Kings’ families claim bodies

Michael and Thelma King “were just such nice people,” longtime friend Cathy Rozbitsky said.

The families of a Mount Pleasant couple slain in St. Maarten have been cleared to take their bodies back to the United States for burial as island authorities focus on keeping a suspect in the killings behind bars.

The bodies of Michael and Thelma King were released to relatives after autopsies confirmed that the couple bled to death from fatal stab wounds, St. Maarten Solicitor General Taco Stein said Tuesday.

A suspect in the killings, a 28-year-old Jamaican man, is scheduled for a pretrial detention hearing today. The man, arrested Sunday, remains under suspicion but has not been charged in the Kings’ deaths.

Under the island’s system of justice, prosecutors must justify his continued incarceration after three days in custody, Stein said.

Stein said investigators have evidence linking the suspect to the killings, but he declined to provide specifics.

“We have to keep some things in confidence so as not to jeopardize the investigation,” he said. “But we have a definite link between our suspect and the case. We are pretty confident the judge will see it that way too and that he will be kept incarcerated.”

According to prosecutors, police questioned several witnesses Tuesday. “The suspect has been further interrogated but on advice of counsel chose not to speak at this point,” they said in a news release.

Prosecutors met at length with the Kings’ relatives and explained as much of the case to them as possible, Stein said.

The Kings’ families broke their silence Tuesday and released the following statement, while declining any interviews:

“We are overwhelmed with the outpouring of support we’ve received over the past few days and want to express our sincere appreciation to everyone who has reached out to us with phone calls, emails, notes, flowers, meals and, most importantly, prayers. We know that Mike and Thelma touched the lives of so many people. We are truly grateful for the support and expressions of sympathy. We ask that you continue to pray for our family in the days ahead, and we ask the media to respectfully grant us privacy and time to grieve.”

Details on funeral arrangements for the couple have not been finalized. The Associated Press reported that friends and relatives of the couple are gathering in St. Maarten for a memorial.

The Kings were found Friday in their condominium at the Ocean Club Resort on St. Maarten, a 16-square-mile territory with about 50,000 inhabitants that shares a small island with the French dependency of St. Martin.

Chief Prosecutor Hans Mos said Thelma King was found tied to a chair, and Michael King was lying on the floor, partially over an overturned chair. Both were in their 50s.

Authorities have identified the suspect only as M.K.J. It is common practice in St. Maarten to identify suspects by their initials until they are formally charged and tried.

The St. Martin News Network identified the suspect as Meyshane Kemar Johnson, who worked as a security guard on the island.

Defense attorney Brenda Brooks told AP that Johnson denies any involvement in the slaying of the Kings.

SMN News also reported that Johnson is suspected of being involved in a robbery at the Happy Star Chinese Restaurant on the island Sept. 19, the same day as the Kings were supposedly killed.

Quoting unidentified sources, the news agency also reported that investigators now are looking for a second suspect of Jamaican descent believed to have been involved in the holdup and the King murders.

SMN News reported that Johnson borrowed someone’s car to commit the robbery, and police fired a shot at the vehicle.

The vehicle’s owner reportedly called police when he noticed that his vehicle had a bullet hole in it and had suspicious items inside, SMN News reported. The network said it also learned that police found several incriminating items in the vehicle, including credit cards and a cellphone belonging to Michael King.

The news network also reported that Johnson was illegally living on the island while working for Checkmate Security Co. Johnson reportedly called in sick for work after the Happy Star Restaurant holdup, SMN News reported.

Stein said the news agency has good sources, but some of the information that has been reported is inaccurate. Among other things, police have not conclusively identified robbery as a motive for the killings or pinpointed additional suspects in the case, he said.

Stein said investigators searched a house where the suspect was found Sunday and seized some items, including clothing. He would not comment on specific evidence,

The Kings were part-time residents of St. Maarten and owned a condominium in Toler’s Cove in Mount Pleasant. Their connections in South Carolina extended throughout East Cooper to Columbia.

Friends back home remain shaken and incredulous. They recalled the Kings as gentle, generous and loving people who made friends easily and were quick to help others in need.

“This has just been devastating,” said Cathy Rozbitsky, who has known the couple for 25 years. “They were just such nice people.”

Another friend, Jeanie Thompson of Chapin, said the couple treated everyone with dignity, and friends can’t figure out why anyone would want to hurt them. If their killer wanted money, the Kings would have simply handed it over, she said.

“I guarantee that whatever happened, Mike died protecting Thelma, or trying to,” she said. “They loved each other so much. You could just see it in their eyes when they looked at each other. He worshipped her and she worshipped him.”

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.