robertson “beckoned me aside,” Johnson said in a sworn statement filed by his Fort Lauderdale lawyer and attached to an application for asylum in the United States.
“We walked a few feet away from the sales rep that I was talking to,” Johnson said in the sworn statement. Robertson told him he was having problems with a businessman in St. Thomas. The rival businessman’s name was Cecil Riley, known locally as “Petrol.”
“Specifically, [he] asked me to arrange to kill ‘Petrol’ Cecil Riley,” Johnson said in his statement.
Johnson said he was shocked, and left without giving an answer.
Robertson did not respond to repeated requests for comment by email and telephone. His lawyer at the time, Patrick Bailey, said: “He’s not going to talk about that.” To the Jamaican news media, however, and in a court document, Robertson acknowledged Johnson’s allegations but vehemently denied them. He ultimately would file a libel suit against Johnson’s lawyer.
A few weeks after the encounter, two gunmen shot Riley dead outside a nightclub he owned in St. Thomas.
Even by Jamaican standards, Robertson’s alleged request stood out. Robertson was not just a member of Parliament, he was the country’s minister of energy and mining. He was in his 40s and the deputy leader and a rising star of the JLP.
In addition, he would seem to make an unlikely criminal. He is from a prominent Kingston family. They own a shipping company and cold storage facilities. Robertson himself had gone to high school in England and then graduated from Southern Methodist University in Texas in 1988. He was a polo-playing socialite.
By the mid-2000s, however, the young politician’s rise had caught the attention of Jamaican and U.S. officials for the wrong reasons. A 2005 diplomatic cable sent by the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica and obtained by Wikileaks stated that “like many Jamaican politicians of whatever party affiliation, Robertson is known to associate with criminal elements.”
A 2007 cable obtained by Wikileaks stated that sources told the Drug Enforcement Administration that Robertson was “involved with money laundering and organized crime,” and that Robertson’s father had once been “forced to hand over acres of land to settle his son’s drug debts.”
JAMES ROBERTSON WOULD SEEM TO MAKE AN UNLIKELY CRIMINAL. HE WENT TO HIGH SCHOOL IN ENGLAND AND THEN GRADUATED FROM SOUTHERN METHODIST UNIVERSITY IN TEXAS, AND WAS A POLO-PLAYING SOCIALITE.
The U.S. Embassy declined to comment for this article.
Immediately after Riley’s execution on May 26, 2008, Robertson expressed shock. He praised Riley as a role model for young people. “Morning, noon and night, you could always look to him,” Robertson was quoted in Jamaica’s RJR News.
No one has been arrested for that homicide.
Suddenly a target
Shortly after Riley’s death, Johnson said he became a marked man. According to a police summary of incidents, gunmen shot at him as he drove home from work one night, but missed. They shot at him inside one of his convenience stores, missing him but wounding an employee. Johnson said local police told him they could not protect him.
Then, on June 6, 2008, three men entered one of Johnson’s stores and shot and killed his mother, Hyacinth, while she worked.
Johnson took his wife and young daughter and went into hiding. He continued to speak to police, but says he came away with the message each time that there was little they could do to protect him.
After about a year, Johnson moved back to his gated house. On the night of July 17, 2009, a gunman stepped out of a car and fired at him as he talked to employees in his carport. Bullets hit Johnson in the thigh, arm, and neck, but the wounds were superficial. A nearby police car rushed over and arrested the driver of the getaway car. The gunman fled on foot.
A few days after the shooting, according to Johnson, Robertson himself showed up at his front door, saying he was concerned for Johnson’s safety.
In the carport Robertson “wrote two names on a piece of paper,” Johnson said in his sworn statement and told the Herald — Kayon “Treasure” Campbell, and the name “Guns,” which was an alias for a man Johnson knew. But then Robertson crossed out Campbell’s name and “told me this name I should not pay attention to,” according to Johnson. “But he pointed directly at Guns’ name and said to me if I killed this man for him, all my problems … would go away immediately.”
Johnson said once again he did not respond.
Robertson’s lawyers stated in court papers in connection with the libel lawsuit that the allegation he asked Johnson to kill “Kayon Campbell, and a man with [sic] alias ‘Guns,’” was not true. “The statements made by Mr. Johnson are false.”
According to police and other sources, Guns is Kemar Williams, a local gangster affiliated with the the rival PNP.
Les Green, the assistant commissioner of police, later tracked Williams down abroad.
“I met him outside the country, I’m not going to say where,” Green said in an interview. “The crux of the conversation was that he knew James Robertson wanted to kill him. He knew it was a credible threat. So he fled.”
Johnson said he worried there would be repercussions for not following Robertson’s alleged orders. He believed those repercussions came to fruition on July 29, 2009, when Johnson’s most trusted employee, Jermaine Jones, was lured to a friend’s home, where a waiting gunman shot him. Jones escaped to a nearby hospital. Two days later, gunmen tried to kill him there. Again, he survived.
Johnson and Jones went into hiding.
Johnson reached out to officials at the U.S. Embassy in Kingston for help. He also contacted David Rowe, an expatriate Jamaican lawyer practicing in Fort Lauderdale and teaching at the University of Miami, to assist with a bid for political asylum. On Nov. 9, 2010, Johnson gave a sworn statement in connection with the asylum bid over the telephone to Rowe and a court reporter in Fort Lauderdale. Johnson relayed his entire story, which was turned over to U.S. officials.
Johnson also released his statement to the Jamaican news media to bring attention to the matter as a form of protection. “If I hadn’t released it I’d be dead,” he claimed.
Johnson’s accusations made headlines days before the JLP’s November 2010 annual conference. Robertson marched onto the stage at Kingston’s National Arena to defend himself. He called Treasure Campbell, who is described in news media accounts as a student, contractor and JLP activist, to come on stage with him. The two men joined hands.
“This is the man …that they say I want to hurt!” Robertson declared, according to newspaper accounts. (The papers didn’t mention that Johnson had said Campbell’s name was crossed out.) Robertson never mentioned “Guns.” Campbell told the Gleaner newspaper, “I have known Mr. Robertson for more than 10 years and the allegation that he wants me killed is rubbish.”
A month later, on Dec. 20, 2010, Robertson filed the libel lawsuit in Fort Lauderdale.
Robertson withdrew the case a few months later. Rowe declined to comment about the case.
Team of investigators
It was only after Johnson’s statement went public that Green, the assistant commissioner of police in charge of homicide, heard about the case.
He assembled a team of about six investigators to corroborate Johnson’s statement. Green did not want to publicly disclose evidence because the case is technically still open. According to Jamaican police sources who asked not to be named, the investigation matched ballistics at several of the shootings, and traced cell phone records and car rental receipts that linked Treasure Campbell to the shooting outside Johnson’s house, and cell phone records with one of the gunman who allegedly shot Jones in the hospital. When police searched Campbell’s home, according to the police sources, they found cell phone records between Campbell and Robertson from around the time of the shooting. There were also “records of financial payments” from Robertson to Campbell.
Green arranged to relocate Jones to another country in exchange for his testimony. Johnson left for the United States, but agreed to return and testify.
On April 1, 2011, Green sent the investigative file to the Office of Public Prosecutions, outlining the case. Then he waited.
Robertson, meanwhile, was facing other problems. A government investigation into a contract to supply natural gas to the island found numerous irregularities. The contract was canceled and Robertson, under pressure, stepped down as minister of energy. He remained in Parliament.
Days later, Robertson confirmed to reporters that both his and his wife’s U.S. visas had been revoked. The U.S. State Department declined to comment.
On June 4, 2011, Paula Llewellyn, Jamaica’s director of public prosecutions, responded to the evidence that Green submitted. She sent a memo to Green stating that there was “prima facie evidence to base the charge of soliciting murder against Robertson.” (The memo has never been made public, but was obtained from law enforcement sources close to the investigation, with parts redacted.)
In a “caveat,” the memo noted that the case was “based on persons who appear to have very significant credibility issues” referring to Johnson and Jones. The issues: Johnson “alleges that Robertson is connected in some way to the murder of his mother and believes that Robertson has given orders to have him [Johnson] killed.” Meanwhile, Jones “appears to be a gunman or very closely linked with them,” the memo stated.
ON JUNE 6, 2008, THREE MEN ENTERED ONE OF IAN JOHNSON’S STORES AND SHOT AND KILLED HIS MOTHER, HYACINTH, WHILE SHE WORKED.
The memo also offered the recommendation that “given the status of former Minister James Robertson and the nature of these allegations, one should anticipate significant challenges in bringing this matter to trial.”
She was right.
In late July 2011, a member of Jamaica’s witness security team visited Jones in a foreign country, where he was under police guard. Jones, who had been seeking relocation, “was told by witness protection the offer had not been approved” by the Ministry of National Security, Green recounted. “The next day he was told he was required to appear in court to give evidence.”
The combination of events scared Jones. “He basically walked off the system and left,” said Johnson, who was hiding with Jones.
Without Jones, prosecutors declined to pursue the case. Through Johnson, Jones declined to comment for this story.
In January 2012, Green learned that the Ministry of National Security did not renew his contract with the police department. He returned to Europe.
The investigation and its collapse were never reported. Green has never before spoken publicly about the case.
Johnson said he would gladly return to testify — if his safety could be guaranteed. “The minute one politician is held accountable for their crimes, Jamaica will be a different place,” he said.
Robertson, meanwhile, still cannot travel to the United States.