Maho Beach, ST. MAARTEN — When Denise Stuard learned last year that she had breast cancer, she viewed the disease as a death sentence that would take her down.
That is, until she confided in her friend, Thelma King of Mount Pleasant, on the beach one day in February. King told her she didn’t have to die, that she could fight back and conquer the cancer. Then, King spent months being the rock Stuard could lean on for support as she endured surgeries and chemotherapy.
“She had the soul of someone who really, really cared,” Stuard said, choking back tears. “The last words I remember her telling me were, ‘You are a strong woman and you will beat this cancer.’ ”
She was right. Stuard is now in remission and her thoughts often travel to her friend, who died the day after offering Stuard those final words.
King, 57, and her husband, Michael, 53, were found stabbed to death in their beachfront condominium on Sept. 21, the victims of an apparent robbery gone bad.
Today, the three men accused of killing the Mount Pleasant couple are due to stand trial in a small court in nearby Philipsburg. Meyshane Kemar Johnson, 28; Jeremiah Chevon Mills, 17; and Jamal Jefferson Woolford, 20, face the possibility of life in prison if convicted.
The slayings struck a deep chord on St. Maarten, known as “The Friendly Island.” St. Maarten has its share of crime, but tourist killings are rare 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.
“Whenever you see a member of the King family, you feel hurt by the look of pain on their face,” islander John Langlais, a brawny bouncer known as “Big John,” said. “They didn’t deserve this, and I would drop my last 10 fingers to help them. The whole island is grieving over this.”
Mike and Thelma King, Columbia natives who lived in Toler’s Cove in Mount Pleasant, had been coming to the island for several years. Michael, a retired insurance executive and former label company co-owner, was known as a jovial, outgoing guy who could strike up a conversation with just about anyone. Friends described Thelma as the quintessential Southern belle, quiet and classy.
The Kings’ close friend and rum factory partner, local restaurateur Topper Daboul, said he’s so angry at the suspects he doesn’t trust himself to step foot in the courtroom and hold his temper. The former boxer, now 74, said he’d beat them senseless if given the chance.
Daboul’s concern for the Kings’ well-being after they failed to check in with him and his wife led to the discovery of their bodies last fall.
“It was catastrophic,” he said. “And I can tell you in my heart, the pain will never go away.”
About 20 family members and friends have gathered on the island to attend the trial, which is expected to last less than two days. Several gathered Sunday evening at the Driftwood Boat Bar, a favorite haunt of the couple and one of the last places they visited before they died.
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, and Kings’ relatives and friends thought it was only fitting to gather here to toast their memory and share stories of happier times and the good deeds they had done.
Take 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 paid for a cherry red replacement 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 one day curious about why she gave a 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.
Consider that a police detective met Michael King’s elderly mother at the airport with a dozen roses when she arrived over the weekend. And Daboul sent a limo to pick her up.
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 our side.”
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)×
Finley King, brother of Michael King of Mount Pleasant, stands in front of the courthouse in Philipsburg where three men will be tried in the killing of his brother and his sister-in-law, Thelma King.×