King-family shows strength after murder trial “Here we feel closer to Michael and Thelma”

POSTED: 04/15/13 2:51 PM
Michael and Thelma King
Thelma and Michael King. The family declined to be photographed for this interview because they felt it would take the focus away from their murdered relatives. Photo courtesy King-family.

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – On Saturday the King-family flew back to South Carolina after attending the trial of the three men who are charged with killing Thelma and Michael King on September 19 of last year in their villa at the Ocean Club in Cupecoy. The day before their departure, Michael’s brother Todd invited Today for an interview that turned into an impressive and memorable encounter.

How does one react to a brutal murder or the disappearance of a loved one on a Caribbean island? In 2005, when Alabama teenager Natalie Holloway disappeared in Aruba, all hell broke loose in the American media. The island had to endure the caustic approach of Nancy Grace and others like her, there were calls to boycott Aruba as a tourist destination and the judicial system was made the laughing stock of the region.

Since that time, St. Maarten has had to deal with its own share of tragedies that involved Americans. In 2008 Leta Cordes disappeared from her home in Dawn Beach, never to be seen again. Justice suspects her husband Frank of the murder, but investigators did not manage to gather sufficient and convincing evidence – the prime problem being that the body was never found. Then, in 2010, American Buzzy Brous disappeared, together with an expensive BMW-car. This case has also never been solved.

Remarkably, the American media have never made a circus out of these cases, as they did with the Holloway-disappearance. But the thought that this could happen again has never really left the minds of those who have the best at heart for St. Maarten and its one-sided tourism-based economy.

So when on September 19 of last year Thelma and Michael King became the victims of a horrific murder, many people were holding their breath once more. There was shock and outrage about the crime, for sure, but also concern about its effect on the young country. This time however, the judicial system was on the ball. Within a couple of days the main suspect was arrested, and the other two followed soon afterwards.

The trial took place last week. The prosecution demands a life sentence against Meyshane J., 28 years against teenager Jeremiah M. and 24 years against the third suspect, Jamal W. The ruling is on May 8 and on that day the King-family will be back in St. Maarten to witness the next step in the process of finding closure.

“The prosecution did a good job, they were extremely well prepared,” Todd King told this newspaper during an interview that took place at Topper’s, the restaurant of his brother Michael’s good friends Melanie and Herbert “Topper” Daboul. “We had a lot of access to the files and we did not hear anything in court that we did not already know. The difference was that all this was said in open court. On the one hand you don’t want people to hear all that. On the other hand, the judge was very well prepared. She knew the case and she was well-organized. She was fantastic.”

Todd (50), his younger brother Finley (41) and their sister Karen (54) were surprised to hear in court that the attorneys were making statements that differed from what their clients had said. “Meyshane J. went from detailed statements to the police to complete memory loss in court,” they said, indicating that they did not find this credible.

What slightly disturbed the family was that Jeremiah M. claimed in court that he had found a kilo of drugs in the safe in the villa’s bedroom. “Thelma and Michael did not use drugs,” Todd says. “Thelma was meticulous; she kept records of her jewelry at home and abroad. This way we know that the bag that was taken from the safe contained jewelry worth $70,000. It has not been found. Jeremiah was the only one to mention drugs. Maybe he did that because he did not want the others to know that there was a lot more money there.”

Jeremiah M.’s statement was also not considered credible by Judge Tijhuis: she said last week that a technical scan of the safe had revealed no traces of drugs.

Going back in time, Today asked the Kings how they learned about the murder. Todd: “My son called me, because he had received a strange call from St. Maarten about Michael’s credit card. I called the police and they did not know about the murders at that time, they were trying to get in touch with Michael, but they got no answers to their phone calls.”

The credit card was found in a car the three criminals had used to rob the Happy Star restaurant on the evening of the murders. They ditched the car afterwards but forgot the credit card. The police started calling the family on Friday, September 21.

Still, Todd King was not really alarmed: “I thought he’d left it somewhere.  I told the police to go by Toppers. Thirty minutes later I got a call from the manager of Todd’s restaurant in Columbia, South Carolina. He said: I have some bad news; somebody has been at the villa. That was the first buy valium in uk online time it hit us.”

While the initial shock has worn off, the Kings have to deal with their loss for the rest of their lives. “Every day is different,” Todd says. “Some days it is better, other days it’s just like it happened yesterday.”

“There is still a level of disbelief,” his sister Karen adds. “At Thanksgiving we thought they would walk through the door any moment. We have never had a family-drama. Everything about it is just bizarre.”

The three suspects did not impress the Kings with their behavior in court, certainly not when they had the opportunity to speak their traditional last word. “They should have turned around and faced us, but they did not dare,” Todd says. “We want them off the streets so that this does not happen again to others. We have confidence in the judge.”

He describes coping with the situation as a tug o’ war: “These thugs took something from us. Every day we pull back on that rope. It is that or be submissive and scared because of what they have done. We are holding on to the good memories and we are holding on to St. Maarten too. Thelma and Michael loved this place and we will continue to do so. We told all their friends: go to St. Maarten as you have always done.”

“We clearly understand,” Todd continues, “that it is three people who did this – not the island. All of us are hurting. These people are liars, thieves and murderers but that is not St. Maarten.”

Finley agrees with his brother: “Michael and Thelma have been coming to the island for eight to ten years. We are thinking about the good times we shared with them.”

Todd is prepared to tackle the future heads on: “We have to go forward. You have to run toward the bullets, not away from them. The thing is: this could have happened in America, but if it had, we would not hate America. You should not hate St. Maarten because someone got killed. When we are here we feel closer to Michael and Thelma.”

The Kings bear no grudge against the island, the police or the people. On the contrary: “Nobody could have prevented this,” Todd says. “The police did a fantastic job here. When we landed at the airport there was a detective waiting for us and we had not even announced that we were coming. At the police department we met 45 officers. They all shook our hands and they all told us: we are gonna get them. They were mad and they were hurting for us. We saw how determined they were. If we had had a bad experience there we would have gone straight to the media.”

But the experience with local law enforcement was extremely satisfactory. “The communication with the police and the public prosecutor’s office was fantastic,” Todd says. “We cannot be mad at St. Maarten. The response to this crime could not have been better anywhere in the world.”

On Thursday, the Kings paid a visit to the police station to thank everybody for their efforts. That day, they also had lunch with Prime Minister Sara Wescot-Williams, a gesture that was highly appreciated.

There is of course still the story about the rum factory and the story about their friendship with Topper and his wife Melanie. While gossip web sites speculated openly (and baseless) about a business deal gone wrong and the possible involvement of Topper in the crime, the truth was altogether different. No deal was signed between Michael King and Topper, but Todd confirms that his brother initiated the idea to set up a factory together for export to the United States. “As a family we took the decision to honor any promise Michael had made. That also applied to the rum factory venture.”

In January, the day Meyshane J. appeared in court, the first bottles of rum hit the shelves in stores in South Carolina. “The rum has allowed the family to unite,” Todd observes. “It is a bonding thing and it is fun, too. It is also a way for us to keep Michael and Thelma alive.”

There are more initiatives to honor the memory of the two murder victims. In November the family established the Michael and Thelma King Foundation. A golf tournament raised the first $5,600 for the organization, while several financial contributions have also been made. “The objective is to help citizens from the United States and from St. Maarten who end up in a similar situation,” Todd says. “If something tragic like this happens it is expensive to come down here. I have been here a week every month since it happened.”

“We need to build up capital,” Finley adds. “The more money we have the more people we are able to help.”

Todd, who owns several insurance agencies back home, is now the President and CEO of the rum factory, but on the new labels Michael’s signature stands next to the one of Topper.

Asked where the family gets the strength to deal with the loss of Michael and Thelma the way they do, Todd refers to Sally Gripkey: “We have it from our mother, she is very strong. But when she saw Michael’s signature on those new labels she started crying.”

 

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Comments (1)

 

  1. Jackie says:

    St Martin must put a stop to the violent crimes t
    . It looks like the police department doesn’t care when it takes 45 minutes to get to a call in the middle of the night. People are afraid to eat out for fear the whole rest. Will be held up at gun point. The people must take this great place back. We rented from the kings for a number of years, but want be back till this crime stops.