The story, which reached as far as CNN News broke almost two years ago when on September 6, 2010 the American Crocodile Education Sanctuary (ACES) in Punta Gorda was burned to the ground after a group of villagers, in search of two missing children Benjamin and Onelia Rash stormed the compound. Acting on the advice of the village psychic who claimed the children were at ACES, the San Marcos mob looted the properties and later set fire to all three buildings on the land. Losing not only their home and two guest houses they built themselves over several years along with all the contents within, the founders of ACES married Americans Cheri and Vince Rose were also devastated by the shooting deaths of several American crocodiles at their facility. The last twenty-three months have been traumatic and heartbreaking for the Roses who are permitted by the Belize Forest Department to research, rescue, contain and relocate problematic or ill crocodiles in Belize. However, on Friday, August 17, 2012 the Supreme Court of Belize handed down a decision that now gives the couple a new faith in a justice system that many have grown to doubt.
Early this year with the legal representation of Arnold and Company, Mrs. Agnes Gillett -Segura and Mrs. Andrea McKoy-McSweaney (who took their case on a contingency basis), a claim was filed on behalf of the Roses against the Government of Belize under the Riot Compensation Act, seeking damages for the arson at the ACES property. Court was first heard on March 5, 2012 in an attempt to determine that indeed a riot had occurred, and if so to argue that the Roses were protected under the Riot Compensation Act.
According to Belize law, the definition of a riot is as such:
Section 245 of the Criminal Code Chapter 1-1 defines riot:
245 (1) If five or more person together in any public or private place commerce or attempt to do either of the following things, namely-
- (a) to execute any common purpose with violence and without lawful authority to use such violence for that purpose; or
- (b) to execute a common purpose of obstructing or resisting the execution of any legal process or authority; or
- (c) to facilitate by force or by show of force or of numbers the commission of any crime, they are guilty of a riot.
Should it be determined within a reasonable doubt that a riot did occur the prosecution believed that the following would apply.
Section 2 of the Riot Compensation Act Chapter 28 states: “Riotous assembly” means an assembly of rioter or of persons assembled or together with a purpose of committing a riot as defined by section 241 of the Criminal Code”.
Section 3(1) states: Where a house, shop or building has been damaged, stolen or destroyed by any persons riotously assembled together, such compensation shall be paid to person who has sustained loss by reason of such damage, stealing or destruction.
After five court hearings over a span of six months the long awaited, unprecedented decision was handed down on August 17th by Judge of the Supreme Court Oswell Legall. The decision concluded that, “A declaration is granted that a riotous assembly of persons, as defined in section 2 of the Riot Compensation Act Chapter 338 assembled at the claimants’ property situated at Water Hole Road, Forest Home village, Toledo District for the purpose of executing a common purpose with violence and without lawful authority used such violence for that purpose to wit: they intentionally set fire and destroyed three houses, furniture, household utensils and other property owned by the claimants. I will now hear the parties on the issue of compensation. JUDGE OF THE SUPREME COURT Oswell Legall Aug. 17th, 2012.” With the judgment the compensation hearing has been scheduled for December, where the Roses are seeking close to $907,000bz in damages.
With the first step of justice behind them, The San Pedro Sun meet up with Cherie and Vince Rose who now reside in San Pedro and tirelessly continue their crocodile conservation efforts. Neither of them dared to hope that the court would rule in their favor. Cherie cautiously stated, “All I could do was hope and pray that justice would prevail. Due to previous experiences in the country we had our reservations. The first step of justice has been served and we are proud to see that the system works.” Vince agreed he was skeptical of the outcome, “Not knowing the judicial system but yet sitting in the courtroom at every hearing it just did not appear to me that we were proving our case… the process is new to me and how witnesses are questioned it somewhat begins with cross examination based on their initial statements, which are not read in court. But I had every bit of confidence in our legal team because all of the information we were able to provide to them was the truth. We could never express enough gratitude to Arnold and Company, Mrs. Gillett -Segura and Mrs. Andrea McKoy-McSweaney for taking the case on a contingency basis and for their endless hours of sifting through the evidence in order to defend our case with the utmost professionalism and facts. This shows that justice can happen for ALL in Belize, not just ACES. It was a horrific crime and no one deserves to have their house burned down, period. Arson is a sickness and an arsonist does not care who is inside those buildings when they light them on fire. Cherie and I can now begin the process of healing, knowing that justice has been done…and it renews our belief in Belize and the judicial system.”
So now what is next for ACES and the crocodile conservation couple? “First of all the outcome has given me peace of mind and will enable us to move forward with our personal life. In a sense the crocodiles have saved us… our focus on their protection and conservation has kept us going and really, during this time it has been good to stay motivated and committed to our cause. The next step is in December we have a hearing with the same judge to determine the amount of compensation. And then, since this judge ruled that without a doubt a riot did destroy our property we have to ask why hasn’t anyone been arrested? Our final goal of course is to see that these arsonists are behind bars so that this doesn’t happen again. No matter if it’s a resort or a thatch, it is someone’s home and it is not right for people to get away with destroying it. No matter what the reason, it is wrong that people take matters into their own hands. If there is no consequences for an act of violence what will stop them for doing it time and time again,” commented Cherie. Looking ahead she continued, “We are really excited, in September we will be featured on the “Adventures with Jungle Ron” on the Open Learning TV channel out of Belmopan and in October there will be a two-part episode featuring ACES on the Wildlife SOS program that is aired on Animal Planet Europe. This kind of international exposure will not only be tremendous for ACES but Belize as well. With funding we received in June from the Brigitte Bardot foundation we will now be able to complete the largest natural habitat built for problematic crocodile at our location in Ladyville. At the end of September people may see us on the island with a film crew from the U.S. where we will be removing four of the most problematic crocodiles who are repeat offenders. Finally here on San Pedro we are in the process of completing the ACES Wildlife & Croc Refuge in the San Mateo area. Our goal is to have it open by December and one permanent resident will be “Jaws”, a deformed croc with a broken jaw. We are also currently seeking a local volunteer who we will train to be a croc-wrangler. Interested individuals can find more intern information on our website.”
Started in 2005, ACES has rescued and relocated hundreds of these modern day dinosaurs from unhealthy environments and areas where man and croc clash. For crocs who have been fed by man, directly as a tourist attraction or indirectly by improper garbage disposal, their future is a precarious one as their natural fear of man has been replaced with an association with food. Once this happens the animal is nothing but dangerous and often the only choices are killing it (which is illegal) or containing it. This is where ACES comes in, capturing, relocating when possible or containing the problematic crocs in a natural habitat when other options have been exhausted. All the while ACES monitors and researches the crocodiles and their habitats, assessing the health and population of what is most likely the last stronghold area for this endangered species. For more information about ACES please visit their website at www.AmericanCrocodileSanctuary.org