By Aaron Humes
BELIZE CITY, Mon. June 23, 2014
The Government of Belize is at fault for allowing Toledo villagers to destroy a crocodile sanctuary while searching for two missing children nearly four years ago, a court has decided.
The Court of Appeal on Monday dismissed the appeal of the Government in the name of the Minister of Finance and the Attorney General against the American proprietors of the American Crocodile Education Sanctuary (ACES), Vincent and Cherie Rose.
Supreme Court Justice Oswell Legall found that the group of approximately 100 Maya villagers of San Marcos, Toledo and other villages, who were frantically searching for missing siblings Benjamin and Onelia Rash on September 5, 2010, were part of a “riotous assembly” as defined by the Criminal Code and Riots Compensation Act, Chapter 338 of the Laws of Belize.
They had gone to the Punta Gorda Police Station seeking assistance to find the children, and upon being told that an officer would be sent to join them at the ACES property later on, proceeded to the sanctuary in Forest Home carrying weapons, including guns.
Previously, they had consulted a fortune teller who claimed that the missing children were at the crocodile sanctuary.
The Roses were not at home at the sanctuary when the crowd came.– The group set several buildings on fire, killing 13 of 18 American crocodiles being cared for by the Roses while a fourteenth, a baby crocodile , was found hacked to death
Nigel Hawke and Trienia Young, appearing for the Government, contended that the evidence of any riot was circumstantial at best, as the group’s demeanour while in Punta Gorda and on the road to the property did not suggest violence. They stated that either there were less than five persons actually “riotously assembled” or the damage was caused by persons not associated with the group.
Searchers for the missing children had previously inquired at the property in the days before September 5.
In reply, the Roses’ attorneys, Andrea McSweaney-McKoy and Agnes Segura-Gillet, contended that a “common purpose” as defined in law does not distinguish between legal and illegal purposes, nor whether a specific number of persons is needed to actually commit the damage.
In any event, the villagers’ actions – purposely blocking the road to the property, and carrying weapons – made their assembly a riot under the law.
Vincent and Cherie, who have since personally relocated to Ambergris Caye and moved the ACES sanctuary to Ladyville, claim to have lost over $900,000 in household goods and other items including a damaged vehicle. However, no decision has been made as to what the Roses will recover because in the lower court, a decision was made to argue on the basis of liability and then to determine what damages would be awarded, if any. The Government has the option of taking the case to the Caribbean Court of Justice.
President of the Court of Appeal Manuel Sosa and Justices Samuel Awich and Minnet Hafiz Bertram have promisedto give their reasons in writing at a later date.
The Roses are presently out of the country but have long insisted they had nothing to do with the children’s disappearance.
Both Benjamin and Onelia Rash remain officially missing, three years and ten months later.