An ATF agent is being tried for murder in the U.S. Virgin Islands in a case that has pitted local cops against federal agents, and caused furious U.S. law enforcement authorities to withhold help from local police while crime and gun violence in the popular tourist destination continue to climb.
Special agent William Clark is charged with second degree murder for shooting his neighbor Marcus Sukow at their St. Thomas condo complex in 2008. Sukow's girlfriend had sought help from Clark during a domestic dispute, and Sukow was angry, inebriated and wielding a metal flashlight when Clark shot him. Local and federal authorities differ, however, on whether the shooting was justified.
What is not in dispute is that on September 7, 2008, Clark was leaving his condo when he saw his neighbor Marguerite Duncan trying to back her car up. Her boyfriend Marcus Sukow was blocking her car and yelling at her. Witnesses said Sukow and Duncan had been drinking at brunch before returning to the apartment complex.
Witnesses say Sukow took a foot-long metal flashlight and struck Duncan's car. Duncan got out of her car and got into Clark's car after he agreed to give her a ride. Sukow then yelled at Duncan to get out of Clark's car, and Clark told Sukow to go inside.
Sukow then approached Clark's car with flashlight in hand, and either struck Clark's car with the flashlight or swung it at Sukow or both, according to witness accounts. Clark, who as an ATF agent is always on duty and always armed, shot Sukow and killed him.
After the local government decided to prosecute Clark, the ATF stopped sending agents to the U.S. Virgin Islands. A confidential letter obtained by the St. Thomas Source, a local newspaper, gives U.S. Attorney Paul Murphy's account of the "collateral damage" to law enforcement in the islands, and indicates that other federal agents who remain in the islands are not assisting the local police department.
"Given the current legal and factual positions taken by the Virgin Islands government, federal agents are not responding and will not respond, wrote Murphy in a May 13, 2009 letter to U.S.V.I. Attorney General Vincent Frazer.
It was not until after Clark was charged in 2009 that a witness account emerged in which Sukow was charging at Clark and swinging his flashlight before he was shot. The witness who provided the account said she had given local police this account at the time of the incident, but the local police did not make it part of the official record.
The case has become a cause celebre for federal law enforcement agents. Advocates of Clark say he was operating under the federal Good Samaritan rule, which says officers may intervene when physical injury to someone is imminent.
Rep. Chris Lee (R.-N.Y.) plans to introduce a resolution in Congress this week in support of Clark, and said in a letter seeking a cosponsor for the resolution that "the facts show [Clark's] actions were heroic, not criminal."
Earlier this month, the acting director of the ATF recorded a video message for ATF agents to update them on the Clark case. Kenneth Melson, who emphasized that an ATF shooting review panel had unanimously concluded Clark's actions were justified and legal, said he knew agents were troubled by Clark's case. "I have been monitoring all aspects this case to ensure that I am taking all possible actions to support Will,' said Melson. "Accordingly, all agents have been removed from the island until further notice while we make sure that our agents are never again subjected to the ordeal being faced by Will Clark."
"I think the Virgin Islands Attorney General should be giving Will an award, not violating his human rights by convicting him in a medieval-run court," said Jonathan Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, a group that represents 25,000 officers from 55 different agencies, including ATF.
Said Adler, "I fully support ATF's decision to withdraw all their enforcement officers and I encourage all agency directors to pull their law enforcement officers out of what has become the 'lawless islands.'"
A spokeswoman for the Virgin Islands police confirmed that in 2009, the murder rate in the Virgin Islands was 51 per 100,000 population – a figure eight times the U.S. average. The violence was concentrated on St. Thomas, the center of population and the tourist industry. St. Croix and St. John, the other two major islands in the group, had far less criminal activity.
On Monday, July 12, a 14-year-old tourist from the neighboring U.S. island of Puerto Rico was killed on a tourist bus in St. Thomas when she was hit by crossfire from a gang shootout. Lizmarie Perez Chapparro, a cruise ship passenger who was taking an island tour and was headed to a popular beach, died in front of her family. A second cruise ship passenger on the bus was also injured in the crossfire, and a teenage bystander on the street was killed.
A spokeswoman in the Attorney General's office of the U.S.V.I. declined to comment on Clark's prosecution, other than to say that Clark was being prosecuted for a local crime, and that the decision not to transfer the case to federal court was made by the judge. Clark's trial is currently scheduled to begin in October.