Murder and justice: Kings had it all on St. Maarten, but theft and violence came calling
CUPECOY, ST. MAARTEN — The scream echoed through the gated community, sending an icy chill through Topper Daboul’s gut as he stood helpless outside his close friend’s beachfront home.
About this story
This story was compiled from courtroom testimony, official accounts and dozens of interviews. The story references statements the main suspect, Meyshane Johnson, provided to police and confirmed on four occasions afterward. Johnson now claims to have no recollection of the killings.
Daboul and his wife had been in daily contact with Mike King in the months since the two men made plans to open a rum factory on the island.
Ages: Michael, 53; Thelma, 57Residences: Toler’s Cove in Mount Pleasant and a second home on St. MaartenBackground: Michael was an entrepreneur who had worked in insurance and had co-owned a label printing company in Blythewood. He was a partner in a St. Maarten rum factory at the time of his death.Thelma was a retired banking official.The Columbia natives had been married since April 1990.
But for more than a day now, King and his wife Thelma had been off the grid completely. They didn’t answer their phones, didn’t return emails.
St. Maarten facts
History: Claimed for Spain by Christopher Columbus in 1493. In 1648, the island was divided between Holland and France.Population: 41,000 on the Dutch sideSize: Dutch side is 16 square milesLocation: Northern end of Lesser Antilles, about 150 miles southeast of Puerto Rico.
Daboul, a Boston native who owns a pair of island restaurants, initially resisted his wife’s prodding to pay a visit to the Kings’ villa in this seaside enclave. He knew Mike had friends visiting from Charleston. Maybe they were just out having fun.
But as the hours passed with no word, that scenario seemed less and less likely.
A shipping container full of equipment for the factory was due to arrive on the island that day. King had packed the shipment himself before leaving his Mount Pleasant home to visit the island. He’d been so jazzed about getting the plant up and running. It didn’t seem likely he’d blow off the delivery, no matter who was in town.
Daboul rapped on the door of the Kings’ tan, three-story villa again and again, eyeing his friend’s car parked in the driveway. No answer. He needed to get a look inside. But at age 74, the scrappy former boxer had doubts about his ability to scale the back balcony, where a set of sliding glass doors offered a clear view of the downstairs area.
Daboul called out to a nearby landscaper and had the limber young man scamper up a wall beside a leafy banana tree to peer inside.
That’s when the scream sounded, reverberating off the compound’s cement walls.
“What is it?” Daboul called out, an eerie feeling settling in.
“A man with white hair is on the floor,” the shaken worker replied.
There was blood, the worker added.
So much blood.
A grisly scene
As sun-dappled vacationers snorkeled, sipped rum and sunbathed under a crisp blue sky on Sept. 21, police raced to the Kings’ villa in the Ocean Club Resort, located near the dividing line between the Dutch and French sides of the island.
A grisly scene
Prosecutors Dounia Benammar and Georges van den Eshof got the call as well. Under the Dutch justice system, prosecutors oversee crime scene investigations and the collection of evidence. That way, they know each crime firsthand, not as a two-dimensional narrative from a report. They see what the police see, and they carry those images with them as they prepare for trial.
They would not soon forget the scene that greeted them at the Kings’ villa.
Michael King, a 53-year-old retired insurance executive, lay partially on the floor, slumped against a striped easy chair near a living room entertainment center. A fire extinguisher lay on the cushion by his head. His throat had been slit, and stab wounds peppered his back and neck. One slice had severed a main artery, spilling his blood onto the stone floor.
Several feet away, between a dining room table and a granite kitchen bar, Thelma King, 57, lay dead in an overturned, high-back chair. Torn strips from a green beach towel had been used to bind her hands, tie her body to the wicker chair and keep her gagged and blindfolded. Her throat had been slashed twice with such severity the blade scarred her spine.
As they looked around, the prosecutors spotted a steak knife lying on the floor with the tip of its blade broken off. They quickly had the knife placed in a box and removed from the room without discussion. They told no one about it, unwilling to take a chance someone might leak the information and compromise the most promising clue they had.
What to expect?
Todd King’s mind raced as he and his brother, Finley, tried to envision what awaited them when their plane touched down in St. Maarten.
What to expect?
It had been less than 24 hours since they had learned their elder brother and his wife had been killed on this small island where the couple had kept a second home. Todd and Finley left South Carolina on the first flight they could find, accompanied by Thelma’s sister, Lois, and her husband, Mac Swain.
They knew next to nothing about St. Maarten’s customs and legal system.
Did the island have a U.S. embassy? Where was the morgue? How would they get there? How did the Dutch legal system work? Did the police really care about the killings? Could they trust the police? Could they trust anyone? Where should they go first when they got off the plane?
At an immigration checkpoint, a worker held up her hand when she saw Todd King’s passport. A tall woman with an athletic build came over and introduced herself as Dientje Muller, a police officer assigned to serve as the Kings’ family detective.
Island authorities typically assign an officer to work with a violent-crime victim’s family and help them navigate St. Maarten’s legal system. Muller got the assignment while dropping off her children at swimming lessons less than a half-hour before the Kings’ plane touched down. She knew nothing about the case. In fact, this was the first time the 20-year veteran had served as a family liaison.
Muller decided she would follow one guiding principle: “I will treat them the way I would want to be treated if I was in their shoes.”
That began with a trip to the morgue.
Meanwhile, Muller’s colleagues beat the streets in search of leads.
Among them was Claudius Rogers, an island cop who used to run into Mike and Thelma at the popular Sunset Bar, where people gather to watch passenger planes swoop in over Maho Beach.
Mike always made him laugh, kidding Rogers about the low-hanging holster the officer kept strapped to his leg. When Rogers heard Mike had been killed, he volunteered to work without sleep to find the persons responsible.
“That smile,” he said, shaking his head. “It was like a piece of the sunset was gone.”
Rumors and support
As police built their case, word of the killings quickly spread around the island, where many folks knew the Kings as a kind, generous couple.
Rumors and support
A husky man with a big personality to match, Mike could strike up a conversation with anybody or pop into an island grill and help with the cooking just for the fun of it.
When he learned the local bars didn’t have his favorite bourbon, Maker’s Mark, King brought down some bottles from South Carolina, handed them to bartenders and told them to sell it back to him at a profit if they liked. Soon, the bars started stocking his brand. But it would be henceforth known as “Maker’s Mike” on the island.
Thelma, a retired banking official, was more reserved than her outgoing husband of 22 years. Friends spoke of her quiet kindness, poise and her distaste of speaking ill of others. They called her a quintessential Southern belle.
How could this have happened to them?
The island recorded 10 killings in 2012, a high-water mark in recent years. Still, tourist murders remain rare. Tourism is St. Maarten’s lifeblood, as evidenced by the flotilla of hulking cruise ships that crowd the harbor in the capital city of Philipsburg.
Sarah Wescot Williams, St. Maarten’s prime minister, made a point to quickly reach out to the Kings’ family to express the island’s condolences. Privately, she worried about rumors and fear spreading to fill the information vacuum in the immediate aftermath of the slayings.
It didn’t take long. Bloggers soon speculated that the killings stemmed from a dispute over the rum business. Others suggested the Kings were killed in a murder-for-hire plot. No proof of either scenario was offered.
Detective Muller worked to keep the family grounded and in the loop. She took them to breakfast, to the police station, to the prosecutors’ office. She introduced them to investigators, showed them around the island, helped them arrange to ship the bodies home.
At each stop, the Kings seemed to find someone with a story about Mike and Thelma. They met the bartender who’d been surprised by the gift of a new car from the couple after her old ride broke down. They learned how Mike had bought a refrigerator for another needy resident, and how Thelma had been a rock for a friend struggling with breast cancer.
These stories helped ease the pain. But the family still needed justice to feel whole.
As is turned out, police had come across two key clues before they even realized the Kings were dead. Officers had located a black Hyundai that had been used in a robbery at the island’s Happy Star Chinese restaurant on the night of Sept. 19. Inside the car, police found Mike King’s cell phone and credit card.
Investigators scrolled through the numbers on King’s phone and reached out to his relatives in South Carolina on the morning of Sept. 21. While family and friends tried to reach Mike and Thelma, Daboul’s visit to the villa led to the discovery of their bodies. Daboul’s wife, Melanie, then rushed to the police station to make sure investigators were aware of a possible link between the restaurant robbery and the killings.
Investigators traced the abandoned Hyundai to an island man who told police he had lent it to a friend that night. The friend turned out to be Meyshane Johnson, a 29-year-old security guard, who had been drinking at Happy Star hours before the holdup.
A short, compact man with a vampire-like widow’s peak and a perpetual smirk, Johnson had been a hard drinker since the age of 12 and was known for his rather odd behavior. He once claimed to have talks with a giant frog. And he’d been deported to his native Jamaica in 2010 after threatening to leap from the roof of a friend’s house.
Johnson snuck back onto St. Maarten, leaving his three kids behind in Jamaica while he tried to build a new life on the Dutch island with a girlfriend he kept on the side. That life, however, was about to implode.
A police SWAT team swarmed the house where Johnson was staying and found him hiding under a bed.
Other evidence led police to Johnson’s younger cousin, Jeremiah Mills, a lanky, hard-luck kid with a nest of dreadlocks atop his head. Mills’ parents had both tried to walk away from him at an early age and he turned to drugs and misbehavior. By age 17, he had been to jail for theft and robbery.
Investigators caught up with Mills on Oct. 1 in Cole Bay, not far from the rum factory. Four days later, authorities in St. Thomas grabbed the third suspect, 20-year-old Jamal Woolford, after he stepped off a plane from St. Maarten.
By then, Johnson had broken his silence and started talking to police, offering them a detailed account of a night of greed and larceny that had ended with innocent blood spilled.
A suspect’s tale
After borrowing his friend’s Hyundai on the night of Sept. 19, Johnson picked up his cousin and Woolford, an old schoolmate of Mills’ who had spent most of the day at home smoking pot.
A suspect’s tale
Woolford was known as a polite, normal kid who worked as a crew member on a charter boat. But the tourist season had slacked off of late, and he wasn’t getting many hours at work. That made him anxious. The rent was due and his girlfriend was pregnant.
He badly needed cash, and the trio decided to rectify that by robbing Happy Star shortly before 8 p.m.
While Johnson waited behind the wheel of the idling car with tinted windows and a pin-up girl sticker, Mills and Woolford stormed inside with pistols in hand. Mills, wearing a Halloween mask, demanded money while Woolford stuck a gun to the side of a customer’s head.
They barely escaped with a handful of cash after the Happy Star’s owner alerted police. Officers blasted several shots at the fleeing Hyundai, with one round lodging in the trunk.
Sighting a target
Johnson hit the gas and veered down side streets until he reached the French side of the island, a common criminal ploy to evade the local authorities.
Sighting a target
They switched license plates and drove through the darkness until they arrived in Cupecoy, an area of Dutch territory known for its picturesque beaches and cliffs.
Johnson pulled into a vacant lot beside by a dense maritime forest filled with twisted, gnarled trees and snaking paths that led to the beach. There, they left the car and set off on foot across the sand, taking advantage of receding waves to get around a security wall at the perimeter of Ocean Club Resort.
The three robbers spotted lights on at one villa perched on a bluff, surrounded by unoccupied homes. They moved silently up a staircase from the beach to take a closer look.
Inside, Mike King slept soundly in an easy chair with the television flickering before him.
He made a habit of locking up every night and closing the retractable hurricane shutters over the windows and doors for added security. This night, however, he nodded off before taking his usual precautions.
Caught by surprise
King had spent the entire day working with Melanie Daboul on the rum factory preparations in an industrial corner of Cole Bay. After a few drinks with friends on Maho Beach and a light dinner at a local cantina, he and Thelma decided to call it an early night. They were bushed.
Caught by surprise
King didn’t hear the three men scamper up a gas cylinder alongside the back balcony that offered unobstructed views of the Caribbean Sea. Nor did he hear the sliding glass door open as they slipped inside.
He didn’t realize they were there until Woolford tapped his face with the barrel of a pistol. He started to protest, but Woolford buried a fist in his gut. Johnson came from behind, grabbed him in a headlock and placed a knife to his neck.
They demanded to know where the money was, and King told them it was upstairs in a bedroom where Thelma lay sleeping unclothed in a four-post bed.
While Johnson held King, Woolford and Mills tromped up the tiled stairway and across the landing where a bucket of paint and brushes lay on a crumpled Miami Herald, the remnants of Thelma’s afternoon home improvement project.
They stepped into the bedroom and woke Thelma, who came awake in a full panic. Mills told her to put some clothes on and help them open the small safe the Kings kept in a nearby walk-in closet. “I promise we won’t hurt you,” he told her.
Shaken, Thelma fumbled with the combination, and couldn’t get the safe open on the first couple of tries. But when the steel door finally popped, Mills and Woolford helped themselves to a pile of $100 bills and a sack of jewelry with an estimated worth of about $70,000.
They then marched her downstairs, gagged her and tied her to a chair to keep her from screaming or running for help.
Mills turned and grabbed a cold Heineken from the Kings’ refrigerator to slake his thirst and keep his buzz going. He offered a brew to Mike and Thelma as well, thinking it might calm their nerves. They declined.
Then, the knife came down.
As prosecutors listened to Johnson’s tale, the details rang true. But it was one crucial statement that convinced them they had the right man.
Johnson explained that Mike King had tried to come to his wife’s aid after she was tied up, resulting in the cut on his neck. As King rose bleeding from his seat, Johnson plunged the steak knife into his back with such force that it snapped the tip of the blade in the process.
Johnson told police he killed King with a second knife so he wouldn’t suffer and then Thelma to spare her the pain of a life without her husband.
Benammar and van den Eshof looked at each other. They had kept the broken knife a secret. No one knew about the tip lodged in Mike King’s back until it was found during the autopsy. The only way Johnson could have known was if he was there that night.
Mills and Woolford eventually gave statements to police as well. Though some details varied, key points became abundantly clear. This had not been a contract killing. There were no links to the rum business. The crime had been random and senseless. And while the Kings lay dying, the suspects went out to blow their money on prostitutes and booze at a brothel.
Tug of war
On a sunny April morning, Mike and Thelma’s relatives gathered in the belly of Topper’s Rhum factory and watched as workers on the production line hand-filled bottles with Melanie Daboul’s flavored concoctions. Mike’s mother, Sally Gripkey, teared up when she saw her son’s curling signature had been added to the label of each bottle.
Tug of war
The day before, the trial of the three murder suspects had come to an end, with prosecutors recommending life for Johnson and dozens of years behind bars for Mills and Woolford. A verdict and sentencing are expected next month.
The family’s wait for justice is nearly over, but the Kings insisted they would return to St. Maarten and would encourage their friends to visit as well. The rum factory is one draw, of course. But it’s more than that, Todd King told an island radio audience.
“We look at it like a tug of war. These guys took everything in the world from us that night. Every day since, we have tried to pull back on that rope. Every day, we try to get another inch,” he said. “If we’re scared to come to the island, if we’re scared to talk about Mike and Thelma, if we’re too scared to deal with it, then they’ve won. And we’re not going to allow that to happen.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.