Margaret Pratt, wife of a yachtsman who was murdered three years ago, tells Helen Fretter why she fears the killers may escape justice
Three years after the death of British yachtsman Roger Pratt in St Lucia following a savage attack aboard his yacht, the men accused of murdering him remain in custody. His wife, Margaret, who survived, fears they may never be tried and that the killers will not face justice.
Roger and Margaret Pratt had sailed their Premier 41 Magnetic Attraction from Lowestoft in July 2013, crossing the Atlantic via Spain, before arriving in St Lucia in December. They were anchored in Vieux Fort in St Lucia on 17 January 2014 when the yacht was boarded by four men in what appeared to be an attempted robbery.
Roger Pratt, aged 62, was seriously beaten in what his wife Margaret called “a sustained attack”, and went overboard. His body was found shortly after Mrs Pratt raised the alarm, and despite resuscitation attempts was pronounced dead soon after being transferred by ambulance to hospital. The cause of death was brain damage from repeated punches to the head, and drowning.
Mrs Pratt says that immediately following the attack, the St Lucian police were swift to collect evidence. Blood and fingerprints were collected, as well as a mask worn by from one assailant. “There was this guy with a mask on his face,” she recalls. “I said ‘What are you wearing this for?’ grabbed it and threw it down the steps, which is why I know there was good DNA, because I was personally responsible for it.”
When suspects were later arrested, one was also found to have a bite mark on his back, which matched Mrs Pratt’s dental imprint. Members of the local community gave the police the names of five men, four of whom were arrested and later confessed. “I was told by the Ministry of Tourism that the good news was they had signed a piece of paper to say their confession is entirely voluntary. So we have two streams of evidence,” says Mrs Pratt.
However, three years on and Roger Pratt’s suspected killers remain in custody but have not been tried. Mrs Pratt says she was privately told by the St Lucian Director of Public Prosecutions that the DNA evidence is contaminated. Mrs Pratt also reports that the defence is now challenging the validity of the confessions on the grounds that they were obtained without a lawyer present, leaving the case vulnerable to collapse.
The Pratts’ case is not isolated. Roger’s murder was referenced by the island’s Prime Minister in a televised press briefing last autumn discussing the failings of the judicial system and its case backlog. Concerns have been raised in local media over the handling of DNA evidence on the island, and its forensic laboratory closed in 2015.
In the UK House of Commons in January 2017, MP Dominic Raab highlighted the separate case of hotel developer Oliver Gobat, who was also killed on the island in 2014, calling on the British government and police to do more to assist families in similar situations.
A failed robbery?
St Lucia has an exceptionally high murder rate for its 180,000-strong population, with the St Lucian News reporting nine homicides in the first two weeks of 2017. Violent attacks on visiting sailors remain relatively rare, although in February 2016 a British sailor on a Girls for Sail course was raped at her villa accommodation.
The Caribbean Safety and Security Net website (CSSN), which collects data on crimes against yachts in the region, identifies St Lucia as a crime ‘hotspot’, particularly for burglary and theft. Mrs Pratt says she was surprised by how quickly what seemed to be a robbery descended into violence. The attackers appeared unarmed.
“Roger went up the companionway steps, we looked out, and he said ‘Go away, just go away’,” she recalls. “Then I don’t quite know what happened because it all goes very blurry, but the next thing I remember is Roger was on the counter, right at the stern, and I was in a ‘half Nelson’, someone had put their arms around me, and we’re all fighting.
“I think it was four young men, faced with something they weren’t expecting: a defence, being challenged. It was a robbery that got out of control.”
The Pratts’ attackers left without stealing any possessions. “Roger went into the water, and at that point someone said something in patois and they all just stopped, jumped over the side and swam to the shore. I think they were seriously spooked.
“In the end they found my computer and my handbag, but after Roger went over the side, they just dropped everything and went.”
Mrs Pratt hopes that raising awareness of her case will put pressure on the authorities to speed up the process, especially given the island’s economic dependence on tourism. Yachting tourism is a significant part of that – last year the ARC transatlantic rally alone delivered 1,307 visiting crew on 219 yachts to the island.
“I’ve pretty much written off Roger’s trial. Nothing is going to bring Roger back. But this isn’t just about me, this is about the people of St Lucia who can’t rely on their government to deliver proper systems of justice for them, or for tourists,” she comments.
Kim White, who runs the CSSN, says, “When [sailors] are victims of serious crime they might receive a brief window of often carefully managed attention from local authorities and in the media, and then they seem forgotten. Victims and their families, when most vulnerable, have no experience or counsel and are up against those who sadly do, but whose overriding interests are too often politically and economically motivated.”
White’s advice to anyone who is the victim of serious crime abroad is to include your local home country consular officials from the start, particularly when language is a barrier.
Margaret Pratt says she does not want to dissuade people from visiting St Lucia. “We were well prepared, we’d spent a lot of time thinking and planning. And we were unlucky.
“I don’t want to put people off going, but when things go wrong it can be differently horrible than you expect.”