Execution-style murder of high-ranking Customs inspector sends country reeling – and leaves questions lingering
By Gemma Handy
The brutal assassination of a hard-working and upstanding Customs inspector at the peak of his career has left a nation in shock.
And the careful steps to evade capture taken by Nigel Christian’s killers prior to his apparent execution-style murder – so incongruous in a country that prides itself on its peaceful ambience – are as monstrous as the act itself.
Four men wearing what was described as army clothing are said to have gone to Christian’s mother’s McKinnon’s home, removed surveillance cameras, beaten Christian, placed a gun in his mother’s mouth and carried him away in a pick-up – taking all car keys with them, presumably so they couldn’t be followed.
An hour later the 44-year-old’s body was found riddled with bullets in a dirt road near New Winthorpes, his killers vanished without trace.
Someone, it seems, wanted Nigel Christian out of the way. But who, and why?
On Saturday, Prime Minister Gaston Browne dubbed the incident a “senseless murder” and offered a $50,000 reward for anyone who provides information leading to an arrest.
A motive for the killing has left many baffled.
Others claim it casts a light on the rot of corruption said to be endemic through much of the Customs department, from its lowest ranks to its highest echelons.
Last October a multi-million dollar shortfall in revenue relating to items shipped into the country’s port was revealed by Cabinet. Unnamed brokers were said to have forged signatures and documents presented to the Customs and Excise Department for the waiver of taxes due on imports.
Christian had been one of the investigators on the ensuing fraud probe – as was Cornell Benjamin who was shot in both legs three days after the missing cash was announced. Benjamin survived.
Christian’s involvement in the investigation apparently ended several months ago according to Comptroller of Customs Raju Boddu. Attempts to reach Boddu for further clarification were unsuccessful.
One thing is clear. By all accounts Christian – who joined the division more than 20 years ago and was last year promoted to principal inspector of Customs – was a scrupulous, noble employee, principled in his work and a man of integrity.
That dedication, insiders say, may have been his downfall.
When it came to navigating the department’s high-tech ASYCUDA software – a computerised Customs management system which boosts compliance through its handling of Customs declarations and accounting procedures, among others – Christian’s skills were said to be second to none.
“Truth be told, he was probably the most knowledgeable about the system. His skills were well known, most businesspeople knew him because of his work with it. He was able to navigate it and pick up many of the things most of us would not know,” a Customs insider told Observer.
“To say he is a big loss to the department is an understatement. He was the go-to person on island as it relates to ASYCUDA. In fact, people have been ringing from all over the region expressing their condolences and saying what a loss he will be.”
The source said Christian’s savvy with the system could have made him a thorn in the side of those looking to exploit weaknesses and loopholes for their own advantage.
He also claimed the $3.2 million loss in revenue announced last year is the tip of the iceberg as it relates to allegedly widespread fraudulent practices.
“The figures touted are way off; it’s a lot more than three million, that’s well known, and it goes deep in terms of who’s involved,” he said.
“There is inherent corruption in the department. It’s at the heart of everything going on, and it goes all the way to the very top.”
The source said “infringements” were frequently spotted in the system – and many workers were too afraid to act.
“You can be looked at as someone trying to block progress when you’re just being true to your training. It’s mind boggling what we have become as a department. Customs is at an all-time low – and it’s scary,” he added.
Speaking on state television over the weekend, Boddu said he didn’t have words to describe how “painful” Christian’s death was and how distraught his colleagues were.
The comptroller paid tribute to a “competent” and “very passionate” officer who displayed a high standard of professionalism in his work.
“Nigel Christian was the consummate professional and a smart and intelligent officer to whom I am deeply indebted for his sound guidance and clever leadership on a variety of matters,” he said.
Boddu pledged to do everything in his power to assist police with their investigations, adding that he was committed to ensuring his workers were protected and able to do their job according to its mandate.
Efforts to identify Christian’s killers remain underway, police spokesman Inspector Frankie Thomas said as he urged the public to assist by coming forward with information.
“General public support is critical if police are to be successful; their participation will be what continues to keep Antigua and Barbuda one of the safest destinations in the world,” Inspector Thomas told Observer.
Following Benjamin’s shooting last year, police came under fire for failing to properly ensure the safety of Customs officials investigating the fraud.
Yesterday, Minister Steadroy Benjamin, who has responsibility for the police force, vowed to “spare no efforts” in scrutinising Christian’s murder and bringing the perpetrators to justice.
“I am extremely concerned by this and asking law enforcement agencies to conduct investigations and advise me as to what action we must take to ensure there is no reoccurrence of this matter,” he told Observer.
Meanwhile, calls for local authorities to enlist help from overseas in finding the killers have come from both UPP political leader Harold Lovell and former Commissioner of Police Wendel Robinson.
Robinson said he was “saddened” by the incident and found it “inexplicable” that there had now been two attacks on Customs staff.
“There may well be a correlation,” he said, while advising investigators to “keep an open mind and go where the evidence leads”.
Robinson said he would welcome support from outside bodies such as London’s Scotland Yard to complement efforts by local police.
An attack on law enforcement officers of any kind is “not something the government should take lightly”, Robinson said, adding, “It undermines the very fabric of integrity and it says something very deep in respect of corruption.”
Commissioner of Police Atlee Rodney last night described Christian’s “cowardly” murder as “an attack on all law enforcement in Antigua and Barbuda”.
“We are therefore calling upon every member of the public to come forward and share whatever information they may have surrounding this incident.
“We have been offering our support to the Christian family and will continue to do so, as well as to our colleagues in the Customs department,” he said.
Anyone with information may call CID on 462-3913 or 462-3914, or any member of the police force, in “the strictest confidence”.