A Canadian socialite and the partner of a British billionaire’s son has been charged with manslaughter in Belize following the midnight shooting of a senior police officer last week.
Jasmine Hartin reportedly first told the police that the shot that killed Superintendent Henry Jemmott could have come from a boat passing near the dock where the victim’s body was found floating in the water with a single gunshot wound behind the right ear.
But later she confessed to accidentally shooting Jemmott when he asked her to hand him his gun while she was giving him a shoulder massage, according to local news reports.
Hartin, 32, is the partner of Andrew Ashcroft, 43, the youngest son of Lord Michael Ashcroft, a major donor and former deputy chairman of Britain’s Conservative Party. The fortune of Lord Ashcroft, a dual citizen of the UK and Belize, rivals the entire gross domestic product of the small Caribbean nation of roughly 400,000 citizens.
The case pits the Belizean justice system against one of the country’s most powerful families, and has raised doubts about the chances of an impartial processing of the case. Many say Belize’s is a corrupt system that has different sets of rules for the wealthy and the poor.
“There is massive distrust in how it has been dealt with,” said Audrey Matura, a lawyer and activist. “Adding to it is the fact that the police have not acted against Jasmine [Hartin] the way that they've acted with the regular Belizean.”
The contrast between how Hartin has been treated by police compared with Belizeans of color in similar circumstances has made some conclude that race is also a factor.
“In the system you have to follow all the protocols and procedures that you would have followed with any black person that you arrest, and that clearly is not happening,” said Matura, who noted that Hartin allegedly was carrying a small amount of cocaine in her purse when police arrived at the scene, but she has not been charged with drug possession.
“The truth is that Belize's attitude towards non-Black or non-people of color is more favorable than towards those of color,” added Matura.
Jemmott’s family said that the charge of manslaughter is insufficient and have called for Hartin to be charged with murder.
“I would say that I’m disappointed in the police department,” said Marie Jemmott Tzul, a sister who is also a cop, in an interview with local news. “And that’s not only my opinion but the consensus of my family, his friends and the general Belizean people.”
“It’s a big disrespect to my brother who has served 23 years plus,” she added.
In the early hours of May 28, Hartin and Jemmott were socializing on a dock outside a resort on the island of Ambergris Caye, one of the Caribbean’s top tourist destinations. Jemmott, a 42-year-old father of five and superintendent of the national police, was on leave from his duties commanding a precinct in the capital.
While Jemmott was stationed on the island earlier in his career he befriended the Ashcrofts and Hartin, who, according to her LinkedIn profile, most recently worked as the director of lifestyle and experience at Alaia Belize Autograph Hotel Collection, owned by her partner Andrew Ashcroft.
Although the couple share two children, it’s unclear if they were ever married, and the Ashcroft family has reportedly attempted to distance itself from her since the shooting. At the grand opening for a new resort in early May, however, Andrew Ashcroft, who has lived in Belize for two decades, referred to Hartin as his “wife.”
The family patriarch, Lord Ashcroft, first landed in Belize when his father was sent there as a member of the British foreign service. At the time, Belize was still a British colony.
Later, as his fortune grew, mostly through acquisitions of companies, he began investing and spending more time in the country, taking up residence and amassing important assets locally, such as in the banking and telecom industries.
The power he gained from those assets was so great that in 2007 when the bank he owned came under suspicion for violations of the anti-money laundering law, the investigation was dropped out of fear it could cause too much damage to the economy. The next year, a group that called itself the Committee to Oust Lord Ashcroft led a small demonstration in Belize City.
“There are people who like [Lord Ashcroft], but I think there's a vast majority who are resentful and suspicious. With this recent case that sentiment comes out more clearly,” said Matura.
Critics have accused Lord Ashcroft of using Belize as a tax haven, a controversy that dogged him while he served as a peer in Britain’s House of Lords, bending local policy to his interests through political contributions and influence, and even of having “subjugated a nation,” according to Belize’s former Prime Minister Dean Barrow, by wielding power over the country similar to his colonial predecessors of the past.
"Lord Michael Ashcroft is an extremely powerful man. His net worth may well be equal to Belize's entire GDP. He is nobody to cross. But this is our house, this is our country, here we are the masters. And with the full weight of that sovereignty we must now put an end to this disrespect, to this chance-taking, to new age slavery,” said Barrow in a searing 2009 speech to fellow MPs following one of a long line of court battles fought between the government and Ashcroft.
Lord Ashcroft has also helped create jobs in Belize and made many large contributions to charitable causes, supporting schools, children’s homes, drug rehabilitation centers and even prisons.
Jemmott was a well-known and beloved cop, known for being one of the country’s strictest officers with a focus on the country’s gangs. In 2014, Jemmott was stationed in Ambergris Caye’s largest city, San Pedro, after a series of murders rocked the island paradise.
"My purpose in San Pedro is after that little [crime] spike, to send it back to normal," Jemmott told VICE World News in 2014.
Ambergris Caye had become embroiled in a war between two gangs that fought over the control of the northern tip of the island where packages of cocaine sometimes washed ashore as foreign drug trafficking organizations occasionally lost bundles in a form of smuggling known as “wet dropping.”
Jemmott spent several years on Ambergris Caye combatting that and other problems on the island, before being set to take a high-ranking position in Belize City earlier this year. It’s unclear why Jemmot was on Ambergris Caye at the time of his murder, but the officer had requested time off for personal reasons before beggining the new position on the mainland.
His family has spoken openly about struggling to figure out how to support the five children he left behind. Many are angry that the police did not conduct a more thorough investigation before deciding against the charge of murder even though the victim was a policeman.
“I would say that 95 percent of the population feels like the police department failed one of their own,” said Matura.
If Hartin were to reach a plea agreement on the manslaughter charge with prosecutors, she could end up serving little time in prison. A bail hearing is set for June 9. Until then, at least, she remains detained on the grounds that she could present a flight risk.