Maho Beach, ST. MAARTEN – A light breeze rustled the thatch roof outside the Driftwood Boat Bar as a group of Americans gathered to remember a Mount Pleasant couple who loved to come to this spot before tragedy struck in September.
Teal waves lapped at the white sands just a few yards from the bar, built in the belly of an old fishing boat, as arriving planes roared overhead, descending into the island airport across the narrow road. Down the street, brave beachgoers lined up along a chain link fence to see who could keep from getting blown off by the powerful exhaust of departing planes.
It’s a little slice of paradise along the sun-dappled coast of this small Dutch territory in the Caribbean. The family and friends of Michael and Thelma King thought it was only fitting to gather here Sunday evening to share memories and prepare for the difficult week ahead.
On Tuesday, three men accused of killing the couple are scheduled to stand trial in the nearby city of Philipsburg for the murders. They are accused of fatally stabbing the Kings during a robbery at their beachfront condo, just down the road from the Driftwood bar in Cupecoy.
Some 20 friends and relatives are on the island to attend the proceeding, which will be conducted under Dutch law. The trial is expected to last two days or less. The suspects face the possibility of life in prison if convicted.
The deaths struck a deep chord on the island. St. Maarten has its share of crime, but tourist killings are uncommon here. And the Kings, part-time residents who had invested in rental property and a rum factory, were well-known for their kindness and generosity.
Consider the story of Malena Osorio, a Colombian-born bartender at the boat bar who got to know the Kings about five years ago.
She recalled the time her car, an old Hyundai, literally broke in half when it hit a curb while she was out buying juice for the bar. When the Kings heard about her plight, they went out and bought her new, cherry red Hyundai so she could get to work and keep her job.
“I started crying,” she said, shaking her head. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself ‘I’ve got real friends here.’”
Vicki Cline, a Myrtle Beach resident who lives part-time on the island, tells a similar story. Mike King approached her day one curious about why she gave the Haitian-born cook at her restaurant a ride home every night. Cline explained that the woman had no money for a refrigerator, so Cline would buy her a hot meal nightly on the ride home to make sure she had something fresh to eat.
King pulled two $100 bills out of his pocket and told Cline to buy the woman a refrigerator so she would have an easier life.
“That’s just the kind of people Mike and Thelma were,” Cline said. “They were just giving, loving people to everyone.”
Some islanders think the Kings’ slayings have had a chilling effect on visitors, and some of their mainland friends acknowledge they had mixed feelings about returning to St. Maarten.
The Kings’ relatives, however, have made a point of coming back.
Michael King’s brother, Todd, has been here at least once a month since the killings. That’s partly because the family wanted to keep close tabs on the case and show island authorities they were committed to getting justice. But they also wanted to show they had not lost faith in the island Mike and Thelma held so dear.
“Mike and Thelma loved this island,” Michael King’s brother, Finley, said. “The last thing they would want is for the people of St. Maarten to suffer.”
If anything, the outpouring of support from islanders, from the prime minister on down, has reinforced their faith in St. Maarten.
If the family stayed away, Todd King said, then his brother’s killers will have won, on some level. They are not about to let that happen. He compares the situation to a tug-of-war battle, and his family has no intention of ceding ground to fear.
“They did all the damage they are going to do that night,” he said. “From now on, it’s about pulling the rope back to this side.”
Michael and Thelma King were part-time residents of St. Maarten and owned a condominium in Toler’s Cove in Mount Pleasant. Their South Carolina connections extended from East Cooper to Columbia, where they grew up.
Michael King was a retired insurance executive who later started a successful label printing company in Blythewood.
He and his wife fell in love with St. Maarten, a 16-square-mile territory with about 50,000 inhabitants that shares a small island with the French dependency of St. Martin.
They were found dead Sept. 21 inside their condo at the Ocean Club Resort.
Prosecutor Hans Mos has said Thelma King, 57, was found tied to a chair, and Michael King, 53, was lying on the floor, partially over an overturned chair. Both had been stabbed to death.
Island police arrested the first suspect two days after the killings. Meyshane Kemar Johnson, a 28-year-old Jamaican, was reportedly in the country illegally, working as a security guard.
Soon after Johnson’s arrest, police detained 17-year-old Jeremiah Chevon Mills and Jamal Jefferson Woolford, a 20-year-old Guyanese national, in the killings, authorities said.
All indications point to a robbery, prosecutors said. Authorities said they found Michael King’s credit cards and cellphone inside a getaway car used in the robbery of an island Chinese restaurant, to which the three suspects also have been tied.
Johnson has confessed to his role in the killings, and the other suspects have also provided statements, authorities have said.
Check back with postandcourier.com for updates on this story.
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.
Sign outside the Driftwood Boat Bar. (Glenn Smith/staff)×
Malena Osorio, bartender at the Driftwood Boat Bar, one of the recipients of Mike and Thelma King's generosity. When they learned her car had broken in half, they came up with the money to buy her a new one. (Glenn Smith/staff)×
A woman walks along Maho Beach at sunset outside Driftwood Boat bar. (Glenn Smith/staff)×