Paradise Lost

1722 “Rode” Stradivari

The British Privy Council considers the appeal of William Labrador, who was convicted almost two years ago of the brutal murder of a young American woman in the British Virgin Islands. Alix Kirsta investigates a case which many believe has been an insult to justice.

Main picture: Murder victim Lois McMillen (inset) and the Carribean island of Tortola.

Suspects holidaying in St Barts Michael Spicer, Alexander Benedetto and William Labrador holidaying in St. Barts in 1998

With the Carribean tourist season at its height and the islands overrun by visitors, there will be no shortage of gossip on Tortola. Largest of the 46 British Virgin Islands, advertised by the BVI tourist board as “nature’s little secrets”, this small mountainous island, 60 miles east of Puerto Rico, attracts a cosmopolitan winter crowd with its superb surfing, diving and sailing conditions and, most of all, its seemingly low crime rate and status as a tax haven. Yet now, many of the 16,000 local Tortolans as well as the American and British property owners, yachtsmen and residents who congregate over rum punch and daiquiris at the beach-front bars and yacht clubs will be asking one another, as they did in January 2000: who really killed the 34-year-old former model Lois McMillen?

When, on May 10, 2001, NewYork businessman William Labrador was convicted of McMillen’s murder, the verdict was welcomed by the local authorities. Frank Savage, the governor of the British Virgin Islands, a British appointee, citing the island’s version of British jurisprudence, publicly claimed that: “We have a process which I think would meet the highest standards of American justice.” However, Labrador’s family, friends and outraged observers have denounced the guilty verdict, followed by life imprisonment without parole, as a travesty the result of a bungled investigation by the Royal Virgin Islands police, a case that should never have come to court.

Rush to judgment

The case against 37-year-old William Labrador and three friends with whom he was on holiday was the longest and most controversial trial in the history of the British Virgin Islands. But many, including independent crime experts, believe that Lois McMillen’s murder remains an unsolved mystery. According to Jay Salpeter, a former NYPD homicide detective hired to investigate the crime by Labrador’s family, there was never a case against the four men: “This was a rush to judgment. The authorities carried out no criminal investigation, they had no evidence. There isn’t a DA’s office in the USA that would have authorised the men’s arrest, let alone bring them to trial.”

For the authorities, being able to charge four Americans with the murder must have allayed fears that local crime would adversely affect tourism. In fact, many Americans who believe McMillen’s murderer remains at large have stopped going to Tortola. There is concern that, with six other murders so far unsolved, it was convenient that four American friends of McMillen should be arrested and charged with her murder without other local suspects ever being detained.

More significantly, the McMillen murder case, which has attracted huge publicity in America, raises disturbing questions over the treatment of foreigners unfortunate enough to tangle with the law in this British colony.

When, in January 2002, the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeals upheld Labrador’s conviction, his lawyers appealed to the Privy Council in London, the highest appeal court for cases from the British Virgin Islands. Whether William Labrador turns out to be a victim of a serious rniscarriage of justice, and is released, remains to be seen. Next week, Edward Fitzgerald QC will present Labrador’s appeal seeking to have his conviction overturned on the basis of judicial error, while John Perry QC, representing one of Labrador’s co-defendants, Alexander Benedetto, originally acquitted, will appeal against a warrant issued by the local prosecutor for Benedetto to be extradited and retried for McMillen’s murder (unlike the US and UK, Tortola has a limited double jeopardy rule). Although Labrador’s and Benedetto’s families and lawyers, who in the US and Britain have taken on the case largely pro bono, are hopeful, optimism is guarded.

Josephine & Russell McMillen Josephine and Russell McMillen arriving at court.

“I have total belief in the Privy Council,” says Labrador’s mother, Barbara, admitting that she broke down and wept in London last summer when Lord Bingham and other members of the Privy Council granted leave to appeal. Apart from the human cost, Labrador’s family have mortgaged their modest house in the Hamptons and spent more than $500,000 on campaigns, legal fees and other expenses needed to support him. “Now I take nothing for granted,” says Barbara Labrador. “I cannot afford to crash and bum all over again. We really believed originally that justice would prevail. It did not. A picture of the Queen hangs in the courtroom in Tortola. But what happened was an insult to the whole British justice system.”

Island paradise

Her fear that as one door closed last year another may clank shut seems well founded given the dark tale that unfolded three years ago on this island paradise. When Lois McMillen and her parents arrived on Tortola from Connecticut on December 30, 1999, all they wanted was a quiet time, just like every winter since buying property there in the Seventies. Lois, who had recently abandoned ambitions to become an actress in Hollywood to build a career as a painter, had come down with flu when they settled into their villa on the Belmont Estate on the island’s West End. It was raining, and Lois stayed indoors for more than a week.

At home, the atmosphere was low-key. Russell McMillen, her 82-year-old father, the retired CEO of a large manufacturing firm, had been undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Her 76-year-old mother Josephine was aware of Lois’s fears that this would be the last time the three would be together in Tortola, which was the main reason she accompanied them on this trip. Lois also seemed troubled by other thoughts, too. A collage she was working on, bearing a queen of hearts playing card and torn-up pages from the Old Testament, seemed unusually dark and morbid, reflecting her concerns about death, war and violence. And when she finally felt fit enough to go to the beach, her mother noticed she carried a Bible in her beach bag.

Although Lois knew many people on Tortola, she had few close friends. Many were bemused by her mixture of naivety, self-righteousness and over-the-top flamboyance. Educated at expensive American and European schools, a drop-out from Boston University she obtained a degree in 1996 from Parsons School of Design in New York. She often dressed eccentrically, and was known for camping about in bizarre costumes, including a First World War nurse’s uniform and a winged fairy gown and rhinestone tiara, complete with wand. Strangely for someone who drank little and was an outspoken campaigner against drugs and violence towards women, she had a fondness for such louche hangouts as Bomba’s Surfside Shack, a corrugated-iron and driftwood bar festooned with the owner’s “trophies”: bras and knickers given in exchange for free drinks.

The Jolly Roger InnThe Jolly Roger Inn, where Lois was last seen alive.

A photograph of Lois in a purple sequined dress is pinned above the bar window. Another favourite haunt was the Jolly Roger Inn, where locals and tourists gather to hear reggae and calypso bands. In that first week, Lois didn’t feel up to socialising. She didn’t even check if any neighbours were around.

At Zebra House, a property abutting the McMillens’ estate, an old friend, 36-year-old law student Michael Spicer, whose family had built their home in 1979, had just arrived with his 23-year-old companion Evan George and two childhood friends, New York businessmen William Labrador and Alexander Benedetto, who owned a public relations company and model agency in Manhattan, and knew Lois from previous holidays in Tortola.

Intrigue and histrionics

So it wasn’t until January 12 that she bumped into Spicer, George and Benedetto at Bomba’s Shack. Benedetto, the gregarious son of a Manhattan publisher, had had a brief affair with Lois after meeting her on Tortola in 1997. Although first attracted by her intense, almost spiritual quality and instinctive kindness, he eventually found her love of intrigue and histrionics wearing. The relationship had ended amicably and Benedetto was delighted to see her, yet concerned by her anxious manner.

“We spent a couple of hours chatting and eventually she confided in me. She said: ‘Alex, there are people here on the island who want to put a gun to my head.’ I asked her what she had done, why was she staying here... She told me she had to be here because her father had cancer.” Lois did not say more about what was bothering her. “Later, she told me: ‘I’ve solved the Jason Bally murder case — I’m going to come forward.”’ (Jason Bally, a young Trinidadian champion cyclist, was shot dead in 1999 while making a phone call from a roadside booth after being robbed: the case remains unsolved.)

“She made a big deal out of this, but because Lois liked a drama we didn’t take it too seriously”. Only later, after Lois had dropped them all back at Zebra House, did her comments chime with something Alex remembered from the previous week when he ran into the owner of the bar, Charles “Bomba” Smith. “I came out for a drink. Bomba was sitting at the bar. He asks: ‘Yo, mon, Lois comin’ down to the island?’ I said I didn’t know, but probably yes, it’s that time of year.” Bomba’s response was immediate and unexpected. “He says: ‘No, no, no, mon, she can’t come here, she banned from the island.’ I asked him why, but he didn’t reply”

The following evening Lois joined Spicer, George and Labrador for drinks and a snack at a seafront pub several miles along the coast. The four had spent the day hiking and swimming, and Benedetto stayed at home, too tired to join them. A few hours later she drove the men back to Zebra House and went home for an early night. By Friday 14, Lois was in cheerful mood as she joined her mother on a shopping spree in St John, one of the US Virgin Islands. There they had lunch and Mrs McMillen bought her daughter a Versace blouse, Capri pants and a straw hat. After an early dinner at home Lois changed into her new outfit, put on some gold jewellery and, at about 9pm, said she was off for an hour to listen to a band at the Jolly Roger Inn, at the southwest end of the island. There she ordered a Perrier and sat alone, talking briefly to several people at the bar, before leaving at 10.30pm.

About 9 o’clock on the morning of January 15, Sheena Andrews, a local woman walking to work along Sir Francis Drake Road, a mile and a quarter east of the Jolly Roger, suddenly froze: a broken, red faced mannequin had apparently been washed up by the surf. Going up closer, she saw it was the battered body of a white woman, her face livid purple, lying lifeless on her back in shallow water on a rocky outcrop no more than a few hundred metres from the local police station. She was wearing white pants, her blouse and bra pulled up above her breasts. Scattered far around were pieces of gold jewellery a gold shoe, a headband, an elastic pony-tail grip, and a can of Mace.

Horrified, Andrews ran up to the police station. Russell and Josephine McMillen, who had phoned Michael Spicer at Zebra House several times after 7am to ask for news of Lois, but received no reply contacted the police at l0am, convinced she had been involved in a car accident. By midday Sergeant Anderson Blackman of the island police called on the McMillens to inform them of the death of their daughter. Her hired car had been found parked at the West End ferry dock near the Jolly Roger pub.

Stunned silence

Asked if she had any idea who might have seen her last, Josephine McMillen directed them to Zebra House. There, police broke the news of Lois’s death to the four men. Alex Benedetto was so upset he wept openly, asking repeatedly what had happened. The other three sat around in stunned silence, and after the officers searched the house and examined their clothes and shoes, they readily accompanied them to the police station. “At that stage, the police said we were needed only to ‘assist in the investigation’,” recalls Benedetto today, gazing out at the Empire State Building from the 35th-floor office of his father’s publishing company as he recounts, with a mixture of outrage and disbelief, how what started out as a winter break to get a tan and hang out with friends turned into a nightmare.

What happened, says Benedetto, amounted to an ambush. “We were abducted, and set up to be the fall-guys. We’d all read Kafka: each of us was the central character in The Trial.” The experience has lost Benedetto two businesses, including the one he founded with Labrador; he is many hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and afraid to travel outside the US. He says he will not even come to London for the Privy Council hearing. “I’m effectively a fugitive: there’s a warrant out for my arrest on a charge of murder and if I set foot on English soil I may end up in jail.” His paranoia seems entirely justified given the ordeal the four men endured after police arrived to tell them of Lois’s death.

“Although they had no search warrant, they ransacked the house and confiscated almost 100 items of clothing, bedding and other possessions.” The four men were taken to separate police stations, but their experiences were identical, says Benedetto. “On arrival we were processed, having all sorts of DNA samples taken, hair, under-nail scrapings, and the police were just treating it as standard procedure. We co-operated willingly, even offered to take lie detector tests. We asked if we were suspects, but they wouldn’t answer.”

What the men were not told — although Chief Inspector Jacob George, who led the murder investigation, later denied this — was that they had been arrested on suspicion of murder. They maintained that none of them had seen Lois since more than 24 hours before her death. Because they did not have a car, they had arranged for David Blyden, a local taxi driver, to pick up all four of them at Zebra House about 11pm on Friday 14, to take them to Quito’s, a nightclub on the northwest of island. First, they stopped off to draw money from a nearby cash machine — the time on the receipt is 11.15pm. At this point Labrador, who had spent much of the holiday having early nights and relaxing alone, said he was too tired to go clubbing and asked to be dropped off at a nearby hotel, Sebastian’s, from where he says he walked home, watched TV and went to bed at 12.l5.

The others went to Quito’s, where Blyden also remained, until driving them home about 3am. Despite the fact that numerous witnesses, apart from Blyden, could have immediately confirmed this, the four were locked in separate cells and denied phone calls for almost five days. Finally, after a lawyer friend of Michael Spicer’s discovered what had happened and filed a writ of Habeas Corpus, they were charged with Lois’s murder by Inspector George after consulting the Attorney-General’s Office. Bail was denied, and they were transferred to prison on the far northeast of the island. According to George there was from the outset sufficient evidence to arrest the men and charge them. But was there?

Evidence explained

All that this “evidence” boiled down to was a small wound on William Labrador’s nose, recent injuries on Benedetto’s shins, three pairs of wet, sandy sneakers, and a small blood-coloured stain on one of Spicer’s shirts — which he said was barbecue sauce. Later, a roll of film from a disposable camera the men took along while hiking before the murder on Friday 14 was developed: it shows a healing sun blister on Labrador’s nose, and Benedetto’s shins bloody from that afternoon's trek. A forensic geologist from the University of London who visited the island and examined the “wet and sandy” sneakers which the police found so suspicious con firmed that the sand particles came from the various areas the men had visited that afternoon and not from the crime scene.

Each of the four forensic reports on Spicer’s “blood-stained” shirt states that no blood was there; by the time of the trial the stain had, in fact, vanished from the fabric. That Lois McMillen died a violent death seems beyond dispute. An autopsy was performed by Dr Francisco Landron, a local pathologist. His findings were later con firmed by Nathan Cary, director of the Department of Forensic Medicine at Guy’s Hospital, London. Both reports indicate that al though the cause of death was drowning, injuries to the front of her neck and chest as well as deep cuts on the fingers and palms of her hands suggest she was caught in a violent struggle with someone probably attacking from behind with a knife, who later struck her unconscious, smothered or held her under the water.

The attack may have begun in her car or at the roadside: a patch of uprooted shrubs, grass and scattered earth was found near the rocks where Lois fled or was dragged, her possessions scattered along the way A tampon she was wearing contained traces of semen, but there were no indications of sexual assault, although her exposed breasts indicated that there had been some form of sexual advance. While the scenario may be hazy, there is little doubt as to when it took place.

Mysteriously lost

Lois’s stomach contained some of the small dinner she had with her parents about 8.30. According to Dr Landron, such a meal would be fully digested and out of her stomach within 1 to 2 ‘/2 hours; therefore the time of death was put at between 930pm and 11pm — just after she was seen leaving the Jolly Roger. Her car held few clues, and a robbery was not suspected. Inside were her handbag, a gold chain and pendant and her car keys; her hairbrush and a new, uncreased TV guide lay on the front passenger seat, suggesting no one had sat there. The mat behind the driver’s seat, which was wet and sandy, was taken away for analysis, but later, again, was mysteriously lost.

Only one witness offered a clue as to the time of the attack. Beulah Romey, a local taxi driver living near the scene, told police she had heard a loud screech of brakes followed by a woman’s screams just after 10.30pm, which she subsequently repeated to several passengers. Only much later did Romey testify that the event occurred nearer midnight. Up at the prison, the men were locked in 6ft x l2ft cells for 23 hours a day “We would have been happy to turn in our passports and stay on the island, but we were never given that option,” says Michael Spicer. “That shows you how much they considered us to be high-risk, dangerous individuals.” During the first weeks, says Spicer, they managed to remain relatively cheerful, treating it almost as a joke. “We hadn’t committed a crime so we all thought we would soon be released. What made the situation especially difficult was being the only white men there, with all the tensions of race and class.”

For Benedetto, the ordeal of incarceration in a Third World jail remains hideously vivid. “We were locked up all day for our own safety to protect us from the other inmates, who included some very scary people. There were also tarantulas, scorpions, mosquitoes, ants and cockroaches — at least four or five of those in your cell at a time, crawling over you on your bed at night.” It did not occur to them that they would be held in prison for the next 16 months.

Drawn a blank

By early May 2000, they knew that all forensic reports, including separate DNA samples analysed in Barbados, in Jamaica, and, at the request of London’s Metropolitan Police Murder Review Group, sent twice to London’s Forensic Science Service, had tested negative. Even though he wasn’t prepared to admit it, Chief Inspector George had drawn a blank. No physical or forensic evidence linked any of them to Lois’s body, her car, or to the crime scene. Fingerprints in the car and on her keys and key-chain did not match theirs, and although specific male DNA other than theirs was found on the keys and in the semen, the island police did not test other suspects.

Their failure to track down or detain other likely suspects seems scandalous. Several witnesses mentioned seeing an unidentified black man talking to Lois at the Jolly Roger. He appeared, some said, to be “coming on to her’, and left five minutes before she did. Yet no real effort was made to trace the man. On an island as small as Tortola, even “strangers”, whether residents or visitors, are likely to be known by someone local. No record was taken of the passenger lists on the ferry from and to the island following the morning of January 15, although everyone entering Tortola must provide some form of ID. Lois’s affair with an ex-boyfriend, Luigi Lungarini, who has a history of repeated violence against his ex-wife and subsequent girlfriends, had ended in 1998, but she continued to pester Lungarini to repay a debt he owed her father.

It emerged during the trial that Lois had gone to the local police to take out restraining orders against Lungarini in the previous year. When questioned by police, Lungarini, who was on Tortola during the week of the murder, claimed he was on his boat moored at nearby Virgin Gorda on January 14, and could prove it: however, no DNA or fingerprint samples were taken and no further attempt was made to verify his alibi. New York detective Jay Salpeter, who visited Tortola twice to try to uncover the truth of what happened that night, accuses local police of “blowing the case” through a breathtaking combination of ineptness, stupidity and arrogance.

“They didn’t bother to investigate what went on at the Jolly Roger until after they’d arrested the four Americans. The killer is most likely to have been someone from there who hid in her car just before she left. Perhaps the man she was talking to. But the police didn’t investigate further.” The preliminary hearing, originally scheduled for early March 2000, finally took place in July; in October the four men were formally arraigned for McMillen’s murder. After numerous postponements, the trial began the following April — 16 months after the men’s arrest. But for the prosecution’s last-minute ‘star witness”, Jeffrey Plante, an American whom prison guards had placed in William Labrador’s cell to replace Alex Benedetto, there almost certainly would have been no trial. Plante, a 59-year-old Texan, was on detention awaiting trial for credit-card and cheque fraud charges.

A known pathological liar with 11 ex-wives, Plante was a con man whose criminal record dated back to 1964, with multiple convictions for fraud, theft and other forms of deceit. While in prison in Hawaii in 1995 he had testified about a cell mate’s confession of murder in a case strikingly similar to that of McMillen’s, in return for leniency from the local prosecutor. When arrested in Tortola he was wanted by the Texas authorities for parole violation while subject to a 45-year prison sentence. Plante swiftly befriended Labrador, promising to help him achieve justice.


On May 11, Plante made a statement to police saying that Labrador had confessed to drowning Lois by putting his foot on the back of her neck after they had an argument in her car about money. After parking her car at the ferry, according to Plante, Labrador walked home and went to bed. Within a month of Plante’s first statement at the preliminary hearing, the charges against him by local police were dropped. After his release, he was put up at a seafront villa and received a generous living allowance from the government. Despite this, within six months he was back in jail, charged with 34 new counts of fraud and theft by deception involving local businesses.

Even then prosecutors were determined to proceed with the murder trial, almost exclusively on the strength of Plante’s testimony, which he had by now fleshed out with what sounded like convincing detail, obtained largely from press reports sent to Labrador by his mother. These bits of “insider information” appeared to implicate the others, especially Benedetto, in McMillen’s murder. Shortly after Plante’s statement in July 2000, David Blyden, the taxi-driver who had confirmed all the men’s whereabouts on the night of McMillen’s murder, was arrested on drugs charges. He claims he was asked if he still stuck to his story. He denied he had been bribed by the men to provide an alibi, and was jailed for a year, until after the end of the men’s trial.

The trial began on April 2, 2001. By May 3, High Court Judge Kenneth Benjamin directed the jury to return a verdict of not guilty in respect of Spicer, George and Benedetto. A week later, despite the fact that Plante’s account of Labrador’s “confession” was illogical, inconsistent and unsupported by any other evidence, the jury returned a guilty verdict. As Labrador’s mother let out a piercing scream, jury members, guards and police — who throughout the trial were seen openly socialising and sharing lunch breaks — laughed and cheered, while hugging and high-flying the local prosecutor Theodore Guerra. Guerra’s dosing speech was remarkable for its stream of anti Americanism.

Suspects leaving courtThe four suspects leaving court in October 2000.

While reminding the jury that Tortola prided itself on being “steeped in British traditions of justice”, he also exhorted them to use “good West Indian common sense” in recognising that an American parole officer, who testified to Plante’s bad character and criminal past, was part of a “plot” by Labrador’s defence team to undermine Plante’s evidence. Guerra ranted further that “if that is the American way we in the West Indies know it is different. Because they come from large metropolitan countries we are not going to allow them to fool us.” Finally, Guerra branded the entire Labrador family as natural liars.

At no point was he reprimanded, or commented on by the judge in his summing up. The main thrust of next week’s Privy Council appeal is the credibility of Plante’s evidence arid his motives for becoming a witness, together with the failure of the judge firmly and clearly to warn the jury of the danger of accepting uncorroborated evidence from a prison informer with much to gain from supporting the prosecution. For gain he did — if briefly.

Intent on avoiding extradition and re-imprisonment in the US, after Labrador’s conviction Plante pleaded guilty to eight of the 34 new fraud charges incurred while living at the government’s expense, and was sentenced to two months in jail. Afterwards, he was accompanied to Puerto Rico by immigration officers and arrested by US Federal agents. He is now serving out the rest of his 45-year sentence in a Texas state prison.

In London next week, the mothers of both William Labrador and Lois McMillen will wait anxiously hoping for justice to be served. Mrs McMillen, having bought the entire “package” presented by the prosecution, still believes all four men were involved in Lois’s murder. The real tragedy is that there are several victims here, one dead, the others alive. Justice, so far, almost certainly has not been done in the case of Lois McMillen. But will it finally prevail for those who are alive?

This article in its entirety is copyright © 2002 Alix Kirsta. First published in the Times, 22 February 2002

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