by Gemma Handy
Police tape surrounded the countryside home of Zorina Benjamin yesterday, the peaceful surrounds at odds with the ostensible brutality of her death.
The senior Customs officer’s car was parked in her yard as usual – bearing its recognisable government plates – except this time Benjamin would not be returning to work. A lone police officer could be seen keeping watch over the area, parked under the shade of a mahogany tree.
When gunshots rang out on Sunday evening, they shattered the quiet ambience of this leafy suburb on the fringes of Golden Grove. Accessed by a bumpy dirt road, with no other houses immediately adjacent, its isolation is perhaps the reason surveillance cameras were installed in the simple wooden house’s eaves.
On Monday, Benjamin’s body was discovered inside her home with a gunshot wound to the head, the country’s 13th homicide this year and the third to rock the Customs department in 16 months.
One neighbour told Observer he heard three shots which he said he instantly believed were from a firearm.
“Usually on a Sunday, the village is dead still. I knew it was a gun,” he said.
The man, speaking on condition of anonymity, remembered Benjamin as “a sweet girl”, one whose presence he would miss at the Tindale Seventh Day Adventist Church which they had long attended together.
Like her co-workers, he testified to a straight-laced, quiet person with little time for small talk.
Another local resident spoke of a kind, gentle, hardworking lady often seen tending to her garden.
A statement from the Customs and Excise Division yesterday paid tribute to a “faithful employee” whose “warm and gracious smile and friendly personality left a lasting impression on everyone with whom she came in contact”.
“Officer Benjamin was a committed and dedicated member of our team for the past 11 years,” it said.
Benjamin’s death comes a month after the still unsolved murder of 52-year-old Customs employee Margaret Harris – whose body was found with multiple injuries in Wireless Road – and 16 months after the apparent execution-style killing of Customs inspector Nigel Christian, 44.
Police have confirmed they are not linking Benjamin’s murder with that of Christian, whom she is said to have previously worked alongside. Spokesman Inspector Frankie Thomas said the latter remains a separate probe.
Thomas added that a suspect is being held for questioning in relation to the mother-of-one’s demise, “and is cooperating”.
One Customs official, also speaking anonymously, told Observer that Benjamin had spent most of her years with the department in the area of enforcement, its investigative arm.
Keen to better herself, she had once taken time out to pursue a degree before returning to the job she cherished.
“She loved what she did and was very diligent. She was one who set high standards and was hardly ever absent from work,” he recalled.
It was precisely Benjamin’s unexplained failure to show up for work on Monday that triggered alarm bells among her colleagues who, after failing to reach her by phone, went to her house and found her motionless inside.
“She was a very quiet person; if you approached her, she was friendly but she was not one to initiate conversation. But every interaction with her was always genuine; no one had a bad word to say about her,” the colleague continued.
In a strange coincidence, Benjamin drove the same Customs vehicle previously assigned to Cornell Benjamin, a fellow former senior Customs officer shot in the legs by unknown assailants in 2019.
Zorina Benjamin’s killing is said to be the result of a domestic incident but that hasn’t entirely eradicated consternation among some of her colleagues working in an already tense environment.
“When we got the news, there were some who said we should just turn in our uniforms,” the insider explained. “It’s early days so no one knows what to make of it. People really hope it’s not work related but it’s certainly added to the already existing stress among us.
“The mood at work is solemn, everyone is wondering, why her, she was a beautiful soul,” he added.
Meanwhile, police confirmed yesterday that the investigation into Harris’ death remains underway with no charges laid. Cornell Benjamin is still said to be undergoing medical treatment in Jamaica. Three people have been charged in relation to Christian’s death; the case is currently adjourned until February.
The statement from Customs alluded to a “tough and bitter season” for its staff. “It was only mere weeks ago that we were left reeling with the shocking news of the demise of another employee, Margaret ‘Maggie’ Harris,” it said.
“We continue to pray for Benjamin’s family and friends who are dealing with the painful circumstances of her untimely death and lean on each other for support in getting through these tough and challenging times,” the statement added.
Prior to joining the department, Benjamin, who was in her 40s, had worked as a senior clerk in the ministry of agriculture.
Well educated, she had degrees in accounting and business administration.
Many of Benjamin’s friends have taken to social media to express shock at her loss. They have paid tribute to a bright, humble, selfless person who always had a smile on her face.