Death Postponed: The Jamaican cop with nine lives
(Jamaica Gleaner) Coming face-to-face with death is an occupational hazard for members of the police force. But Inspector Victor George Henry has had so many close encounters — four in which his colleagues were killed next to him — that there came a time in his career when other cops did not want to go on patrols or other police operations with him. To them, he was jinxed.
It didn’t help, too, that he has come close to death’s door on at least another four occasions.
Probably the most defining moment of Henry’s career was the incident that claimed the life of Corporal Roland Layne, a young member of the force’s information arm, the Constabulary Communication Network (CCN).
Layne was slain along Mountain View Avenue on April 27, 2000, as he and Henry tried to get to a crime scene to gather information for journalists. Henry was the driver of the motor vehicle in which Layne was killed and had the circumstances been slightly different, it could have been Henry who could have been shot had granted Layne’s request.
“At the CCN, we are supposed to go out in the field after the heat has died down, get the news and relate to the media houses,” Henry explained.
“I was the operations manager at CCN at the time and there was an incident the night before in Mountain View. Mr (Reneto) Adams’s team had killed one of the alleged gunmen or don men from the area, which caused some amount of upheaval.
“It was the about 2:00 am, on the 27th, a policeman was shot dead, vehicles shot up and burnt and there was some heavy gunfire in the area. A large detachment of policemen was sent in and the operation continued into the morning.
“I was at the operations centre at CCN and persons from the media wanted to get knowledge of what was playing out in the field. I was waiting until the heat died down, but they were still calling me. About 11:30, I took a decision to go into the field and appease persons who were calling me for the information.
“I didn’t want to be derelict in my duties so I decided to go. There was no one there to accompany me, so I decided to go alone, but Corporal Layne had just come off sick leave, because he was riding his bike and was hit off it, so he was out of commission for about two months.
“He was a very dedicated man, and he returned to work before his sick leave expired. He had a spirit of teamwork. At that time I was a Sergeant and he said ‘Sarge, me can’t mek you alone go out there, man. Me will go with you. He also said ‘me will drive Sarge’ and I said ‘no man, you just came off sick leave, I will drive’.
“We were travelling in this unmarked Toyota Corona police service vehicle, when we reached by EXED, the place looked quiet, there was not much traffic on the road, so I proceeded slowly.
“When I reached Deanery Avenue, I saw some debris on the road, so I turned right and then left to get around. When the car was in that position, I heard wush, wush, and I saw blood and all sorts of things splattered on my suit. Both of us had our firearms, and initially I thought that he had shot himself, so I held him up with one hand. If I had reversed I would have been killed that day. The bullets pierced the windscreen and pierced his skull, but I didn’t see that until afterwards. Up to now I don’t know where the shots came from.
“I drove through fire, fuelled by tyres, and made a split decision to go to the hospital. When you looked down the road it was like Beirut or Belfast… war-torn straight down.
“My thoughts were to reach the nearest hospital and Bellevue was not an option. I eventually reached KPH (Kingston Public Hospital), but even if the doctors were in his pocket, he would not have made it. The shots split his head in two. As it turned out, gunmen killed four policemen in all that day,” said Henry, reflecting on how he had come close to being killed… again.
“I might have been the fifth policeman killed that day. The incident occurred at 11:50 am and I had to look back and say how it could have been me,” he stated.
According to Henry, only then Deputy Superintendent James Forbes, who was in charge of the CCN at the time, comforted him. He was happy though, that he did not order Layne to travel with him, although he had welcomed his offer to visit the scene.
“If I had forced him to come then I would have felt real bad, but he volunteered and was killed in the line of duty. So while it felt bad that he was killed, I would have felt worse had I forced him to travel with me,” Henry said.
Henry, 50, the divisional duty sub-officer at the Denham Town police division in volatile West Kingston, is praising his maker for allowing him to stay alive and enjoy good health since he joined the Jamaica Constabulary Force 32 years ago.
“My first brush with danger came shortly after I joined the force in 1980, the year of the bloody general election. There was an incident in the Hunt’s Bay area, when police were shot at in a swamp while they tried to apprehend gunmen. Eventually, the police killed two gunmen,” he said.
“On another occasion shortly after, gunmen shot over the top of a jeep that we were patrolling in and killed three men. The incident happened about a hundred yards in front of us,” Henry said.
Another incident in the Waterhouse community again almost took him out, as his team came under attack. “King Sturgav sound system was playing in Waterhouse and we went in search of Satta John, one of the notorious bad men from Tawes Pen in Spanish Town,” Henry related.
“We heard that he was hiding out in the area, so we went to the dance around 2 o’clock in the morning. Charlie Chaplin was deejaying ‘we comes fi mash it again’, and as I reached the dance gate it was pure gunshots. I had to take cover behind a wall that was about two feet high. The shots were just chipping over the wall and the police had to engage some men in a gunfight. At the end of that shooting, four people were killed including a pregnant woman. The police recovered about four guns.
“Up to now I am not sure who was responsible for the killings, as the amount of checks and balances that you have now, you didn’t have then. The force has since come a long way,” Henry said.
The soft-spoken Henry, who was born in St Margaret’s Bay, Portland and schooled in the parish, as well as in Annotto Bay in the adjoining St Mary, had a bizarre experience during the early 1980s when two of his colleagues, a policeman and a soldier, were cut down by friendly fire during an operation in the East Kingston community of Wareika Hills.
The policeman fell dead right next to him and the soldier a few metres away, as it appeared that an army captain who was in charge of informing the men about the relief personnel, did not do so.
“A set of police and soldiers was sent into Wareika Hills during the day and another set sent in the night to relieve those. The first set was not informed that another patrol was coming and because of that, when the batch was coming up, they knew that there were other persons up there, but those out in the field did not know.
“So when they saw the glint of the rifles, one set opened fire on the relieving party and a soldier and a policeman were killed. If the other side had opened fire, there would have been more deaths,” he said.
Fear gripped him then and there, but he managed to shake off the incident and get on with policing.
“Anybody who say they don’t have fear, don’t know what they are talking about,” he quipped.
Soon after that incident, Henry was called upon to defend his life.
“I was walking up Maxfield Avenue one night in April 1984 and a lot of people were on the road. When I reached near to Champion House (a popular bar), men on three bicycles came from Lyndhurst Road with two men on two bicycles and one on the other.
“Once I saw them come around the corner, I started to hug the wall, because I didn’t know what was what. Although a lot of persons were on the road, Maxfield had a reputation. I had a 9mm pistol and as the gunmen saw me they dropped the bicycles in the middle of the road and right away I was looking at three semi-automatic pistols holding up in the air as the men walked me.
“One of them said ‘p…….. hole come in.’
“At that point I couldn’t move. It was as if I was rooted to the spot. I wanted to move my feet and they couldn’t move. And I said, no, I can’t die here, but if I had drawn my gun at that time, I would have been killed right there. So I just bent down, ran off, spun on them and started firing, one said ‘b… c… the bwoy have gun’.
“At one point I said to myself, ‘me dead now’, as my feet were frozen, but I had to find the strength to fight on,” Henry said, while declining to state what resulted from the firefight with the men, other than the fact that he was not harmed.
Maxfield Avenue shortly after proved to be a hot spot for him, as he got into a shootout with gunmen who had robbed a taxi operator in the wee hours of the morning, and engaged a team that he headed in a street shootout. The men, whom he said were firing Tech 9 and Sterling submachine guns, eventually got away.
Still fresh in his memory too, is the death of one of his colleagues, Herbert Lewis, who was mowed down by a motorist in the St Catherine community of Ferry a few years ago.
Like the other incidents, his friend and co-worker was flattened right next to him and had Henry not been skilful, the vehicle may have moved him down as well.
“I was on a special task force based at Mobile Reserve — a special team of police and soldiers to combat crime. We used to go around in convoys to stop and search,” he recalled.
“On this day in question, we rolled out and when the convoy reached Bank of Jamaica about 6 o’clock in the evening, one of the soldiers fell off the back of the truck. I said that must be an omen. We took him to hospital and treated him. We ended up along Ferry and put this spot check into operation.
“I was in the middle of the road stopping vehicles, while motorists were driving slowly and we pulled over those that looked suspicious.
“When I looked up the road, I saw a vehicle coming at a very fast speed. He was taking the soft shoulder to cut out the traffic. My ‘squaddie’ was standing about five feet from me and he was all unconcerned. When I saw the light I shouted out ‘Lewis, Lewis!’ and while I looked on, the vehicle came down on him, hit him about four feet in the air and he landed on the bonnet. The windshield was also smashed. I was about a foot from where he got hit and I had to jump out of the way.
“Immediately we ceased operations and rushed him to KPH but by that time he had died.
“The irony of it is that the case went to court and after about two years, the driver was charged $5,000 or two years. He pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of causing death by dangerous driving.
“That incident shook me up. You are never comfortable with death,” moaned Henry.
For a time, his colleagues did not want to go out on patrols or other police operations with him, as they felt that he was jinxed. But that seemed to have changed over time.
“In the early period, a lot of people were scared to go out with me. They would go to my supervisor and say ‘change him’,” added Henry.
The veteran policeman credits his good fortunes to a strong spiritual presence, as he worships at the New Testament Church of God, because he likes a church with “a little action”, hence his conversion from the Roman Catholic and Baptist faiths.
Perhaps it was that spiritual intervention that prevented bloodshed, after gunmen held up a packed number 15 minibus on which he was a passenger, and robbed half of the commuters, while not touching the others toward the rear, where he sat.
Fighting gunmen on a crowded bus at the time would not have been a good idea, he said.
This is the third in a series recounting close encounters with death by Jamaicans, some of them in prominent positions of society.