To avoid race riots and the resulting negative impact on tourism, a succession of Bermudian government administrations has whitewashed the assassinations of Bermuda’s governor and police chief in the early 1970s by a radical black-power group known as the Black Beret Cadre.
by Mel Ayton
During 1972 and 1973 the North Atlantic British colony of Bermuda, which had become a playground for vacationing Americans, was suddenly thrust into a climate of fear when a spate of murders, including political assassinations, occurred. Bermuda became the only British territory ever to have the Queen’s representative murdered in cold blood and the first nation to suffer the violent effects of the importation of 1960s’ American Black Power militancy.
The tragic events of the early 1970s had been viewed by many Bermudian politicians as a stain upon Bermuda’s reputation as a haven for travellers and an island of tranquillity. This attitude prompted them to ignore the Black Power connection to the assassinations lest further investigations stir up trouble between the races and provoke island-wide riots. Political leaders were also afraid that the truth about the murders and the instability of its political system, which the killings exposed, would damage Bermuda’s tourist industry which was its principle source of income.
Additionally, political leaders were embarrassed that a militant Marxist revolutionary organization, the Black Beret Cadre, which had been widely supported by many young Bermudians, was connected to the killings. The Black Berets, usually never attaining a membership of more than 100, modelled themselves on the American Black Panthers. In fact, many of its members had close connections with Black Panthers in the United States. Although two black Bermudians allied with the Berets were tried and executed for the murders, the weak response of the government in establishing a wider conspiracy effectively swept the whole affair under the carpet.
The first murder was committed on September 9, 1972 and the victim was Bermuda Police Commissioner (Police Chief) George Duckett, a British expatriate officer who had previously served in a number of British colonies around the world. Duckett had been lured to the back porch of his home, Bleak House, North Shore in Devonshire, where he was ambushed by his killer, or killers.
The Bermuda Police, ill-equipped to deal with a major murder enquiry, sought the assistance of Britain’s Scotland Yard which had been involved in prior murder investigations on the island during the previous decade. Scotland Yard flew a team of detectives out to the colony.
A substantial reward was offered by the Bermudian Government, but neither money nor murder squad detectives could raise any clues to the killer’s identity. The new governor of Bermuda, Sir Richard Sharples, a sailing friend of UK Prime Minister Edward Heath, suspected the involvement of the Black Beret Cadre. Although a number of Black Beret members were interviewed, none were charged with the murder.
Following the British detectives’ return to London, and exactly six months to the day since the police chief was killed, Governor Sharples and his aide Captain Hugh Sayers were shot dead in the grounds of the Governor’s Mansion in the capital city of Hamilton. Once again a team of detectives was requested to investigate the murders. With no more evidence than that three or four black men were seen or heard running from the scene of the latest shootings and a conviction that the two murders were linked with that of the police chief, the detectives once more led a massive hunt for the killers but after months of trying to find them they eventually conceded defeat.
The assassins of the police chief and governor were so confident of their ability to elude police they struck again in the capital city Hamilton on April 6, 1973. Two white shopkeepers, Mark Doe and Victor Rego, were found dead on the floor of their store. They had been shot with a .32 pistol although some .22 bullets were left at the scene of the crime. The .22 bullets indicated a link with the murder of Police Chief George Duckett. With what now appeared to be a further embarrassment to the Bermuda Government, Scotland Yard detectives were once more called to investigate. A new and enlarged Scotland Yard police team arrived in Bermuda and in desperation the Bermuda Government offered a reward of $3 million for information leading to the apprehension of the killers.
In September 1973, the Bank of Bermuda was robbed of $28,000 by an armed man, Buck Burrows, and on October 18th detectives, acting on a tip off, arrested him. After a second man, Larry Tacklyn, was arrested and charged, and with a large reward still outstanding, information began to trickle in confirming the involvement of the two men in the five murders. For the next two years police gathered evidence against the accused men who were held on remand in Casemates Prison, situated at the western tip of the island. By November 1975 an inquest jury had concluded that both men had been responsible for the governor’s assassination “with other persons unknown.”
In 1976, Burrows and Tacklyn were charged with the murders of Sir Richard Sharples, Captain Hugh Sayers, Victor Rego and Mark Doe. Burrows faced an additional charge of murdering the police chief. Burrows was found guilty of murdering George Duckett, Governor Sharples, Captain Sayers, Mark Doe and Victor Rego. Tacklyn was found not guilty of murdering the governor but guilty of murdering the two store owners. (In my book, Justice Denied, I provide compelling evidence that it was Tacklyn, not Burrows, who actually shot Sir Richard Sharples.)
It emerged that although the two men were low-level professional criminals, they entertained some sympathy with the Black Power movement and this had established the political motive for the crimes. However, it was never established at their trials that the Berets trained Burrows and Tacklyn in the use of firearms or that the black militant organization had told Burrows he was an important figure in the “coming revolution,” giving him the title of Commander-in-Chief of All Anti-Colonialist Forces in Bermuda. Additionally, jurors were never told the spate of robberies and drug deals were designed to secure funds for the Black Berets. But jurors were privy to a wider conspiracy when Burrows sent a written confession to the prosecutor in which he admitted killing the governor “along with others I shall never name.”
Both men received the death sentence. On December 2, 1977 Burrows and Tacklyn were hanged in Casemates Prison. The executions provoked revenge racial riots throughout the island causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage to property and the deaths of three people. The riots were incited by the Black Berets and the intemperate remarks of leading radical politicians. Rioters attacked police stations and business premises, especially in the capital city of Hamilton, and a state of emergency was put into effect that included a call-up of the Bermuda Regiment and the despatch of troops from the United Kingdom.
For the past 30 years the people of Bermuda had been given a whitewashed version of what exactly occurred when the murders were investigated and the two killers brought to trial. However, as many Bermudians had suspected all along, the government had erred in not bringing the assassins’ accomplices to justice.
Ten years ago the British Foreign Office released its files about the murders. Although they added to the sum of knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the murders it was the release of the Scotland Yard Murder files some years later that put the true story of the assassinations in the proper perspective.
In the summer of 2004 I visited Scotland Yard’s Archives branch situated a short distance from London’s St. James’s Park Tube station. Scotland Yard Assistant Departmental Records Officers Andrew Brown and David Capus allowed me access to the Scotland Yard Bermuda Murders Files before they were reviewed and transferred to the National Archives. At the time, they were inaccessible to Bermuda’s newspapers and they had not been seen by any member of the public.
In September of 2004 I received a letter from Sir Richard Sharples’s widow, Baroness Sharples. She knew about others who were involved in the assassination of her husband. Specifically she named a third man who was investigated by police but never charged. Baroness Sharples wrote, “(name redacted) was the third involved, he went to the USA at that time where he was under observance, returned to Bermuda many years later, where I was informed he would not be arrested if he did not step out of line…” In subsequent telephone conversations, Baroness Sharples expressed dismay and disgust that the authorities had not arrested him. She also believed there was sufficient evidence compiled by the police to bring him to trial.
Additionally, further research by this author and a series of interviews with police officers involved in the murder investigations have provided a context that had been missing when two of Bermuda’s leading newspapers ran a series of stories which had been based on the newly released Foreign Office files.During my research I also made contact with a former high ranking Bermuda police officer, ranked within the top six officers on the Bermuda force, who provided me with information about the murders. According to one of his former colleagues in the force, “… he was an honest man and took his job seriously and professionally…he was one of those people who if he told you to do something you did it not only because it would be an order but because you knew it was right and that he would back you up if there was subsequently any problems; you could trust him…..He was privy to a great deal of information and procedures…..He was someone with ‘status’”. The senior officer said the information I gave him went beyond anything published on the assassinations. He also said I was correct in my conclusions about who was to blame for the assassination of the governor and the police chief and that I was “…accurately centred in the middle of the nest.” Additional interviews with former prison officers revealed that the assassins were in constant communication with Black Beret members during a period of incarceration following their arrests.
An Unholy Alliance
The Scotland Yard Murder files reveal how a group of Bermudians, an “unholy alliance” of underworld criminals and a remaining hard-core of black militant activists within the Black Berets, conspired to commit murder, assassination and robbery. Self-styled “Godfather” Bobby Greene, who owned a restaurant in the Court Street area of Hamilton, led the underworld element. He was the mastermind behind the spate of robberies in the early 1970s and was a known drug importer/dealer. The governor’s assassins spent most of their free time at the restaurant. In fact, it was known as a meeting place for the militants.
The Scotland Yard files also reveal that the Black Berets had “reconnoitred Government House” on at least four occasions and watched the homes of leading politicians in the years before the actual shootings. The Berets had even planned a series of political assassinations when the time was ripe for their “Marxist revolution.” Investigators discovered the planned attack on Police Chief Duckett was taken straight from an urban guerrilla manual that was amongst literature read by Black Beret members. Additionally, Black Beret leader John Hilton “Dionne” Bassett had been seen firing a .38 revolver, the same type of weapon used to kill the governor. He fled the island after the murder of the police chief and never returned. It is believed he joined the Black Liberation Army in the United States. The BLA was responsible for assassinations of New York City police officers in the 1970s. This information was never revealed during the trials of the governor’s assassins. Bassett died in the 1990s.
The “Third Man”
The Scotland Yard files reveal the police gathered compelling evidence against another Black Beret leader and that he conspired with Burrows and Tacklyn to murder the governor. Until a Royal Commission re-investigates the assassinations his name must be withheld. He is referred to in my book as the “third man” and is still alive and living in a Middle Eastern country. (Scotland Yard detectives were also convinced a “fourth man” was involved but they were unable to discern his identity.)
- The “third man” had expressed hatred for the governor on more than one occasion.
- The “third man” was the most violent member of the Berets. He was the leader of the more militant faction of the Black Power organization. He was a strong advocate for the elimination of the island’s political leaders and the institution of a “revolutionary Marxist government.”
- A witness, who senior police sources said had been a police plant in the Berets, testified he had “reconnoitred” the Governor’s Mansion with the “third man” on at least four occasions. The “third man” had also drawn up sketch plans of Government House and Police Headquarters.
- A live 12-bore shotgun shell was found in the apartment of the “third man.” It was linked to the weapons used in the shootings.
- On March 14, 1971 the “third man” had threatened to kill a senior police officer, Detective Inspector John Joseph Sheehy. He was found guilty of the offense and sentenced to a period of corrective training. He also had a criminal record in the United States. On August 7, 1972 at Berlin, Vermont, he was arrested and charged with attempted breaking and entering of a Sports Shop whilst armed with a .22 rifle. He was later allowed bail but returned to Bermuda where he remained.
- The “third man” was observed handling the weapon that was used to assassinate the governor.
- The “third man” had showed a consciousness of guilt by fleeing the island under disguise when police eventually connected him to the assassination. When police officers attempted to arrest him he struck one of them, then made his escape on a flight to the United States disguised as a woman. Police sources reveal his eventual destination was Cuba or Algeria via Canada(The police received information from intelligence sources that the Berets had received funding from the Cuban government). He was aided in his escape by Calvin “Shebazz” Weeks, a leading member of the Berets. In an email to the author, these facts were corroborated by the alleged assassin’s biological daughter who now lives in the United States.
- At one time the “third man” had shared an apartment with convicted assassin Larry Tacklyn and a notorious Bermudian criminal, Dennis Bean. Bean had been convicted of the robbery of a store in Hamilton and had eventually been sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison.
- Scotland Yard detectives discovered that on the night of the governor’s assassination the “third man” went out of his way to be conspicuous and to be observed socializing with non-Berets. Senior police officers believed he had been trying to establish an alibi.
- Investigating police officers discovered that the quick-tempered and violently anti-white “third man” had a controlling influence over the convicted assassins. He exerted a kind of “psychic hold” over Burrows and Tacklyn and persuaded them they were active revolutionaries who could change Bermudian society at a stroke and help institute a revolutionary-type government. Although Burrows said the assassination of the governor was on his “direct orders” and “inspired efforts” the murder was in fact planned and directed by the extreme faction of the Berets with Burrows and Tacklyn playing the secondary role of hit men. Many years later some former members of the Berets would come to believe that Burrows had indeed been indoctrinated by militant members of the group and this small group of Berets were behind the murders.
Following the escape of the “third man” to North America, the authorities decided it was not in the interests of Bermuda to bring him to justice even though there was substantial and compelling evidence to show he had participated in the governor’s assassination. Police in the United States and Canada had been contacted by Bermudian authorities and a request was made for them to “keep an eye” on him but he was never extradited. He returned to the island a few years later but the arrest warrant had mysteriously gone missing. As a former police officer involved in the murder investigations stated, “With regard to arresting (the “third man”) I don’t believe there was much choice - the whole file including warrants… had gone, I believe from the court registry … I have a vague memory of an arrest on arrival prior to them discovering everything missing. I do not know why it was not reinvestigated with fresh information; maybe too much was missing. Maybe a deal was struck?”
The missing arrest warrant, according to the ex-police officer source, indicates there were people in high places who conspired to prevent the arrest of the” third man.” “My opinion is and was,” the former police officer said, “that if they brought (him) back this would create such a political mess with the Bermuda Industrial Union (Author’s Note: The BIU was allied with the opposition Progressive Labour Party)…. The government had enough on its plate. The island was divided 50-50 on the race issue. They had enough trouble dealing with all the black participants (in the murders)….. I guess the feeling was if anything comes to light that can directly involve and get a confession from someone or point to (the “third man”) that they could put before the courts, it’s better to have him at arm’s length and being watched.” Numerous sources for this book also deduced that the reason why the “third man” was not arrested was due to his strong links to powerful individuals on the island. The motive for stealing or destroying the arrest warrant, the sources allege, was a fear that riots would ensue.
Myth Instead of Truth
|Justice Denied By Mel Ayton|
The Black Berets continue to play an important role in Bermuda’s political life. Using the same tactics as many Marxists in the UK who joined the Labour Party in the 1970s, many Berets infiltrated Bermuda’s established left-wing Progressive Labour Party (PLP) in order to continue their covert radical agenda. They were clearly aware that their previously overt appeals to racism and violence would be rejected by the moderate black majority. However, the PLP has done nothing to correct the historical record with regard to the Berets. For the past 35 years PLP members have romanticized the black militant organization and embraced many of its former members. Additionally, leading Bermudian politicians of both races have not spoken out about the conspiracy because they believe it would not only affect tourism, which is the island’s principle source of income, but also expose the instability of Bermuda’s political system.
The Black Beret Cadre believed it had a God-given right to inflict its pathologies on the rest of Bermudian society and in so doing created great harm to the island and its people, both black and white. The role the Black Cadre played in the assassinations was whitewashed by consecutive Bermudian government administrations in the interest of racial harmony. Over time the history of the assassinations became a myth. And what people believe happened will unfortunately enter into the culture and memories of generations to come.