A night I will never forget

Sunday, July 17 2011

Newsday Associate News Editor Ken Chee Hing was an intrepid crime reporter who covered and reported on the brutal murder of Thackoor Boodram, brother of hanged drug lord Nankissoon Boodram, aka Dole Chadee.

Boodram’s murder, committed over ten years ago, has resurfaced in the most sensational manner after Junior Grandison, once this country’s Most Wanted Man, signed a statutory declaration on June 1 indicating he had lied when he testified against ten men who were later convicted and sentenced to hang for Boodram’s murder.

With the murder of Boodram back in the spotlight, as there is now a possibility, with new evidence coming to hand, that at least nine of the ten convicted men could walk free, Chee Hing recounts his story of that night when he visited the Caroni cremation site to report on Boodram’s murder.

I remember that night, 14 years ago, almost as if it was only yesterday. I was at home having a late dinner. The meal consisted of brown rice, stewed chicken and lentil peas. Sometime near 11 o’clock, the telephone rang. On the line was ace crime fighter Cecil Carrington, now deceased.

Carrington, one of my main police contacts back in the day, was a man of few words. He was old school police, of the ilk of the Lennard Pollidores, Michael Sealys, Lloyd Madoos, Michael Lamberts, Desmond Lamberts, Clement Waldropts, Nadhir Khans, Lloyd ‘Slammer’ Williams and others too numerous to mention. The conversation lasted barely a minute.

Ken: Hello?

Carrington: Ken?

Ken: What’s up batch?

Carrington: Go to the Caroni Cremation Site. We have a murder.

Ken: Really? Who? (Line went dead)

That was the type of man Cecil Carrington was. Crisp and precise. A good, dedicated policeman, a good contact, a good friend. I put the half eaten plate of food in the microwave and hurriedly changed into a pair of jeans and a jersey. Pen and reporter’s notebook were at the ready, but there was a problem. I did not have a camera.

I telephoned my brother, Alfred, who had just purchased a brand new Canon Rebel X camera. The Rebel X series had just hit the market and he was pretty gung ho about this camera. These were the days prior to digital photography and I was surprised when at that late hour, he agreed to pass by my house to lend me the camera plus a roll of 800 ASA film.

Half an hour later, I pulled up outside the Caroni Cremation Site. Alfred was at the wheel of his car. He asked if I was sure I did not want him to wait on me until the assignment was completed. I told him ‘no’, go home, that I’ll get a drop back to Curepe, where I lived, from one of the officers at the scene. I sensed he was not worried about me but about his camera, which smelled of newness.

When Alfred drove off I made my way from the road in the pitch black towards pinpricks of light in the distance, which I knew from experience were the beams of flashlights. A cold breeze accompanied me. The loud cocking sound of a gun being placed into “full firing” mode stopped me dead in my tracks. A voice broke through the silence.

“Stop! Who are you?”

My reply was: “Ken Chee Hing, sir, crime reporter.”

The officer, hidden in the darkness, asked, “What are you doing here?”

I told him that I had seen the lights in the distance and stopped to investigate. He did not believe me.

After a few minutes of questioning, I heard a familiar voice ask loudly, “Ken? Is that you Ken? But you ent easy.”

It was Farouk Ghany, now retired, another of my “good batches”. The fact that the senior officer at the scene knew me, was my passport to bypass the still hidden policeman who had initially called out to me and join the group of policemen gathered around what looked like a smallish, square object, which I later discovered was a box in the middle of the cremation site. I can’t recall if Carrington, who was not working in Central Division at the time, was at the scene or not. The district of Caroni falls within the precinct of the police service’s Central Division.

The air was heavy with smoke as some of the recently departed of our citizenry had only some hours earlier been cremated. I enquired of the officers where the murdered person’s body was. One of them, with a knowing smile, pointed his flashlight at a Black and White Scotch Whisky box — the kind used to store 12 bottles of the premium liquor. He said it was found on a bench at the cremation site.

The lower corner of the box was stained with blood and a thin thread of blood had leaked out onto the dirt. Without a word, one of the officers used the barrel of his SLR (self-loading rifle) and tipped the box over. Out rolled the severed head of Thackoor Boodram. From my vantage point, the head rested on its left side.

“The ransom was not paid. That is Thackoor’s head,” Ghany said as he busily made notes in his diary.

To say that I was shocked was putting it mildly. Thackoor Boodram, a pig farmer, was the 48-year-old brother of reputed narcotics czar Nankissoon Boodram, aka Dole Chadee. Chadee and his henchmen were hanged for the Williamsville massacre in which all but two members of a family were executed in cold blood.

Thackoor had been kidnapped from a friend’s home days earlier and a $5 million ransom was demanded for his safe release. I covered the kidnapping extensively.

In those days, I was among a few select group of crime reporters, including Nalinee Seelal, Alva Viarruel, Joel Nanton, Gary Moreno, Francis Joseph and Ucill Cambridge, who often mingled with police officers at crime scenes. The night of December 31, 1997, was no exception. I stood next to Thackoor’s head, looking down at it.

A bullet wound could clearly be seen under Thackoor’s left eye. Another bullet hole was seen on his forehead. I remember thinking to myself, this man was once smiling, laughing, thinking. For a man who was nearing 50, Thackoor had a full head of black hair. Dirt covered parts of his face, gathered, I assume, when the head rolled out of the box.

The severing of the head from the rest of the body was not a clean one and there were jagged marks suggesting, at least to me, that more than one slice, or chop, or cut was used to severe the head. Thackoor’s eyes were partially opened. He wore a defeated look on his face.

An autopsy would later reveal that he had been shot not once but three times in the head. The rest of his body was never found. The prevailing schools of thought back in those days were that the rest of his body was either burnt or fed to pigs.

After the head was placed in a bag and taken away by undertakers, I left the scene. How I got back home at two or three o’clock in the morning, I can’t remember. But I clearly recall sitting down in the kitchen of my home and resuming my meal, with visions of Thackoor’s head swimming in my mind. While eating the cold food, I sat pondering the best and most dramatic opening lines for my story. Sleep was the last thing on my mind.

I remember taking several photographs of the head, and the one that was eventually used showed a line of officers, one of whom had a broad grin on his face, standing behind Thackoor’s head on the ground. The photo was published on the front page and carried with it an Editor’s Note, which apologised for the use of such a ghastly image, but not it was used on the grounds that the public ought to know the stark and grim reality of crime.

In my career as a crime reporter, I have covered many horrific, ghastly cases, including murders, deadly accidents, fatal fires and drownings. I have forgotten many of these cases as the years have gone by and age set in. But a few remain indelibly etched in my mind. A few I will remember to the day I die. One of them is the murder of Thackoor Boodram.

Nowadays, murders are a dime a dozen in Trinidad and Tobago, as in many countries across the world. In the internet age where news is almost instantaneous, it takes a particularly gruesome or salacious story to wake people out of their stupor, so accustomed and desensitised we have become to death and violence.

But the murder of Boodram was one which stunned and horrified the entire nation. It was the biggest story of 1997. Now, 14 years after Boodram was killed, his story has risen from the silence of years with new revelations of lies being told in the courtroom. Perhaps this new saga in the tale of the murder of Boodram will one day, in years to come, be spoken of. But I doubt even these current events could match the time when Boodram was murdered and his head found inside a whisky box.

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