The murder of Roger Pratt and our journey for justice
After years of meticulous planning and 23 days on the open seas, the hills of Martinique were rising on the horizon. Margaret and Roger Pratt’s great journey – a crossing of the Atlantic – had ended in triumph, relief that they no longer had to ration water, and a glass of champagne. Ahead of them lay a retirement of sailing, adventure and companionship.
But just weeks later, the forlorn-looking Magnetic Attraction was being shipped back to the UK, for sale at a knock-down price. The story of why is the stuff of nightmares. It is a tale of a few brief moments of terror and three long years of frustrated justice – all played out on the island paradise of St Lucia, where Margaret’s fight for a fair and timely trial of those accused of murdering her husband goes on.
“Work was what Roger did when he wasn’t sailing,” says Margaret about their voyages. They had sailed for decades at weekends, slowly building up to the carefully thought-through purchase of Magnetic Attraction. Tackling the Atlantic was the goal and Roger – a retired engineer at Jaguar Land-Rover – wanted a steel hull capable of taking a glancing blow from any bobbing containers they might encounter. In many ways, the vessel mirrored her owners: solid, unfussy, practical and dependable.
|Margaret and Roger Pratt|
They then sailed to St Lucia, where they celebrated Margaret’s 60th birthday, dived on reefs, and made new friends among fellow sailors.
Murder in paradise
“On the 17th of January we were moored off-shore at Vieux-Fort,” recalls Margaret, neatly dressed in her gilet and pearls. “We had some supper on the boat. I’d got up to date with the blog, Roger had emailed friends. We went to bed at the normal sort of time, 10.30pm. The boat was in darkness.”
|Vieux-Fort, the southernmost tip of St Lucia|
Four masked strangers were aboard. Having rowed out in a stolen fishing boat, they were attempting a robbery that would soon turn horribly violent. “I remember [Roger] fighting one of the young men right on the stern. As I came out a guy caught me in a half-Nelson and another guy was just pummelling me. They were shouting, ‘Where’s the fucking money?’
|BBC News report from January 2014|
Then the men panicked. “Someone said something in patois. They dropped everything and jumped into the water and swam to the shore. I remember calling for Roger. And then there’s that awful moment, when you realise you’re on the boat alone.
“I dropped the dinghy into the water in case he was swimming, and then I called ‘Mayday’ on the VHF radio.” Several vessels and the local authorities raced to help. But it was too late. “I heard it on the radio. ‘We’ve found a male floating. Face down.’”
Within minutes, Margaret and Roger had been shuttled to an ambulance on the quay. “In the ambulance I held Roger’s hand,” she recalled in her witness statement. “It was cold. His lower limbs were starting to have a deep shade of purple.” Once they arrived at the local hospital, a doctor rushed over. “He quickly examined Roger, and he said, ‘But this man is deceased.’”
Frustrating fight for justice
Despite limited resources on an island of 166,000 inhabitants, the police sped into action. For an economy based heavily on the image of being a tropical Eden, tourist murders are bad news. By February 25th 2014 four young local men were in court to be charged, having confessed to robbery and murder.
|Margaret Pratt: "I'd like to see things speeded along"|
After the initial buzz – meetings with the Prime Minister, police and tourism ministry – came months of silence, months which have turned into years.
Asked if the authorities keep her informed of developments Margaret says with frustration, “Not at all. I’m not told why the court hearings are delayed ... I have an attorney who I pay to keep an eye on things for me – I’m not getting a response from him about any of these questions.”
And now bad news is emerging. Sources on the island tell Margaret that the bags of items bearing DNA evidence from scene have been contaminated. And the defence team are challenging the validity of the men’s confessions.
“They charged four men who are still in prison as we sit and talk today,” says Margaret. “You keep getting dates but there are continuing delays.
“I felt it was an entirely straightforward process. There was strong forensics, there was confession evidence, there seemed to be no reason why there should be any delay in bringing these people to trial.
“The judicial system is under-resourced. But what has really meant and why I want to talk about this now is that the forensic evidence has been found to be contaminated and the confession evidence is coming into dispute. I see no signs that it is going to be resolved.”
Margaret is aware that Roger’s is a relatively high-profile case, which makes her wonder about the bigger picture of justice in St Lucia. “If it is not going to be resolved for me then it is certainly not going to be resolved for other people in St Lucia. And it seems to me a fundamental tenet of democracy that people should be able to rely on investigations and the judicial process [being carried out] in a timely and appropriate fashion. And I’m not sure that the people of St Lucia can have confidence in those processes.”
|Roger and Margaret celebrate the start of 2014 in St Lucia|
“A satisfactory outcome is a timely prosecution that addresses the facts, addresses the confession evidence, properly tested in court, so these young men get their day in court. I would also like an apology and a better understanding of what went wrong with the forensics … And I would really appreciate a more face-to-face interface.”
In the meantime, Margaret’s life is, she says, “different” than she had imagined. Her journey with Roger began at 17; they celebrated their marriage five years later in her parents’ back garden in 1976. He was a young engineer who had left school at 15 as he wanted to buy a motorbike, and was completing his qualifications at night school. She had just graduated in Classics from the University of St Andrew's.
She says of their life: “I had confidence – real confidence – in Roger. We’d done a lot of sailing together, a lot of miles.” At times, getting used to the new reality is hard. “I miss him being there, particularly when I’m doing something that Roger would have done as a matter of course. Those are the moments you think, I'm on my own. And that’s hard.”
She is close to her brother-in-law and his daughter-in-law, their companions on the Atlantic voyage. “It certainly created a bond. You have gone through something together … No one can take that sort of closeness away.”
|Roger, Margaret and their Atlantic companions|
What might that involve? “Once this case is out of the way I want to do something for and with St Lucia. To try to prevent the sort of sad case that happened to me and Roger from happening again. I’d love to help. But until the case is brought to justice I can’t take any of these plans forward. I hope to be able to move forward.”
Magnetic Attraction is long-since sold; it is now time for Margaret’s voyage and long journey seeking justice for Roger to end too, so that a new chapter can begin.