And, our next story is about a Sunday afternoon double murder that has shaken up San Pedro and could have very serious implications for the tourism sector.
A tourist who had gone fly fishing was murdered when the local guide he went out with was targeted for an execution at sea.
It happened on Sunday morning in the San Pedro Town lagoon when 53 year old tour guide Mario Graniel was returning from a tour with fellow 53 year old Dr. Gary Swank. Swank was a visitor, staying at a home on the north end of Ambergris Caye where his wife and children were waiting for him to return from his morning fishing tour.
But, he never returned, instead, police had to fish his body out of the lagoon where he lay dead - while Graniel was slumped behind the steering wheel of the skiff - both had multiple gunshot wounds.
Best information says Graniel was the target- but Swank, as a witness, was collateral damage. Police discussed the possible motives for the murder this morning:
Supt. Hilberto Romero
"On Sunday 23rd June, 2019 around 11:30am, police responded to a report at an area 1 mile west of San Pedro Town in the lagoon where upon arrival police found the lifeless bodies of 2 male persons identified as Mario Graniel and Gary Swank. They had multiple gunshots injuries. One of the deceased was on board the vessel while the other was in the water. Both were taken out and taken to the San Pedro Polyclinic where they were pronounced dead on arrival."
"Do you have details as to how the crime took place?"
Supt. Hilberto Romero
"We are working on several leads. We know that they were fishing in that particular area and thereafter the report came in that there had been a shooting. Police responded and that is what they found."
"What we are gathering after the fact is that the decease, Mr. Graniel had a misunderstanding with one of the notorious gang figure in San Pedro. His home was shot at his Friday last. Police detained the persons who we suspected did the shooting, waited for Mr. Graniel to give the report. He never showed up to give the report. We maintain police presence in the area to protect him and the community from further shootings but we can't follow the man everywhere he goes. He decided to go out with a tourist. We don't have a boat to follow him and we can't put police on every tour guide boat. That was the end of it yesterday. We did what we could have done in terms of detaining those who we believe were responsible and maintaining presence in the area where he lived."
Swank was a cardiac interventionist from Virginia.
It is of note that on the day before the murder, Graniel reported to police that someone shot at his apartment - and a bullet penetrated the door. There expended shells were found in the area.
Police Say Graniel Had Beef with Notorious Gang Figure
Investigators are working on establishing a motive. This was not the first time that Graniel came under gunfire. A day before the double murder, shots were fired at Graniel’s apartment in the Boca del Rio area. Graniel was inside his room on the second floor when he heard three gunshots. When he made checks, he noticed a bullet hole above his door. According to sources, this incident was captured by a security camera which showed a lone gunman, wearing a black hoodie to conceal his identity. At the scene, police found three nine millimeter shells. No one was found in the immediate area. According to Commissioner of Police Chester Williams, Graniel did not report this matter to the police.
Chester Williams, Commissioner of Police
“The double murder in San Pedro, what we are gathering after the fact is that the decease, Mr. Graniel had a misunderstanding with one of the notorious gang figure in San Pedro. His home was shot at his Friday last. Police detained the persons who we suspected did the shooting, waited for Mr. Graniel to give the report. He never showed up to give the report. We maintain police presence in the area to protect him and the community from further shootings but we can’t follow the man everywhere he goes. He decided to go out with a tourist. We don’t have a boat to follow him and we can’t put police on every tour guide boat. That was the end of it yesterday. We did what we could have done in terms of detaining those who we believe were responsible and maintaining presence in the area where he lived. I don’t see what else we could have done.”
“Is it safe to say then that Mr. Swank is a victim of circumstance in this case?”
“That is surely the case.”
The Graniel family declined to comment. Graniel was an active tour guide and one of the first persons to pioneer fly fishing. A statement from the Belize Game Fish Conservation Network says in part that “Mr. Graniel was a huge help to us in our early days. No one deserves to go out that way especially someone so kind hearted.” Doctor Swank was an interventional cardiologist and worked at the Carilion Clinic in Virginia. A statement from Carilion reads, “Dr. Swank was a well-respected and well-loved colleague who, each and every day, embodied the values that we hold dear.” Police say that Swank entered the country on Saturday; he was on vacation in Belize with his wife and three children.
Today's briefing gave the press a chance to ask police about all the suspects they had detained in the double murders of the island tour guide Mario Graniel, and his guest, American doctor Gary Swank.
As we told you last week, their main suspect, Christian Espat turned himself in on Thursday, after making a pre-emptive strike on Facebook to declare his innocence. His attorney said that he was in Benque Viejo Town when the murders happened on June 23rd.
Police told us they questioned and released him:...
ACP Joseph Myvette - Head, NCIB
"In relation to the San Pedro murder investigation, the police had, over the past few days, detained and interviewed several persons. We were looking for one specific person who we believe can assist us in the investigation. That person came into the police's custody on Friday last, where he was interviewed in the presence of his attorney. Certain information was taken from him. There was not any sufficient evidence to detain him otherwise, so he was released. Subsequently, on Saturday, the home of one of those persons whom the person was seeking was also searched. His vessel was impounded for processing, and he is still in custody at this point in time, in the ongoing investigation."
"Mr. Myvette, is the Federal Bureau of Investigation still engaged in this investigation?"
ACP Joseph Myvette
"Yes, they are."
"Presently in Belize?"
ACP Joseph Myvette
"Yes, they are."
"Sir, do you feel that your investigators are getting anywhere closer to solving this double murder? Or do you all feel that the leads aren't aiding you as you would hope?"
ACP Joseph Myvette
"I would not go into the details, other than to say that investigation is progressing, and certain evidence has been had from some of those leads."
Sources tell us the FBI is assisting with evidence which was trawled up from the sea bed in the lagoon where the murder happened. We should note that Mario Graniel and Christian Espat were once friends and associates, and have a female friend in common who has also been questioned and released. Sources also say that Graniel had changed some details in his will just before he was killed.
Edward Broaster, the Deputy Commissioner in charge of operations and crime, also took a few questions from the press about what the department is doing to try and rebuild public confidence in police's ability to keep residents and visitors of San Pedro safe. You heard how some of the residents challenged his police boss, Chester Williams at last week's public meeting. He said that residents should expect to see increased police presence on the island:
ACP Edward Broaster - Deputy ComPol, Ops and Crime
"We have deployed additional officers to San Pedro, in an effort to interdict some of the criminal elements on that island. Over the weekend, we have seized 2 firearms, and a number individuals were arrested, and a number of drugs have been confiscated as well. So, we will continue that operation on the island. There will be additional support, in terms of officers being placed on the island, to ensure that we try as best as possible to mitigate any criminal act that will affect the economy of the island or the citizenry on that island as well."
"On social media and in certain quarters of the society, it has been said that whenever it is that incidents such as these would happen on San Pedro, Caye Caulker, or one of the tourist destinations in the country, the police are quick to pull out their resources to solve these crimes, but the same urgency is not given to other murders of other citizens of the country. What do you say to that?"
ACP Edward Broaster
"That is not true, and you all can attest to the fact that you've had local murders where the commissioner of police had expended all resources and effort to investigate those murders. And I can specifically talk about the triple murder in Hattieville and the Swallow Caye 5. We have a lot of resources being expended to investigate those murders. So, that is not the case."
Police are hiring 12 special constables just for the north of the island and have also announced a new intake of 170 police officers.
Espat claims he is innocent of the crime and spoke to The San Pedro Sun upon his release. “Every time something happens on this island, they try to blame me,” said the island fisherman. “I want the community to know that I have nothing to do with this double murder; I am trying to change my life,” Espat claims that on June 23rd when Graniel and Swank were killed, he was off the island in Benque Viejo del Carmen, and it was upon his return to the island that he found out police wanted him. He says he willingly turned himself over to police because he believes he was wrongfully accused. Espat does acknowledge that he has committed a few offenses in the past. “I am not a saint, I have done some bad stuff, but these things that they are trying to accuse me, I have nothing to do with these crimes. As you can all see, every time they remand me, I come out, because they do not have evidence against me, I am unfairly targeted.” Espat is asking for police to do their job well, to apprehend the true criminals and stop incarcerating innocent people.
Click here to read the rest of the article and see more photos in the San Pedro Sun
Last night, we told you about the latest developments in the police investigation into the San Pedro double murders of local tour guide Mario Graniel, and his guest, American Doctor Gary Swank, which happened 2 Sundays ago.
The swarm of negative publicity in the US press and the specter of lawlessness has caused mass cancelations of pre-booked tours. The Government of Belize has called it a crisis that needs urgent attention. The FBI is assisting with the investigation.
So, what does the US Embassy have to say about the double murder and the fall out? We got a chance to speak with the US chargÃ© d'affaires, Keith Gilges, at another event this evening in Belmopan, and here's what he had to say about that moment when his office was informed about Dr. Swank's murder:
Three men have detained on separate occasions in respect of the murders of San Pedro tour guide Mario Graniel and American Doctor. Gary Swank. These suspects, according to Superintendent Alejandro Cowo, are different from an initial trio that was brought in for questioning. Despite not being able to make an arrest, Cowo says that they are confident that someone had to have witnessed the double homicide on the San Pedro lagoon three weeks ago.
Supt. Alejandro Cowo, O.C., C.I.B., Eastern Division
“That investigation is still ongoing. Police have detained three separate persons, not the persons that were detained before. It‘s another set or group of persons that police are investigating at this moment and interviewing at this moment.”
“So there are persons detained pending a live investigation?”
Supt. Alejandro Cowo
“Yes, there are three persons.”
“But sir, at the end of the day, you all are undermined by the fact that it happened at sea and as you know, the sea has no witnesses.”
Supt. Alejandro Cowo
“Well, you know that we believe that somebody out there saw what happened, regardless if it is in the sea, on land, there’s always somebody that saw what happened and we are getting information and that is what we are following up at this moment.”