An island paradise. A dead boy. Endless theories. And a Hamilton man awaiting judgment. By Molly Hayes, Hamilton Spectator
* * *
[T]here are a lot of people who think they know what happened to TJ Elibox, but most of them weren’t there.
The four-year-old St. Lucian boy drowned last month; swallowed by the choppy salty waters of the Atlantic Ocean on Feb. 22, after a Sunday church barbecue at Bois Shadon Beach.
As panic and then grief set in on the picturesque south coast – even before the boy’s small body washed ashore two days later – fingers, one by one, began to point.
St. Lucians love a good “roro” — a Caribbean word for story or gossip. Drama. It seems everyone on the island has a theory of how the child — who couldn’t swim — ended up in the water.
At the centre of the case — against the tropical backdrop of the mountainous tourist destination — is a Hamilton man, Sahab Jamshidi, a trained doctor and avid kite-surfer, who had been at the palm-studded beach that day with friends to celebrate his 34th birthday on the waves.
He says he was the one who found the boy in the water — that he’d spotted his head bobbing in the waves as he skirted by, his kite pulled by gusty winds. That he screamed for help as he tried in vain to rescue the boy. Stuck around to help launch a search party and shared his story with police.
But the church community TJ was with that day says Jamshidi took him from the sandy shore — away from the teenage girl who had been minding him while his grandmother, Marcellina Albert, and other adults cleaned fish 100 feet away — and took him out for a ride on his surf board, where he fell off and drowned.
St. Lucia police have not talked to any independent witnesses on the beach. They say they are relying on the statements given by TJ’s teenage babysitter and his church group. Based on that, Jamshidi — awaiting a medical residency in Canada — has been charged with causing death by gross negligence, and is awaiting a hearing to find out if the charges will move forward to trial. Until then he’s been stripped of his passport and confined to the island, his future as a doctor in limbo.
[O] n a breezy Thursday evening, almost two weeks after the incident, Pastor Cornil Rudy Williams drives the rutty road to Bois Shadon to walk the same stretch of sand where TJ was last seen on land.
The boy’s grandmother Marcellina Albert is in his SUV, too, but halfway there it stops and she gets out. She is crying — she can’t go back there, she says. Not where TJ died.
Bois Shadon — connected to popular resort Coconut Bay Beach — is typically less populated because of the poor road conditions. The shore here is covered in seaweed. Williams arrived early that Sunday to clear a patch for his congregation to gather.
As the sun sets, the young pastor stands at the edge of the water, pointing out to where he and his church group watched Jamshidi flailing in the water, calling for help. TJ had been building sandcastles on the shore with a 16-year-old girl from the church, Williams says; running back and forth to the edge of the water, where he would pool water with his hands for their sand structure.
It was calm that day, Williams says — “the calmest beach in St. Lucia.”
The pastor himself and the boy’s grandmother were about 100 feet away at the time, cleaning fish, when kids on the beach “came out crying, ‘the man took the child. The surfer,’” he says. They ran down the beach (toward Coconut Bay), he says, where about 400 feet out they could see Jamshidi, calling for help.
“We saw him during, I mean, when everything happened, he was the one in the water when he called for help, so we know that he was the person,” Williams says. He pointed Jamshidi out to police when they arrived and said “this is the man who had the child.”
[A] day later, Friday now, Jamshidi sits in his lawyer Alberton Richelieu’s office in Castries, about an hour’s drive north of the beach. He hasn’t slept and apologizes for his dress; a Montreal Canadiens hat, a novelty beer T-shirt. Board shorts. He’s been out on bail two days after spending six days in a holding cell at the Vieux Fort police station, sleeping on a concrete slab, a water bottle wrapped in a T-shirt as his pillow.
“I didn’t do anything wrong, I was just trying to help somebody and I thought cooler heads would prevail — but staying in isolation, you know, in a concrete cell your head wonders … how much longer am I going to be here,” he says.
He breaks into tears talking about his St. Lucian friends, Raymond and Gordon, who made the hour-long trip to visit him each day.
“I’m thankful to have such great friends … they’re more like family now … to get me through something like this,” he says. He is especially grateful for Raymond for agreeing to be his surety — which means he has to live at his house indefinitely.
Video: Sahab Jamshidi with his lawyer Alberton Richelieu
Jamshidi loves St. Lucia and considers it a second home after spending two years here for medical school. He wants to see his name cleared and still dreams of one day opening a practice on this island.
He remembers that day very differently from the pastor. For one thing, he says, the sea was rough, especially on the South Atlantic coast; windy and wavy — perfect for kite surfing. He was out on the water; jumping waves as the wind pulled his kite, when he spotted the child. He told police he’d tried to grab the boy but that the child knocked him in the chin. The blow disoriented him and he fell in the water.
He blew back to shore, calling for help; other kiters launched a frantic search. He was one of the last ones out of the water. When police arrived he gave them a statement about spotting the boy in the water and his failed attempts to rescue him — so he thought nothing of it when they asked him to come by the station.
“I was under the impression when we were originally going to the station … it was trying to solve the mystery; figure out what happened to the kid,” he says.
But then they asked him to bring in his kite. And then to come back again the next day. He noticed there weren’t any other kite surfers in the station. He started to get nervous.
“I was thinking ‘why are you keeping my kite? Why aren’t there any other kites; why aren’t there other kite surfers here … what is going on?’” he remembers. Within two days the boy’s body had washed ashore and he was under arrest.
“At that point I was struggling to hold the tears back, like what is going on here?” he says. He called his dad but couldn’t bring himself to break the news to his mom.
“I didn’t tell my mom when they arrested me, because I didn’t think this was serious — I didn’t think I needed to worry my family needlessly,” he says. But back home his friends and family were in a panic.
After he was officially charged, they rallied — rushing to collect character references ahead of his bail hearing from those who knew him.
After being out on bail for two days, he says his phone is still exploding with messages from friends all over. He’s been too overwhelmed to know where to begin thanking everyone.
“It feels like a bad dream has ended but it’s still real,” he says grimly.
He has lost track of the versions he’s heard of the case. He’s stopped reading comments in the media. At first, on the beach, he was told the police were looking for a tall blond surfer with a tattoo; that is the description given by TJ’s grandmother.
Then police told him that theory had been scrapped. “They (later) told me the grandmother was in emotional distress and she just made it up. And I’m like ‘so, then who’s really accusing me?’” he says.
“If you say the grandma was in emotional distress and made this story up, is there a possibility that the person who is claiming this and accusing me also was in emotional distress and has made up a story? I don’t know what to believe anymore and I’m trying just to stay out of all the news … it’s not my responsibility to solve this. It’s the police force’s … but it seems like any information I’ve provided up until now has been used to put me behind bars and that’s the frustrating thing.”
[I]n the nearly empty Vieux Fort Police Station Saturday morning, Inspector Marcellinus Leonce acknowledges investigators are dealing with conflicting stories both from the church group and family, who were not with the child at the time, as well as from Jamshidi himself.
The discrepancies in Jamshidi’s two statements, Leonce says, are about how he found the boy in the water, not the location of their encounter. At first, Leonce says, Jamshidi said he felt his board hit something and then saw the boy, later he said he had noticed the small boy’s head bobbing nearby.
According to Leonce, Jamshidi says when he tried to grab the boy, the boy knocked him in the chin, disorienting him and sending him into the water. Jamshidi was consistent in his assertions he had not interacted with the boy on shore, and that the first time he saw him was in the water when he attempted to save him, Leonce says.
The teenage girl who had been watching the boy says otherwise, Leonce says. She claims that she was on the sand about six feet from TJ while he was building a sandcastle. When she saw Jamshidi holding onto the child she stood up, Leonce says, telling him to let go.
“And Mr. Jamshidi asked ‘can you come for a ride?’ She said ‘no, I cannot swim.’ And Mr. Jamshidi then assisted the deceased in going onto the surf board and then left with the child,” Leonce says.
Jamshidi says he’s baffled at the idea that he would just take a child and run. “Like, does this even make sense?” While some theorize that he intended no harm but was simply trying to be nice to the boy by taking him for a ride, he vehemently denies that, too.
His lawyer, Alberton Richelieu, believes this case is “a shifting of responsibility,” he says, smoking a cigarette at his desk. “I see … negligence on the part of the family and they are trying to shift the negligence to him.”
That theory is shared by TJ’s dad. Terry Elibox lives in Marc, a short drive from Castries toward the centre of the island. It’s a small community where most are related, many of them butchers, he says. It has a bad reputation for violence but in recent years has been quiet.
The road to Elibox’s house is narrow and rough, and on a Monday night — one day after his son was buried — it is dark. Silent except for the sounds of dogs barking and bugs chirping in the bush and a growing number of young men joining him for rum and cokes and cigarettes, an extended wake for TJ.
The home itself is small, made of wood and fits little more than a mattress.
He flips through his BlackBerry, showing off photos of the smiling gap-toothed boy. He and the boy’s mother have not been together for years, and says he was in a custody dispute with the boy’s maternal grandmother.
The boy had, until recently, lived with him there in Marc — still should have been living with him, he says — but on the day he died had been with his grandmother at the beach.
When he got the call on Feb. 22, Terry says he rushed straight to the beach. And despite what he was told, he doesn’t buy it.
“They say it’s the white man. I don’t know but I never believe that story, you understand?” he says.
He says when he arrived at the beach, he was shown where the boy was and where TJ’s grandmother had been — as police say 60 to 100 feet away.
That is neglect, he says. “(A child) should be beside you at all times … you going to clean fish, then he should be beside you, you understand what I’m saying? When you’re ready to bathe that four-year-old, you go bathe him in the sea, get him dressed, and he’ll still be around you.
“If that guy didn’t see my son, what story would you all give me? You all would just say you bring him by the beach and you don’t see him … until his body come up on shore.”
He has not spoken to Jamshidi but he wants to — he wants him to know he believes him.
Video: Callista Roserie, aunt of TJ Elibox
[U]ntil now the most interaction Jamshidi has had with the legal system was a speeding ticket back home in Canada, he says.
Despite living on the island for two years during his medical studies at the College of Medicine and Health Sciences – St. Lucia, he certainly hadn’t read up on the system here.
But he is slowly learning how slow the Caribbean courts move — and that he could be waiting several years should the case go to trial.
“The legal system here isn’t the same as I’ve grown up used to in Canada … it’s that horror story of hearing someone being locked up abroad — and it’s shocking when you realize that it’s really happening to you.”
“Like molasses moving uphill,” a local journalist describes it. There are only two judges in St. Lucia — meaning the justice system is severely bottlenecked.
It boils down to a lack of resources, says local legal advocate Dr. Stephen King.
Yes, they are short of judges, but even a shortage of, say, stenographers leads to many delays in getting transcripts to lawyers.
On paper, their justice system is inherited largely from the British system and generally mirrors Canada’s. And senior diplomats there have been closely watching the case, and have met with local authorities.
Walking through the courthouse in downtown Castries — a short walk from Richelieu’s office — lawyers saunter through in their black robes or suits, similar to the scene at John Sopinka Courthouse in Hamilton, except for the warm breeze blowing through open windows.
Grand painted portraits of past judges line the walls in the main foyer. A security guard stands at the door.
King, a local pathologist, is co-founder of Remand Justice, a non-profit lobbying for reform — particularly, speedier trials.
Despite their Commonwealth status, he knows there are certain perceptions of island justice.
“I mean, OK, we are a relatively poor country in the Caribbean and I know most developed countries like Canada, the U.S, U.K., Europe would think of us as, you know, a somewhat backwater, backward set of people. And I’m not saying we are the most evolved and developed people — we’re not, we have a long way to go. But generally speaking, our systems are all inherited to a large extent from the U.K.,” King says.
“I think at the end of the day the process (here) is fair; it just takes too long, way too long.”
That said, Jamshidi got bail just one day after being charged — and at the minimum amount, $10,000 East Caribbean (roughly $4,740 Cdn). That’s quick, King says, in a place that regularly sees accused individuals spend years in remand awaiting trial.
“I mean, you’d understand that from a St. Lucian point of view, we think this (case) is moving very quickly — quicker than it would for a St. Lucian, probably,” he says.
This week, in particular, the Royal St. Lucia Police is under considerable pressure and scrutiny after a long-awaited speech by the prime minister about an investigation of corruption and violence by the force.
Prime Minister Kenny Anthony addressed his country last Sunday regarding an external investigation into 12 alleged “extra-judicial killings” by police in 2010 and 2011. The U.S. had cut off assistance to the island’s police force back in 2013 as a response to these alleged human rights violations.
“Revealingly, the report suggests that ‘the crime problem in Saint Lucia is facilitated by corrupt politicians/government officials, business persons and police officers,’” Anthony said.
Police had a black list, the report confirmed — a literal list of known criminals the police planned to (and in some cases, did) take out. Guns were planted and computer systems were tampered with.
“The investigators … concluded that what operated during the period under review ‘was an environment of impunity and permissiveness designed to achieve the desired results. Wilful blindness existed in respect of the Commissioner of Police and particular members of his leadership and management team.’”
King says in recent years police have been trying to be more transparent and active in community policing.
But that taint of corruption has left a lingering distrust.
In this case, it could be why witnesses have not come forward. Police are confident there are people who saw what really happened on the beach that day.
They’re hoping those people will come to them.
In a country of roughly 180,000 people, there can be a hesitance to speak out about your neighbours. It’s a small world — stop to ask a man for directions and he’ll climb into the back seat of your car to lead you there. Wander the hills and a stray dog might follow you for hours.
And being a popular tourist destination, it’s possible witnesses have left the country, King says.
“The police, like police everywhere, can only work with what citizens bring forward. To a certain extent it might not be (fear) but also just inconvenient (to come forward) which is really sad … people’s lives are caught in this trap … and it’s inconvenient for you to have to spend the next week or two to have to come back or whatever,” he says.
The only witnesses who have provided statements to police are relatives or fellow church members who were there with the boy. They have not heard from any independent witnesses, nor, apparently, have they actively sought them out.
But Leonce says he hopes they come forward.
“We are not there to side with anybody … we are not saying that Mr. Jamshidi did it, or we are not saying that he has to be punished. No. We receive a report, we investigate the report, we gather the evidence, submit it to the director of public prosecution and then we are advised. That is it,” he says.
“Whoever saw what really transpired, please come forward. It is a very serious matter … one is accused of causing the death of a child … if he’s not the one, let him be exonerated. The only way we could exonerate him is if people are coming forward to let us know what is really happening.”
The fellow kite surfers at the beach with Jamshidi that day were out on the water and did not witness any alleged interaction on the beach.
But some of those kite surfers say they’ve never been contacted by police.
Simon Macintosh owns a kite surfing school — Aquaholics — in the north of the island, at Cas en Bas beach, another popular kiting spot.
He says he was there with Jamshidi that day, though he was out in the water and didn’t see what happened. But in the hours that followed, he says police dropped the ball in their response.
“The police didn’t enter the water until three hours after (the boy went missing),” he said. And he says the nearby resort denied the trained lifeguards in the group, including himself, access to their rescue gear as they launched their search.
He doesn’t know whether Jamshidi — who he says he was with but doesn’t know well — took the boy or not: “There was different stories … I could see how they all work … I just wasn’t there. I can’t say.”
He says the wind was strong that day, with a riptide gently pulling away from shore — contrary to what the pastor says.
A trained lifeguard, he said there was a “gentle out-tow” that could’ve easily whisked a child away slowly without them realizing it: “That’s what you call a silent drowner … it happens all the time.”
There were four drownings in St. Lucia that weekend — the most that Leonce can recall in recent memory.
But at the same time, Macintosh says people do give children kite rides — though typically a kiter would only take out their own child, or someone they know.
Macintosh says he would, and has, but “I would make sure I know the capability of the kid … it really shouldn’t be done … but people do it all the time,” he said. Typically, though, “it would be one blast out and back.”
He shakes his head: “Who leaves a four-year-old unsupervised?”
At the other end of Cas en Bas Tuesday, Beth Lygoe takes a break from the waves. She owns another kite surfing school there — and actually taught Jamshidi back in the day.
Formerly an Olympic sailor, she’s spent the last 14 years dedicated to kite surfing. “That’s what I do, just look at the wind and the water every day,” she says.
She has the type of deep tan that looks permanent.
At a picnic table by the shore on a Tuesday afternoon, she watches a lone kiter on the water, skirting along the top as a trail of white sprays behind him, his board making seamless jumps as his kite swirls around in the air.
She was teaching at Cas en Bas the day of the drowning so she’s reluctant to talk about something she didn’t see — but she said the island’s tight-knit kiting community was certainly rocked by the news.
It’s an extreme sport — you’re dealing simultaneously with both the wind and the waves, which were both strong that day. It was a full moon, she remembers, which brings spring tides.
“That means there were strong currents … that day it was windy. So with a combination of strong wind and spring tide, of course there’s gonna be strong currents,” she says.
And with big waves come rip tides.
She says it would be tricky to take a child out kite surfing.
It certainly looks it. Using their body weight against the wind, kiters ride on a backwards tilt — almost 45 degrees, with both hands on the steering bar to guide the kite; attached to their body by a harness. Their feet are locked into foot holds almost like wearing a pair of slippers.
She tries not to read the media, she says curtly but politely when asked about the case.
“Sahab is a friend of mine. And I know Sahab is a good guy. I cannot comment on that day because I just wasn’t there.”
[W]ith a sufficiency hearing tentatively scheduled for April 24, Jamshidi’s lawyer has yet to receive the details of the police case against him. Victoria Charles Clarke, director of public prosecutions, refuses to comment on the charges.
“I’m sure with the involvement that you’ve done, the feeling on the ground especially from our locals is that he has a lot of support,” said police press officer Zachary Hippolyte.
A sufficiency hearing — essentially a preliminary inquiry — takes place for every person charged with a serious offence, and determines if there is enough evidence to proceed to a full trial. Typically, she says, cases do move forward to trial. But she couldn’t provide any statistics.
King agrees — but adds that’s because, typically, there is substantial evidence when charges are laid. In the meantime, Jamshidi waits.
The applications for Canadian medical residencies — which he’s been trying to land for years — were due Tuesday.
He has his eye on McMaster University — in Hamilton, where his family is based — and orthopedic medicine, but there are a limited number of spots for international graduates.
This year, he’s heard there’s likely a spot for him if he’s interested — and while he already knows he’ll miss the interviews, he says they’ve offered to save him a spot.
“And what do I even say to that? Yes? I’ve been dying for that opportunity for four years. This is the fourth year I am applying, but now that the opportunity has come up I might not be able to be there for the starting date,” he says in his lawyer’s Castries office.
On Thursday, the night before we meet, the mother of the friend (and surety) with whom he is staying had a stroke. She was taken to hospital, and Jamshidi cautiously helped out, worried about being recognized but wanting to help.
He is a doctor. He cringes when he thinks of the effect this case will have on his reputation.
“Like, what are the people thinking when they go through my file? ‘Oh Sahab Jamshidi — accused of drowning a kid, I definitely want him on my team,’” he says, his face completely blank.
He asked his lawyer and police the likelihood of being able to go home by the starting date in June.
“They all chuckled,” he says.
905-526-3214 | @MollyatTheSpec