FROM PARADISE TO PURGATORY
Hamilton man sentenced in St. Lucia drowning
In the end, justice in St. Lucia came at a price.
Two years after being charged in the drowning death of a four-year-old boy, Sahab Jamshidi paid a cash fine and was free to leave the island and return to Canada.
Jamshidi, 36, a McMaster University graduate, was an aspiring doctor on holiday when he arrived in St. Lucia in February 2015. A kite surfing enthusiast, the vacation doubled as a reunion with friends from his medical school days on the island years earlier.
But when a day out on the water turned deadly, and the Hamilton man was charged with gross negligence causing death in the drowning of a fouryear-old boy, his passport was revoked and he was ordered to stay on the island.
He said he’d spotted the boy out in the water, drowning, and called for help. The boy’s family said he’d taken the child out for a ride on his kite board and dropped him.
After years of delays and adjournments and legal bills, paradise slowly turned into purgatory.
ON THURSDAY, one day after his 36th birthday, Jamshidi’s legal saga — which culminated in an unexpected guilty plea last month — came to a close with a suspended sentence and an order to pay $75,000 Eastern Caribbean dollars (roughly $36,000 Canadian) to the family of the boy, TJ Elibox.
“We are satisfied with the outcome of the case. Justice has been served,” defence lawyers Alberton Richilieu and Vandyke Jude told reporters outside the Castries courthouse Thursday morning.
The legal team won’t talk about why the sudden guilty plea, which came just two days into his trial in January. But given that all involved claim they are satisfied with the outcome, it seems clear that a deal was struck.
The case is now closed — but many questions remain.
IT WAS FEB. 22, 2015 that fouryear-old TJ Elibox drowned at Bois Shadon Beach — a popular spot for kitesurfing along the southern side of the island, a 10-minute walk down the white sand from the popular Coconut Bay resort.
Jamshidi was there that day with friends to celebrate his 34th birthday, kitesurfing out on the water.
TJ was there with his grandmother, Marcellina Albert, for a picnic with her church group a short distance away. The small boy was being watched by a teenager while Albert and other adults prepared fish, more than 30 metres away.
Jamshidi had — prior to his plea — long maintained that the first he saw of the boy was out on the water, bobbing among the waves. He said he screamed for help and tried to save him. He returned to shore and helped form a search party, even waiting around to speak to police.
Members of the church group said they saw Jamshidi snatch the boy from the sand — even as his teenaged babysitter pleaded with him not to — and took him into the water for a ride on his board. That is how TJ ended up in the water, they said. That is how he drowned.
And while Jamshidi has pleaded guilty to the allegations against him, the specifics of the agreed facts in the case are unclear.
EARLIER THIS MONTH, The Spectator spent a week on the island speaking to the key players in the case — one that was supposed to have wrapped up weeks ago.
Though the St. Lucian justice system is inherited from the British and mirrors Canada’s in many ways, it moves at its own slow pace.
It is a bottlenecked legal system that is short on staff from judges to stenographers. The entire courthouse shut down for months last summer because of mould, and now operates out of a temporary strip mall location off a highway.
After his guilty plea at the end of January, Jamshidi was scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 3. But when he appeared in court that day, the sentencing was put over a week because both his lawyers and the prosecution had not completed their paperwork.
When they returned on Feb. 10, it was delayed again, until Thursday’s date.
Until the sentencing was finalized, Jamshidi’s lawyers wouldn’t talk about whether a deal had been reached — though given that compensation payment was ready to go on Thursday, it seems clear they all knew what was coming.
There are about 200,000 people in St. Lucia. Most of the Caribbean island’s towns hug the shore of the island’s roughly 600 square kilometres, winding around its lush mountainous interior.
The High Court is located in the bustling capital of Castries on the west coast.
Jamshidi’s defence lawyer, Vandyke Jude, said there are challenges going to trial on a small island like St. Lucia.
Nine people make up a jury and — unlike in Canada where a verdict must be unanimous — majority rules.
“A 5-4 majority verdict is sufficient to find criminal liability,” Jude says. “In a case where you could be sentenced to life (as is the maximum sentence for gross negligence causing death), it’s, in my mind, frightening that a 5-4 vote can condemn you.”
That is particularly disconcerting given that lawyers in St. Lucia are given only basic information about prospective jurors during jury selection, Jude explained: name, religion, and occupation. Each side is allowed to “challenge” three jurors, but they are doing so without any substantial knowledge about these people’s lives or leanings.
“In many ways you are operating blind,” Jude says — you’re not told whether, for example, they have been victims of crime, or whether they’ve been closely following the case in the news.
“When you take all of these factors into account,” he explains, “and put yourself in the shoes of a defendant ... and you know that in all jurisdictions a plea of guilt is favoured by the courts ... when you have an option in front of you that is less daunting than spending the rest of your life in jail, it is easy to see how someone could capitulate.”
No matter the doubt he felt he might have been able to raise for the jurors, he realizes as a lawyer that “at the end of the day, you’re playing roulette — not with your ego but with someone’s life. There’s no good being a smarty pants after the fact.”
Asked if that means Jamshidi still maintains his innocence, Jude wouldn’t comment. He is cautious and guarded — respectful of the weight of a plea and what it means legally. FOR MARCELLINA ALBERT, the guilty plea has solidified her belief that Jamshidi is responsible for her grandson’s death.
But while the sentencing marks the end of the legal case, it brings no real closure for the small boy’s family. In fact the proceedings against Jamshidi have been, in many ways, a sideshow to an unending circle of finger pointing and family feuding.
“It’s been hell,” Albert said, describing the last two years.
She and her daughter Jowella Roserie, TJ’s mother, are no longer speaking. Roserie told St. Lucian media last month that she believes her mother should share the blame in the case.
“I think my mother should take prison too. It’s two of them that should be responsible … both of them should take the penalty, not just one,” St. Lucia News Online quoted her as saying. “If someone comes to the beach, and there is the kid, the guardian who is supposed to be watching the child … You have to be aware of the child at all times.”
On Thursday, a tearful Roserie told reporters outside the courthouse that she was satisfied with the outcome of the case.
Albert criticized her daughter earlier this month for being willing to take compensation for the death of her son. She says money will not bring the boy back — and she is adamant she bears no responsibility in his death.
“God knows I’m not guilty,” she said. “That little boy was my heart.”
TJ’s father Terry Elibox, on the other hand, blames Roserie for their loss.
The two families were in the midst of a bitter custody dispute at the time of TJ’s death.
Elibox says he had been granted custody of the boy, but that TJ had gone with Albert, his maternal grandmother, for Christmas.
Albert was supposed to bring the child back to him in Marc, a small community just outside Castries in central St. Lucia, after the holidays — but instead enrolled him at a new school down in Vieux Fort where she lives, he says. Elibox insists that if the child had been returned to him as arranged, TJ would still be alive today.
He doesn’t speak to Roserie or her mother.
Despite the guilty plea, Elibox says he believes Jamshidi is innocent and says he has told him so. The two — who had mutual acquaintances on the island — got together once, in 2015, shortly after the child’s death.
Jamshidi recalls being nervous about that meeting.
“I’d want to rip the person’s head off if he was accused of killing my kid,” he recalled, during the meeting with The Spectator in Jude’s office. “But he was so calm. I was surprised. I was so choked up hearing his story.
“It was very sad hearing his story and [learning] other pieces of the story. My heart goes out to him. I don’t know …” Jamshidi trails off. “However this case plays out, it’s not going to bring TJ back.”
Before the sentencing, Elibox said he hoped Jamshidi would not go to jail. But he acknowledged that he would take financial compensation if it was available — he is not too proud to admit he could use it.
And then he hopes everyone can move on.
But it is unclear how the money will be divided among TJ’s family — and whether the grieving father, who was not in court, will receive any of the money. Jude says the defence team has no role in how the funds are to be divided.
“There are so many ifs and buts in this case,” Jamshidi says.
“Our destinies all kind of got tied in together.”
JAMSHIDI COULD be back in Canada as early as Friday. But as he prepares to finally leave, it is unclear whether he will have a criminal record at home.
Because it is a suspended sentence, Jude says it is unlikely to be something that would apply in Canada unless a similar incident occurred here.
But Jamshidi is well aware that if you search his name online, the drowning case comes up.
He plans on being forthright about it, and can’t say what effect it might have on his ability to become a doctor or practise medicine. That’s down the road, he says. Right now his focus is returning home to Ancaster.
“A 5-4 majority verdict is sufficient to find criminal liability. In a case where you could be sentenced to life, it’s, in my mind, frightening that a 5-4 vote can condemn you.” VANDYKE JUDE DEFENCE LAWYER “God knows I’m not guilty. That little boy was my heart.” MARCELLINA ALBERT TJ ELIBOX’S GRANDMOTHER
Sahab Jamshidi in the office of his lawyer Vandyke Jude earlier this month.
Above: TJ with his father Terry Elibox at his home in Marc, St. Lucia. Right: TJ’s grandmother Marcellina Albert. Bottom: TJ’s mother, Jowella Roserie.