Tourists, locals applaud improvements at Coki Point


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ST. THOMAS — It has been three months since a daylight gun battle at a Coki Point Cemetery funeral left two people dead. The shooting highlighted the issues that have plagued Coki Point beach for years and prompted a massive cleanup to make the popular beach a safer place for locals and tourists alike.

The cleanup has been effective, as shown by throngs of all-day visitors returning to the beach, by police patrols and by improved facilities.

Before the cleanup, drug dealers plied their trade openly, police presence was minimal and the entrance to the beach had become a graveyard for abandoned boats and vehicles — all while thousands of tourists were coming daily to enjoy the beach’s unique Caribbean atmosphere.

Complaints from locals and fears from cruise lines and tour operators seemed to fall on deaf ears until the broad daylight shooting left a local man and a teenage tourist dead — forcing the government to step in and address the long-standing problems at Coki Point.

At about 11:50 a.m. July 12, a car rolled past a burial service taking place at Coki Point Cemetery and opened fire on the crowd. More shots were returned and when the gunfight ended, 18-year-old Shaheel Joseph was dead, lying in a pool of blood in the middle of the road.

 When the shootout began, tourists and locals scattered in all directions, but a stray bullet caught 14-year-old Liz Marie Pérez Chaparro as she was sitting in a nearby safari taxi with her family. She was rushed to the hospital, where she died shortly afterward.

She was a cruise passenger aboard Carnival Victory.

An Australian tourist — also a passenger on Carnival Victory — was grazed by a bullet during the shooting but survived his injuries and returned to the ship that afternoon.

The next day, police arrested 22-year-old Steve Tyson and charged him with two counts of first-degree murder in connection with the Coki Point shooting.

The incident made national news and was all over the travel blogs and websites within hours of the shooting. First Carnival, then most of the other cruise lines stopped selling Coki Point shore excursions.

The V.I. government launched a 10-day cleanup in August, hauling away about two dozen vehicles and boats, clearing overgrown bush, and creating a paved parking area for visitors.

Police increased patrols at the beach and rolled out a series of security measures intended to keep the territory’s residents and visitors safe. 

Three months after the shooting, the cruise lines have returned to the area, and things at Coki Point have improved — for the most part.

Tuesday afternoon, the beach was packed with visitors from four cruise ships calling on St. Thomas. Vendors sold food and drinks as people lolled in the sun or splashed in the blue water near the beach.

Several people who have worked at the beach for years observed that the atmosphere at Coki has improved since the government-led cleanup in August.

“It’s getting a little better for sure,” said Nefertiti Cardoze, who offers massages at Coki Beach. “People are getting along better. There’s no more fussing and cussing. I’m so happy to see the tourism come back.”

Cardoze said that the government cleanup helped, although it was sad that it took a death to spark action.

“It took a big disaster for something to happen to this beach,” Cardoze said. “They should build a monument to this little girl. If not for her, nothing would have happened.”

Trudie Prior, general manager at Coral World Ocean Park, said that more needs to be done, but she sees significant improvement.

“There’s still a ways to go to make it a really attractive place, but it’s been improved,” she said.

More to do

She said the cruise lines started coming back after the cleanup in August, but several cruise lines have cut back their contracts for tours to the beach and Coral World.

“But it’s very, very difficult to attribute that to what happened at Coki,” Prior said.

Amy Holmquist, who teaches private dive lessons at the beach, said the government needs to do more to keep the beach clean.

“We need trash cans and people to empty them,” Holmquist said.

Peter Jackson, who operates Coki Beach Dive Club, said the V.I. Housing, Parks and Recreation Department needs to make a larger presence at the beach. He said the bath house must be fixed and maintenance completed on vendor areas.

He also suggested that the anti-barking laws should be more carefully enforced at the beach.

“There are just too many people working,” he said.

Tour operator Armitage Allembert, who drives Air Force One Tours, said the dilapidated bathrooms at the beach are the primary complaint he receives from guests.

“They must improve the bathrooms, and they need to move quick,” Allembert said, adding that he has seen many negative reviews of the bathrooms posted on tourism websites.

He also suggested that an ambulance be stationed closer to the East End of the island. He said he saw a seizure victim wait 25 minutes for emergency responders Tuesday.

In August, the V.I. Public Finance Authority gave Housing, Parks and Recreation $750,122 for the bathroom and other improvement projects at Coki Point — bringing the total amount the department has received from the Public Finance Authority and the Legislature for the project to $1.6 million.

Housing, Parks and Recreation Commissioner St. Claire Williams said the contract for the bathroom renovation has been negotiated and is being reviewed by the V.I. Justice Department. Once approved by the attorney general, the governor must sign off before work can commence. He said he could not say whether the contract included a previous proposal to build a boardwalk with vendor kiosks.

Jack Joyce, a police officer visiting St. Thomas on vacation from Philadelphia, said his party had a wonderful time at Coki on Tuesday.

“It was fantastic. The locals were friendly and we had no problems,” Joyce said. “Seeing the local police officer makes you feel good.”

Assistant Police Commissioner Raymond Hyndman said since the shooting, the V.I. Police Department has maintained regular patrols in the Coki Point area. The officers stationed at the beach patrol with all-terrain vehicles, and other officers in police cars drive through the area regularly, Hyndman said.

He said a tourism-oriented police officer has been appointed to frequent tourist areas, interacting with hotel managers and visitors.

The department continues to monitor cameras placed in the territory’s downtown areas as well, Hyndman said.

An intelligence unit has been established within the department to collect information police can use to keep locals and visitors safe.

He said he has not heard any major complaints in recent weeks about Coki Point.

“That is not to say that some of the things aren’t happening, but things are not as bad as they were,” he said. “All in all, things have sort of slowed down somewhat.”

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