Cop flip-flops on first sighting of Bartica massacre accused

Police Constable Chester Benjamin, who identified Roger Simon as being one of the gunmen at the scene of the deadly attack at Bartica in which 12 men were massacred in 2008, yesterday conceded that the first time he saw the man was in the lock-ups at the Mackenzie Police Station.

Although the admission prompted Simon’s lawyer, Peter Hugh, to argue that his client was the victim of a case of “mistaken identity,” Benjamin nonetheless denied that he was mistaken.

Benjamin took the stand yesterday in the High Court at the continuing trial of Simon, called “Goat Man,” Dennis Williams, called “Anaconda,” and Mark Royden Williams, called “Smallie,” who are accused of the massacre of the 12 men, including three police officers.

The charge against them is that on February 17, 2008, they murdered Lance Corporal Zaheer Zakir, and Constables Shane Fredericks and Ron Osborne, as well as Edwin Gilkes, Dexter Adrian, Irving Ferreira, Deonarine Singh, Ronald Gomes, Ashraf Khan, Abdool Yasseen, Errol Thomas, and Baldeo Singh.

Benjamin, who was stationed at the Bartica Police Station in February, 2008, recalled being in the upper flat of the station on the night of the attack, when he heard suspected gunshots coming from the lower flat.

He said that from a window, he peeked out and saw a man standing next to the police Land Rover in front of the station, armed with a gun and pointing and shooting at the station. Another man, he said, stood armed with a rifle, across the road at a shop.

It is this person across the road, who Benjamin described as a Rasta, with long beard and long dreadlocks, that he later identified as Simon. He said that the person was dressed in a full camouflage suit with matching flop hat.

At the Mackenzie Police Station, where he was stationed some two months after the attack, Benjamin said that after arriving for duty and doing his routine check of the prisoners in the lock-ups, he saw a Rasta man among them. According to Benjamin, it was the same person he had seen with the rifle at the scene of the attack in Bartica and whom he identified as Simon. On an identification parade (ID) on which he would later be a witness, Benjamin picked out Simon as the person he said he had seen standing across the road with a rifle on the night in question.

Benjamin had said in his evidence-in-chief that the night of the attack was the first time he was seeing Simon. The witness, however, agreed with Hugh’s suggestion under cross-examination that the first time he was seeing Simon was in the lock-ups at the Mackenzie Police Station.

The defence attorney also pointed out to the witness that at no time in his statements to police did he say that he saw Simon in the lockups at the Mackenzie Station. In reply, Benjamin said he could not recall if he had mentioned it.

Asked if he wanted to be refreshed from his statement, Benjamin said no.

Counsel then suggested to him that the only reason he made no mention of seeing Simon at the lockups at Mackenzie was because he wanted it to appear as if the first time he had seen the accused was at Bartica on the night in question, and then again at the ID parade.

The witness agreed with this suggestion.

Benjamin said that Simon was standing directly facing station. He, however, agreed with Hugh that from the window he was viewing the person across the road he could only have seen “from an angle.”

The lawyer then suggested to Benjamin, that the distance between the window and where the man was standing across the road had to have been at least 15 to 20 feet. The witness disagreed, saying that it was about 20 to 30 feet away

Asked for how long he had the Rasta man under observation while at the window, the witness said about 15 to 20 seconds.

Benjamin, who had testified to paying attention to another man during that time also, then had the suggestion put to him by Hugh that his focus would have been split between the two men.

Counsel further suggested that it would have been less than 20 seconds that Benjamin would have had to look at each of the men individually. “You can only be focused on one at a time,” Hugh declared.

The witness, however, said that he was focused on both men at the same time, since they were both in “one angle” and he added that the window he stood at was elevated above the men.

Benjamin agreed with the defence attorney that in his statement to police he never said anything about a Rasta man standing with a beard being over the road; he only first mentioned it at the preliminary inquiry.

Hugh then suggested to him that the reason that it was never mentioned was because he never saw such a man there. Benjamin, however, maintained that he did.

The witness, who in his evidence-in-chief had spoken of the Rasta man having a big nose and bowed-feet, was pressed by Hugh as to why he had never said that before and why it was not in his statements.

He responded saying that when he had given his statements, no one had ever asked him those questions. He, however, subsequently agreed with Hugh that as a policeman he would regard those details and distinguishing marks of description to have been vital to the identifying  of a person.

Hugh suggested that the man he purportedly saw across the road on the night in question was not his client but another Rasta man, and that Benjamin was being mistaken as to identity. The witness, however, disagreed with Hugh’s suggestions.

When asked by Hugh if Simon was among the group which had gone to Bartica and launched the murderous attack, the state’s two main witnesses, Dwane Williams, called “Small Fren” and Clebert Reece, called “Chi Chi” who had testified to being at the scene, had said that he was never there.

‘Played dead’

Earlier, in his evidence-in-chief, Benjamin had testified to hiding in a cupboard in the kitchen at the station, from where he heard the footsteps of men running into the building, ascending the stairs. He said the men started firing shots in the kitchen, saying that they were going to kill everyone.

According to Benjamin, he “played dead,” when one of the gunmen pulled him out of the cupboard and rested his foot on his stomach. He said he then heard the Land Rover drive off in the direction of the stelling, where he heard some five to six gunshots ring out.

The witness who said that he sustained four to five gunshots, noted that Lance Corporal Zakir and Constables Fredericks and Hendricks were all in the kitchen with him. He said that at the back gate, he discovered Constable Osbourne, who appeared to have been already dead.

‘You, run’

Meanwhile, in emotionally gripping testimony, brothers Ishmael and Wilbert Chester recounted escaping being victims of now dead fugitive Rondell “Fine Man” Rawlins gang, who witnesses say led the attack.

Ishmael said that he, along with three crewmembers of the boat on which they transported cargo, had docked at the stelling on the night in question, when a man with a handgun took them off their boat and ordered them to lie face down on the ground.

During that the time, however, Ishmael said that another man came up and told him, “You, run.”

The witness, who said that he was crying and trembling during the half hour for which he lay on the ground, told the court that he immediately got up, jumped off the stelling, and took off running.

At the time he left, Ishmael said, there were five men lying there on the ground. Apart from his crewmembers, he did not know the other two men.

Wilbert, meanwhile, who testified to being the sailor of the boat his brother and the three other crew members were on, told the court that he discovered the bodies of the men when he got back to the stelling after returning from a shop where he had gone to make a purchase.

This witness, who was moved to tears on the stand, recounted returning to the stelling and seeing the bodies of his crewmembers and the other two men who he also said he did not know.

The man told the court that when he felt the motionless bodies of the men, he got no pulse, except for Errol Thomas, one of his crewmembers, who at that time was still alive.

He also recalled his concern about finding his brother, Ishmael, and becoming worried at that time that he had not found him.

Ishmael had, however, testified to running to the home of his employer some distance away from the stelling, where he had spent the rest of that night.

Both of the state’s main witnesses, Dwane Williams and Reece, had testified to gang leader “Fine Man giving Ishmael an opportunity to escape”.

When he had testified, Reece had told the court that he had told Rawlins that he knew Ishmael, after which he (Rawlins) told him to get up and run.

The trial continues this morning at 9, before Justice Roxane George SC, at the High Court in Georgetown.

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