Slayings Force Virgin Island Reassessment

The Miami News

By: Jon Nordheimer

St. Croix, V.I. - The slaying of four American tourists and four workers at a golf course here last Wednesday has clouded the economic future of the Virgin Islands and has raised fundamental questions about the future race relations on an island that had prided itself in its tropical serenity.

By Sunday night, seven men had been charged with killing the eight victims who were gunned down during a robbery at the plush Fountain Valley Club.

The crime has forced a period of introspection about the enormous changes that have occurred here during the last 15 years. During this time the population tripled in size and St. Croix and St. Thomas began to suffer some of the social ills that beset the mainland United States.

“People here now must be forced to ask themselves why a crime like this happened in an area that is supposed to be an American paradise,” said Gerard Christian, the president of the Virgin Islands Businessmen’s Association, a new organization of black civic leaders.

“I strongly condemn this crime,” he continued, “and maybe the ones who committed it are mentally ill, but we must recognize that it is an outgrowth of a community that is sick. And it’s time to deal with the illness and not just the symptoms.”

One black businessman said, “we never locked doors on this island until 10 years ago. All of a sudden we have segregated suburbs and some fellows from New Jersey who react to us like they would to a black man back home. We are different and we want these continentals to understand us. They should come here in the spirit of helping - not just take their money and run.”

Another force of considerable impact was a revolution in communications. The Virgin Islands did not have its first radio station until 1950; now there are several radio stations and three television channels. Nearly all of the television programming is from the mainland, and the race struggle in the United States is seen daily by the viewers here. The rhetoric of black awareness and black militancy, therefore, is now familiar.

Moreover, this generation of Virgin Islands blacks has traveled more extensively than their parents, and have seen the problems of the mainland cities and ghettos. Two of the suspects sought in the Fountain Valley shootings reportedly were Vietnam veterans.

Economic devlopment brought crime along with traffic jams and rising costs. At the beginning of the last decade when there was no industry here and approximately 200,000 tourists spent $25 million annually, an average of 400 criminal cases were handled by the police, including three murders. By the end of the decade, with one-million tourists spending over $100 million, the police load shot up to about 3,000 cases and in 1971 there were 15 murders.

The local white population has called for better police protection and more stringent measures against lawbreakers, he pointed out, but they haven’t confronted the underlying problems that are responsible for an accelerating crime rate on the islands and the social disaffection of young black males.

Local authorities said that the five to seven black men who stormed the Fountain Valley Golf Club, a public course owned by Laurence Rockefeller, opened fire at everyone in the vicinity of the clubhouse but since seven of the eight dead were whites, including two married couples from Miami who were on a golfing vacation, speculation on this tense island has dwelled on the motives of the gunmen.

Most whites have found it difficult to believe that robbery was the only motive, and many have convinced themselves thatthe theft of money from the pockets of the victims was only secondary to a merciless racial massacre. Two black men, Meral Smith, 21, and Beaumont Gereau, 23, were charged Sunday with the murders, and the police continue to hunt for other suspects.

Gov. Melvin Evans, a black physician who is the first elected governor of the island, has insisted that the murders were not racially inspired.

“I’ve heard all the rumors, but the information I have clearly indicates that it was not racial,” he said in an interview. “I saw the photographs of the bodies at the scene, and believe me they clearly show that no one was lined up and executed as the rumors would have it.”

The governor pointed out that one of those killed at the golf course was a black man, and three of the wounded were also black. He said he could not understand, on the basis of this evidence, how anyone could speculate that the gunmen were on a mission designed to kill whites.

He did concede, however, that other crimes on the islands in recent years could have been the product of an anti-white resentment that has been on the rise among native blacks as more and more mainland Americans settle here.

“There is no question that anti-white sentiment exists and it is greater than it was four or five years ago,” he remarked. “But why should that be surprising when it is in the rise everywhere in the United States?”