At Sea Breakers the night of the murder, I ran into Tom, the cleanest cut of the Pirate Crew. He and Karns, another Floridian, were in the Bucket of Blood that morning having a pick me up when Clifford Jr., Mr. Clifford’s 10 year old son by his second marriage, told them his father was late coming back from his farm plot. They went to have a look. “It was his son who found him,” said Tom. “He’d been stabbed in the legs and had his throat cut. His pants were yanked down to his knees to get at his money belt. They tossed his body in the bush like a sack of garbage. I’ve seen murdered men before, but whoever did this was having a time of it.”
The next morning I sat with Mr. Bodden, my landlord, and several other local men on the Main Street curb in front of the police station. Mr. Bodden told me they’d brought in Mr. Clifford’s hired man. “First the man say he didn’t go to work that day, but other men say they saw him and Mr. Clifford talking that morning and Mr. Clifford told him to go up to the field and get to work. Then he say, ‘oh, yeah, that’s right, but Mr. Clifford never got there.’ Now, he’s in there with a couple detectives from the mainland and two of Mr. Clifford’s sons.”
Mr. Jackson, in a Chi Chi Rodriguez rig, leaned across Mr. Bodden. “They going to use the needles, mon. These Spanish men, they don’t fuck around. They heat those needles up. It’s a rare mon last more than two fingers. This mon gonna remember the truth after one.”
A few minutes later a procession emerged from the police station. Two of Mr. Clifford’s sons, Morris and Aaron, emerged, followed by a thin, shackled man, two plainclothes mainland detectives and the two uniformed Honudranos who consititute the island police force. Mr. Clifford’s sons were big, grim looking men and they scarcely acknowledged the waves and murmurs of condolence among their friends at the curb. The prisoner looked in his forties, maybe older, and couldn’t have weighed 120lbs. He was so scared he was walking almost doubled up on himself.
The procession headed up the hill. “They going to the murder scene, let the Woods boys take turns on that mon,” speculated Mr. Boddin. “Get the truth themselves.”
“No, mon,” grinned Mr. Jackson. “They gonna show him the Bob McField mango tree. That’s all. They just going to show it to him.”
An hour and a half later the men returned. The prisoner looked better. “That mon confessed to somethin’,” Mr. Jackson said sagely. “He walkin’ with a lighter soul.”
The hired man, known around the island as Jorge or Jose (no one, even the police, seemed to be sure of his real name), was released later that afternoon. Morris Woods, a powerful man with wide shoulders who looks as if he can snap two by fours with one hand, was satisfied that Jorge was not involved. “We took him to the place he said he was working when my father was killed,” he said. Morris had flown over from his home on Rhoatan an hour after he’d heard the news and seemed dazed, as if the reality had not yet caught up to him. “It was too far from where my father died for him to have gotten from one place to another. Also, a number of people, island people, saw him working there around the time…so I don’t think he’s involved.”
Mr. Clifford was buried that evening. The wind had died the day before and the temperature was up to 33 C. With the wind gone, the sandflies were voracious and every tourist on the island was doing the St. Vitus Scratch dance. On the islands, the deceased don’t lie in state. You get them in the ground as fast you can.
Mr. Clifford’s wood casket was painted marine grey like a little ship. In lieu of handles, his sons and grandsons slipped white bed sheets under it and the six big men carried to the truck from the Methodist church. Once the church emptied, the truck led the 200 mourners up the hill to the Methodist cemetary. Neighbors came out of their houses and leaned on their railings, nodding to their friends and relations. Nearly 100 people followed the casket up the hill.
The sun was nearly set when Mr. Clifford was laid down. While the red clay was shoveled onto Mr. Clifford, Mrs. Jackson, from the Methodist choir, sang his favorite hymn, “Amazing Grace.” It was a magnificent sunset that evening with red and orange streaks against a dark blue, then purple, sky. The Reverend Joan Glover, a florid middle-aged Englishwoman remarked that “We often think of Utila as a paradise, and those who come here call it a paradise, but there is no paradise on earth without righteousness. All other paradise is just an illusion, a trick of the devil.”
Tom and I walked back down the hill together. He was the only one of the Pirate Crew to show. “I was the only one with a clean shirt. Shit, I’m the only one with a shirt.” When we reached Main Street, we turned to go in opposite directions. He stopped me. “I loved the old man and it breaks my heart,” he lamented. “Not only for Mr. Clifford, but for the island. Something like this happens and suddenly you feel all the beauty and good vibe sucked out into a black hole. You feel like it’s changed and it ain’t never going back.”
The next few days there was a steady exodus of tourists, their bodies covered with red sandfly welts. Few arrived to take their place and the island fell into a sad, over-heated lethargy. I met Roger Brooks, a New York City policeman who was one of Mr. Clifford’s grandsons. He’d been on his way to Nicaragua to visit his father’s family when he heard about his grandfather and rerouted. “I hadn’t seen him since I was small, but people always say how much we were alike. Independent, a little mean, tough. I know the way my grandfather did things his way and damn everyone else. It probably didn’t win him a lot of friends. But for all his faults, he was a hardworking man, a true Utilan and lived life on his own terms. He didn’t deserve to die like that.”
Written by Kent Black
Photography by Mark Smith of AboutUtila.com
This story is over eight years old and was originally sold to a national magazine. Its delayed publication is due to a runaway photographer and forces beyond logic. Although Utila has changed since this stories first telling, it remains a wonderful tale. Enjoy the story. – the Editor –
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