Sat | Sep 23, 2017

A community filled with fear - Family feud, gang violence, murders leave Lime Hall residents shocked and uneasy

Published:Thursday | November 24, 2016 | 11:00 AMMark Titus
The Lime Hall Baptist Church in St Ann.
The Lime Hall, St Ann, community square.
Roshad Moss
Joseph Lynch
Police conduct a search of the property in Lime Hall, St Ann.
Rojay Bender
A section of the burnt-out building at Arthurs Mount in St Ann.
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It is a winding, eight-minute drive uphill from the north coast highway through the bustling town of St Ann's Bay until you reach the square of the village of Lime Hall - an elongated knot of a handful of wooden, two-storey buildings, a few lazy bars, and a farm store. On the left is an approximation of a small shopping plaza.

About 200 metres beyond the square, at the intersection where there is the St Saviour's Anglican Church, take the right along the road, whose barber green top gives way to unpaved marl after 80 metres. On either side are large, concrete homes, built mostly by Jamaicans returned from living abroad. Maybe 450 metres along this stretch, on the left, is Arthurs Mount Estate.

There used to be an imposing but obviously time-worn, home here, a smaller version of the old plantation great houses. Of so-called 'stone nogg' construction, with stone and brick at the lower portion and wood at the upper, it had five bedrooms, a dining room, and sitting rooms. There were two outer buildings. One was the kitchen, the other a storehouse.

That was up to a year ago. The buildings don't exist anymore but for a bit of column rising from the remnants of the foundation like a single, remaining, rotted tooth that sticks out of an otherwise unadorned gum shrouded by a shaggy face.

The 60-acre property, with towering pimento trees and groves of mahogany and cedar, is now overgrown as though in protection of the mysteries of the November 2015 fire that destroyed the buildings as well as the baffling disappearance of four people: Joseph Lynch, 57; Lascelle Lynch (nephew of Joseph Lynch), 43, who was also called Errol and 'Kerosene'; Ruth Lawrence, 50; and Rimeka Haynes, seven, and Lawrence's 'adopted' daughter.

The Lynches, both of whom were farmers and higglers, lived at Arthurs Mount Estate. Lawrence and her daughter stayed there sometimes. She had rented a room there.

This is a story that involves criminal gangs, tales of extortion, palpable community fear, and violence in a once quiet community, and, apparently, family tensions over a large estate left by a wealthy landowner. There is, however, no clear evidence if, or how, they connect.

It began long before that fateful night of November 13, 2015. It began when Joseph Lynch was a boy.

He was born in Riversdale, St Catherine, but moved to Moneague, St Ann, when he was eight, having been adopted by a well-to-do landowner and farmer, Victor Scott, and Scott's wife. The Scotts later moved to Arthurs Mount, having bought the property from another big land owner, Ernest Harker.

Over the years, as the Scotts' biological children grew up and moved away, Joseph Lynch stayed, helping 'Papa' on the property, overseeing the harvesting of pimento, setting up charcoal kilns and planting root crops and vegetables. They also reared cattle, pigs, and goats. When Mrs Scott died in the early 1990s, Joseph grew closer to Papa.

People in Lime Hall and the surrounding communities remember him as a devoted 'son', also hurrying to return home from any business because to one, "he didn't want to leave Papa by himself". Though a reserved and private individual, he was a community person. He was a member of the Lime Hall Baptist Church, and at the time of his disappearance, president of the church's men's fellowship.

It is around the time of Mrs Scott's death that Lascelle Lynch joined his uncle at Arthurs Mount. He had been a troubled youth. Like Joseph Lynch, Lascelle was born in Riverdale, St Catherine, but at an early age, he was sent to live with a relative called 'Uncle Man-Man' in Islington, St Mary.

According to people who knew him, lacking parental direction, Lascelle was often absent from school and got himself into all kinds of scrapes. A move to another relative didn't help too much. He appeared to pull his life together after the relocation to Arthurs Mount, Lime Hall.

In Lime Hall, he is remembered as an outgoing, jovial chap who liked a good joke, a far cry from his earlier years when he painted and sculpted. He baked, too, and his puddings and art works were among an eclectic mix of products he sold at the Lime Hall Square. In fact, the nickname 'Kerosene' was the result of his sale of that product.

Originally, Ruth Lawrence is from a place called Philadelphia, a community approximately six kilometres from Brown's Town, high in the hills of St Ann, west of Lime Hall. She worked as a domestic helper. In 1999, she landed a job with a United States-based Jamaican as a live-in caretaker for his Jamaican home near Arthurs Mount Estate. She worked for this executive for 15 years but was fired in 2014, a dismissal that resulted in a court battle, over her severance package, which Lawrence lost.

It was during her time working for the US-based Jamaican that Lawrence informally adopted little Rimeka, whose mother, Tameka Lawrence, was having problems with the child's father over financial support.

Having lost her job and a place to live, Lawrence approached Lynch about renting space at the Arthurs Mount property. She told Lynch that her primary aim was to store furniture at the estate until a home she was building in Lime Hall was completed.

This development brings into the picture another of the primary characters of this story, Joseph Lynch's adopted daughter, Vilma Grant, who is the wife of retired Assistant Commissioner of Police Reggie Grant. She was one of the Scott children who had moved away from Arthurs Mount and with whom Lynch was closest.

Lynch approached Scott-Grant about the rental. She agreed.

Lawrence subsequently got a live-in job in a district called Epworth and left Rimeka with a friend so that the child's education at Lime Hall Primary School would not be affected. Lawrence would return to Lime Hall on weekends but not always stay at the Arthurs Mount property. In any event, her relationship with Lynch had grown strained. He was pressing her to sort out her living arrangements and move her belongings from the estate.

Like other previously quiet rural communities in Jamaica, criminal gangs, before the Arthurs Mount fire and disappearances, had found their way to Lime Hall and nearby communities. They intimidated residents, stole from farms, and extorted businesses, including higglers.

Among the most prominent of these gangs, initially, was the Clamstead gang, which got its name from the community from which it evolved and grew. In time, the Clamstead gang joined with the remnant of the Fire Links gang, which the police had substantially dismantled by 2014. The new, expanded group changed its name to the After Dark gang under the alleged leadership of Roshad Moss, also called Shut.

The Lynches, Joseph and Lascelle, despite their generosity, were often victims of the gang intruders, who raided their property of crops and livestock and threatened their lives, which residents insist was reported to the police. The police say they have no record of these reports.

Residents remain shy of speaking openly about these gangs for fear of provoking them.

Nonetheless, insofar as The Gleaner has been able to piece together, on the night before the fire and the disappearances, there was an argument between Lascelle and After Dark's members, who had threatened his life. Residents claim that the threat was reported to the police. Hours before the fire, Lascelle came out as usual to sell his products. Business was slow that night. Lime Hall was quiet. A lot of people were attending a wake in the adjoining community of Lumsden, where a popular funeral band was performing.

Sometime after 9:30 p.m., Lascelle noticed a group of more than a dozen persons walking along the road that leads to the Arthurs Mount Estate. A few minutes later, Lascelle told his friends goodbye and left for home.

He was never seen or heard from again.

Ruth Lawrence was in Lime Hall for the weekend. She picked up Rimeka and made an appointment with her hairdresser for the following day, Saturday.

She planned to sleep at Arthurs Mount Estate. But given the tense situation between herself and Lynch over her living arrangements, she did not want to turn up there too early. She had dinner at a male friend's home. He urged her to stay the night. She declined.

Instead, around 10:45 p.m., Lawrence left for Arthurs Mount. She had Rimeka with her. Neither has been seen since.

That time of year was usually busy for Arthurs Mount and Joseph Lynch. It is peak pimento reaping season. For the 2015 season, he had hired two of his biological brothers to help with the crop. Now, more than three hundred 509-kilo bags of dried pimento were in the storehouse. Those were to be sold the week after the fire. Additionally, he had several hundred feet of freshly cut lumber and 25 bags of charcoal ready for market.

But despite the seemingly good commercial prospects, all was apparently not well with Joseph Lynch.

According to a source with whom The Gleaner spoke, who wishes to remain anonymous, Lynch was complaining of being 'bossed around', which started after his adopted father's death. Days before his disappearance, this source said, Lynch had made arrangements with a taxi operator to transport 15 bags of coal to his church, concerned that if the individual, about whom he had complained, came to Arthurs Mount and saw them, he would want them all for himself. Lynch was known, over the years, to make gifts of coal and other produce to the church.

Nothing has emerged about Joseph Lynch's movements on the night of the fire except that he had spoken about plans to turn in early. He had an important meeting at his church the next day and wanted to be early.

Like his nephew, Lascelle, Ruth Lawrence and little Rimeka, Joseph has not been seen or heard from since.

Exactly when, or how, the fire started at the Arthurs Mount property, no one is certain. But at least one person living as far as three miles away said that around 3 a.m., he saw the flames in the vicinity of the Arthurs Mount Estate licking the night sky. But in a community where the houses are on large lots of land that are good distances apart, no one called the fire brigade in St Ann's Bay until 10:50 a.m. The firefighters arrived at the property 22 minutes later, encountering the smouldering remains of the former two-storey building.

Theirs, essentially, was a cooling-down operation, until, according to the brigade's report, firefighters at the scene were informed by someone who claimed to work on the property that four persons who were supposed to be in the house could not be accounted for.

The report didn't say what might have ignited the blaze and named the owner of the property as Vilma Scott-Ewart, an obvious reference to Vilma Scott-Grant, and gave the Grants a Kingston address, rather than Willowdene, St Catherine, where they had resided for decades. Senior Deputy Superintendent Anthony Hinds, of the St Ann fire brigade, blames Mr Grant for that inaccuracy, saying that it was based on information he provided at the scene.

The Grants were at the scene that day and were visibly upset by the tragedy. Indeed, friends say that Joseph Lynch was close to Mrs Grant and often spoke passionately about the couple, whose home he visited perhaps once a month.

However, there were complaints about a man to whom he referred as 'Nuh Linga'. Invariably, he would end any observation about that person with the comment: "Mi nuh like trouble."

Joseph Lynch's relatives declined to be interviewed for this story, but a close confidant of Lynch's said they tried unsuccessfully to get him to leave the St Ann property and return to St Catherine. Lynch's position was that he had made a promise to his foster father to protect the property. In any event, he argued, he was a beneficiary on his foster father's will, which justified his decision to stay at Arthurs Mount.

After the initial investigations into the Arthurs Mount affair, nine men allegedly affiliated with the After Dark gang, including its reported leader Richard 'Shut' Moss - who was already facing a murder charge in a separate case - were arrested in connection with the incident.

On December 10, 2015, then head of the St Ann police, Superintendent Wayne Cameron, announced that two of the men who were in custody - brothers, 27-year-old Junior Campbell and 23-year-old Shawn Nelson of Clamstead - were being charged for arson. The other men were all released.

A slipper belonging to one of the brothers was reportedly found at the scene of the fire, while a bag containing personal documents belonging to Joseph Lynch was reportedly discovered in a pit latrine at the tenement yard where they lived. At the time of his arrest, Campbell had cases pending in court for robbery with aggravation and wounding with intent.

When the two brothers appeared in the St Ann's Bay Resident Magistrate's Court on Wednesday, December 23, 2015, Senior Resident Magistrate Andrea Thomas pointed out weaknesses in the case, noting that there was no proof that the owner of the slipper had lit the fire. Further, with several houses in the yard where the pit latrine was located, the investigators would need to link the men to the bag found in it.

Their case, however, is still pending. At their last appearance in the St Ann Parish Court on October 7, 2016, the matter was set for committal hearing on January 6, 2017. At that time, a decision will be taken as to whether the case will be transferred to the Circuit Court for trial.

But there are also other twists in this case.

Among the several persons interrogated by the police during their investigations was David Hudson, a popular taxi driver who offered a 24-hour service. But he would be off the road for months at a time because of a mental disorder. The police apparently found nothing to link him with either the fire or disappearances.

But Hudson, who, it is claimed, often transported After Dark members, was reported to have been saying around town that he knew what took place on the night of November 13, 2015, at Arthurs Mount.

According to one report, while drinking at a bar in Lime Hall on New Year's Day 2016, he claimed that on the night of the fire, gang members had chartered his vehicle to transport pimento from the Arthurs Mount Estate. Hudson, it is said, claimed to have personally witnessed little Rimeka being forced to perform a sex act with one of the gangsters. The four missing persons, he insisted, were all dead. He, however, never provided any details and there was some conjecture that his remarks were in part the result of his illness.

A man named Damion 'Iron Man' Campbell was also reported to be saying openly in Lime Hall that he knew what had happened at the Arthurs Mount Estate.

On January 5, 2016, Hudson and Campbell were shot dead in separate incidents in the town.

Moss, the reported gang leader, was subsequently arrested for Campbell's murder. The police never revealed what caused them to finger Moss.

Campbell's killing and Moss' arrest appeared to unleash infighting in the After Dark gang, with factions lining up behind supposed supporters of Moss and others in favour of another leader.

On April 11, 2016, another alleged gang member, 20-year-old Rojay Bender, the son a policeman, was shot dead in Lime Hall by two men riding a motorcycle. Bender is believed to have played a role in the disappearance of the Arthurs Mount four.

As violence and fear enveloped Lime Hall, Maud Myrie-Miller, a life-long resident of the town and respected justice of the peace, told The Gleaner: "It was a shocker! Something like this happening in Lime Hall was unthinkable when I was a child. This community was always a peaceful place."

Miller was one of the few residents willing to speak openly about the Arthurs Mount incident. Others talk to reporters only in whispers, if they are in unidentified media house vehicles and preferably out of the community. People fear reprisals.

"I love Joseph (Lynch) so much," said one church member. She preferred not to be named.

She went on: "He did not deserve this. But I don't want no one to see me (talking to you). People are afraid of being called informers. Too much has been happening, and you don't know who is who."

Some members claim their fear is heightened by the number of strange men they have noticed in their community in recent times. They are grateful for an increased police presence in the town.

Superintendant Cameron, who was the divisional commander at the time of the Arthurs Mount incident, believes that the police have done reasonably well at keeping the peace in Lime Hall and their best at investigating whatever crime might have been committed.

He said: "We have tried everything. I am satisfied that we tried everything to find these people. We had the fire service, the scene-of-crime experts, canine units, forensic lab experts, and we did a three-mile radius search of the property.

"From that incident, things went downhill. We have no information, but we now have the gang leader in custody for breaching his bail condition, which is a testimony to the kind of work we have done. We have done substantial work in dismantling this gang."

mark.titus@gleanerjm.com