Thursday, February 22, 2018

Dole Chadee's fifth victim

Osmond Baboolal, then and now.

NEAR the junction leading to the mud volcano and narco mansion of Piparo is the turn-off to Pooran Street in the former sugarcane village of Williamsville.

Here you will find the ruins of a burnt-out house hidden behind the bushes.

The property is fenced, with a no-trespass sign warning “Property of the Sugar Industry Labour Welfare Committee”.

Not that anyone would ever want to squat or rebuild on that plot.

This was a place of death.

The neighbours are silent about what happened here. Go ask somebody else, they tell you.

Some things are better left unspoken. Even after 24 years.

Small-time crook Levi Morris helped the Dole Chadee gang kill four people at that house in 1994.

For turning State witness and ratting on his fellow murderers, Morris got his freedom for ensuring that his accomplices got the noose, a crude casket, and an unmarked prison grave.

For his help, Morris was rewarded with a new identity in a European capital.

When the Express last heard about him, Morris had earned a diploma in business, was holding a good job and visiting Trinidad often to check out friends and family.

The case also made millionaires of lawyers, made legends of politicians, fast-tracked promotions for police officers.

But for others involved, nothing but eternal misery.

Popo's life on the streets 

Villager Chunilal Popo, too, was a crucial witness for the State.

He was a watchman nearby the night Morris and his accomplices came to Pooran Avenue on Chadee's orders to “kill everybody”.

Popo had courage in that courtroom in Chaguaramas to face down men like Chadee and psychopath Joel Ramiah who tried everything, including killing star witness and crooked police officer Clint Huggins, in an all-or-nothing bid at freedom.

Popo provided the prosecution with a timeline for the massacre and a description of the escape car, which would later be found, traced to an owner, and crack the case.

His reward from the State after the verdicts were handed down? Nothing, till the day he died.

Popo never returned to Williamsville, fearing Chadee's sympathisers would kill him for having talked.

Instead, he stayed for months outside the San Fernando Police Station where he felt he had a chance to avoid assassins, real or imagined.

Popo's home for years was a cubbyhole under the front steps of the law office of former house speaker Nizam Mohammed, across the road from the station.

He did odd jobs for food, willing to tell anyone who cared to stop and listen to this limping, ragged, smelly man, about the promises the politicians made then to help him because he helped them.

Popo died in the storm drain near the San Fernando General Hospital, living to see Chadee and the gang hang over the course of three days in 1999.


Children hid in a bedroom 

Osmond Baboolal also testified at the trial.

He was a 13-year-old when they killed his mother Rookmin, father Deo, sister Monica and brother Hamilton.

He was still a child when he testified about that night, of how he and younger sister Haematee lived when everyone else died, hiding in a bedroom while his family died, the blood leaking through the floorboards of the house.

Haematie was taken in by an aunt, survived a turbulent adolescence growing up in San Fernando. But she stayed in school, and with the help of two police officers who were part of the Baboolal murder investigation.

For Osmond, his childhood ended that night. He was the fifth victim of the Chadee gang.

When the killers came, the target was Osmond's bigger brother, Hamilton “Mice” Baboolal, who had dared steal drugs from Dole.

But there could be no witnesses. So Mice, his sister and mother would be executed in the living-room – bullets to the head while they begged.

The father, who walked into his yard during the massacre, was shot dead on the steps.

Osmond heard it all. What he saw after the killers left and before the neighbours and police came into the house, no child should ever witness.

Communications adviser to the President Theron Boodan was then a reporter with the Trinidad Guardian. He was the first to the house and captured the now-infamous photograph of Osmond and his sister cowering in a corner of a neighbour's house.

Back then, crime scene investigations and a reporter's access were different.

Boodan recalled: “The old man, he was downstairs on the step, lying there bleeding through the mouth, a wound to the back of the head. Upstairs on the couch were the bodies of the others. There was blood everywhere”.

Boodan found out that the surviving siblings were across the road.

“We were taken there. They were so scared, shaking. You could have seen terror in their faces. They told me that when the men came and started searching the house and asking for Hamilton, one of (the gang members) found them hiding in one of the rooms. And although he had in instructions to kill everyone, he hid those children.”

Boodan said he never wrote about this in his reporting, but when he covered the murder trial years later, Morris took the stand and testified to hiding Osmond and Haematee from Joey and the others.

“That is how they survived that night,” said Boodan.

How we failed him

Osmond remained in the village and moved back into the death house before it was destroyed in an arson that remains “unsolved”.

He became something of a freak show (“look de boy who family Dole kill”), visited by media at massacre anniversaries for that always interesting “where are they now” story.

This reporter was part of it.

And when Chadee and his gang were hanged, Osmond, by then in his 20s and living alone in a shack on land his father once planted, was telling us that it did not matter; it would not bring back his family; the $171 a month being offered by Manohar Ramsaran's Social Development Ministry a joke, that he deserved millions for himself and his sister.

Ramsaran replying then, “Buckle down and try to lead a productive life, and get vengeance out of your mind” and “We are not in the business of making people rich. My ministry is to address the needs of people and assist as we can.”

The village tried to help. The vegetable stall vendor gave him a job.

Residents helped him build on land half a mile from the family house that remained empty until the day someone burned it to the ground.

Ramsaran never met Osmond, despite having to drive past that shack with then-attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, on their way to Chadee's confiscated Piparo mansion they turned into a drug rehab centre.

Neither did any of the other politicians, some of whom are still active – Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar included.


 The Chadee Gang



So Osmond was written off as the village outcast, a dangerous man/boy filled with rage, picking up convictions for beating an uncle, making threats, burglary, and drug possession.

He lost his vegetable stall job, began hanging with a bad crowd, and moved so far from “normal” people that he no longer acknowledged anyone during his trip to the standpipe for water to take to his shack.

In February 2010, the boy who saw four murdered was charged with trying to murder two schoolchildren, chopping a 15-year-old girl on the head, and a 14-year-old boy on ear.

He was remanded to the prisoner section of the St Ann's Hospital.

Osmond was supposed to have a two-week psychiatric evaluation. He stayed there for four months. Bail was set at $350,000, with an alternative that if someone could come up with $10,000 cash, he could be released pending his trial. That never happened. By then, there were no relatives still in touch.

In November 2011, he was committed to stand trial for the two attempted murders, and told that should he get bail, a condition of his freedom was that he attend a psychiatric outpatient clinic.

His lawyer asked the court to use its powers to impress upon the Director of Public Prosecutions to give the matter urgent attention and bring the case to trial, since Baboolal was unlikely to make bail. And that was the last we heard of Osmond.

Time tumbled on. The Williamsville atrocity of 1994 was replaced by new ones, new bodies – decomposing, burnt, bloodied – photographed by whichever person and police officer was first on the scene, and shared on must-see TV at 6 p.m. in a country quick to be outraged, and to forget.

We found Osmond and Haematee last month and found out about the tragic and triumphant journey of their lives.

Next Monday, you can read about the Baboolal siblings, the people who still care for them, and of Trinidad and Tobago's treatment, to this day, of the child survivors of violent crime.


NEXT WEEK: Will anyone help Osmond?



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