Wednesday 25th April 2018, will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1968 riots during which A.S. Cooper's Warehouse, then located on Union Street in Hamilton, was burned to the ground.  This article, written by George Rose, highlights the arson at Cooper's warehouse and the result of the subsequent Police investigation into the cause of the fire, which was one of the many investigations carried out following the riots.

 

 

1968 RIOTS - THE BURNING DOWN OF A.S. COOPERS WAREHOUSE

A very rare and costly collection of Wedgwood china was among stock insured for £150,000 which went up in flames when A.S. Cooper’s warehouse was destroyed by fire during the April 1968 riots. In the collection was a rare antique vase, dating from 1877, one of only three in the world. One of these vases was recently sold for $9,000. Other stock included furniture, china, carpets and clothing. In addition to the stock the fire also destroyed two vans which were insured for £1,000 each. The building itself was insured for £5,000.

 

News reports described that the biggest blaze was at A.S. Cooper’s china warehouse on Union Street, which was gutted. Overhead, great boiling clouds of smoke tinted brilliant red climbed hundreds of feet into the air, followed by volcanic outbursts of flames – all from A.S. Cooper’s warehouse, Ideal Furniture and several houses. The fire spread to four nearby houses, severely damaging them.

 

Ensuing investigations led me on the morning of Monday 20 May 1968 to a construction site on the grounds of the Warwick Academy, Middle Road, Warwick where I saw a man I knew to be Winslow Vancourt ‘Dewey’ Durrant.  I said to him, “I am Dc Rose from the Hamilton C.I.D I am making enquiries into the burning down of Coopers Warehouse on Friday 26thApril during the riots. I have reason to believe that you may be able to help me with my enquiries.” I cautioned Durrant and he said, “I must keep out of trouble. I have a wife and home now you know.”

I said, “Will you accompany me to Hamilton C.I.D now, I wish to ask you some more questions?” Durrant said, “I’ll tell you now that I was at home all over the trouble.”  He entered my police vehicle.

 

In an interview room at the Hamilton C.I.D, I said, “Dewey, I have reliable information which says that you were concerned with a lot of others on the Friday of the riots in burning down A.S. Coopers warehouse on Union Street.  I believe this information to be true and I want the truth from you as to your whereabouts that night and what you did.” I further cautioned Durrant who said, “I was at home. Honest to God I was at home. You check.”

I asked, “Will you make a statement to this effect?”  He replied, “Yes I will.”

 

I recorded a statement under caution from Durrant after which I said to him, “I am not satisfied with your explanation and I am arresting you on suspicion of having committed arson at Coopers Warehouse and Ideal Furniture on Friday 26thApril 1968.  I again cautioned him and he said, “You will see you are wrong. Speak to my wife.” Later that afternoon I interviewed Mrs. Durrant and recorded a statement from her. In company with D/Sgt. Donald I re-interviewed Durrant and then recorded a second statement from him under caution.

 

Subsequently, Durrant was indictably charged with setting the warehouse on fire, and alternatively with being riotously assembled with others in destroying the building during the early morning hours of April 27. After a long form Preliminary Inquiry in which I gave my evidence Durrant was committed to stand trial at the next Supreme Court session. Together with other witnesses I was formally bound over to be available for trial purposes.

Unexpectedly, the trial date was brought forward on the Supreme Court calendar and on Thursday 1st August 1968 whilst on overseas vacation and travelling with a companion, I received the following communique delivered to me in my hotel room by a uniformed German police officer during the early morning hours:

 

CABLE TELEGRAM VIA INTERPOL TO GERMAN FEDERAL POLICE                                   

‘Detective Constable Rose of the Bermuda Police Force is touring Germany with a “Four Ways” coach party.  He is staying the night at Hotel Post, 72 Post Strasse Kempten / Allgau, Germany. Please inform him, he is to return to Bermuda to give evidence in the Supreme Court at 1000 hours on Monday 5 August 1968 [R v Durrant]’.

 

I immediately withdrew from the tour leaving my companion to complete her trip alone and made my way overland to Innsbruck, Austria - then on to London arriving Bermuda on 3rdAugust 1968.

 

The Supreme Court trial commenced before the Chief Justice the Hon. Sir Miles Abbott. The Solicitor General, Mr. A.W. Sedgwick prosecuted and Durrant was represented by Miss Shirley Simmons. After uncontested evidence was led and placed into record, Inspector Douglas Hebbard who was in charge of a riot squad on the night of the warehouse fire said that as he proceeded with his men along Tills Hill and Court Street shortly after midnight the vehicle they were in was stoned and its windshield was broken. Noticing that Cooper’s warehouse and Ideal Furniture were on fire, Inspector Hebbard testified, he assigned half of the squad to cordon off one building, and half to cordon off the other. The men at the warehouse had stones thrown at them and they responded by using tear gas.

 

Capt. Theodore Early of the Hamilton Fire Brigade said he was in charge of the first vehicle to arrive at the warehouse fire. It was ablaze, he said, and shortly after they arrived the roof fell in, along with one of the walls. When this happened, the fire officer said, the blaze in the warehouse intensified and two houses nearby were also set on fire. These other fires were extinguished but the people living in the houses had to be evacuated.

 

Giving my evidence, I told the court that on May 20 I approached the accused on his construction job at the Warwick Secondary School and took him to the C.I.D offices in Hamilton where I questioned him about the fire. I told the court that Durrant denied being at the scene during any part of the riots on either the first night or the second night. I told the jury that I went to see Durrant’s wife to check on the alibi he had supplied to me in a written statement. When I returned to C.I.D headquarters Durrant was being interrogated by D/Sgt. Clive Donald and DC Leonard Maurice Edwards. I informed Durrant and my colleagues in the room that his wife had told me that he was not at home on the night in question and that she had supplied me with a witness statement to that effect.

 

I told the court that shortly after I entered the room Durrant agreed to make another statement.  Before I could read that statement to the court however, defense lawyer Miss Simmons objected. She said that the statement appeared to have been improperly taken, and her remarks resulted in the jury being sent out of the courtroom. For the next three hours I was part of a trial-within-a-trial concerning the admissibility of the statement. In the end the Chief Justice ruled the statement admissible. In this second statement, which I then read to the court, Durrant said that he was on the scene of the warehouse fire and was in the company of two girls. He gave the names of those he said he saw smashing the warehouse windows and said he “saw things like crates and boxes come out.” Continuing the statement, Durrant told me that he saw men and girls setting fire to the straw in these boxes and people began throwing the straw and burning boxes into the building, setting it ablaze.

 

Durrant’s statement continued: “Then someone shouted ‘the cops are coming’” and he ran off with the crowd. But as he ran, he said, he also threw a burning box into the warehouse. He slipped whilst running, and as he did so he received a strong dose of tear gas and someone helped him to get away as he could not see where he was going. Under cross-examination by Miss Simmons, I denied that I had added anything to the statement other than what Durrant had said. (The names of persons mentioned in Durrant’s statement were omitted from publication at the request of the Chief Justice).

 

D/Sgt. Donald gave evidence that during his questioning of Durrant the accused first said he was at home but later admitted he was on the scene of the fire when he was told that his wife had said he was not at home. D/Sgt. Donald said that there was some 45 minutes of further questioning of Durrant during which it was pointed out to him that the Police had information about what happened including Durrant’s having received a strong dose of tear gas. Durrant then offered to make a third statement about his part in setting the building on fire. In this third statement Durrant admitted he assisted in burning the building. During cross-examination, D/Sgt. Donald denied making threats or promises to Durrant to get him to make a confession.

DC Edwards corroborated Sgt. Donald’s testimony and said that he also had not heard any threats or promises being held out to the accused to make him confess.

 

In his evidence to the court Durrant denied that he had ever told the Police that he had thrown a box of burning straw into the warehouse, or that he had seen anyone else do things to destroy the building. “All I told them” the accused said, “was about my whereabouts and I thought that they were only writing down what I said about my whereabouts.” He accused detectives of concocting the confession they say he made to them.

 

Durrant said that he was with two girls, Ms. L. W and Ms. Y. D on Court Street during the second night of the riots, and Webb got a strong dose of tear gas. They went to an apartment near the warehouse to treat her for the gas. Durrant said that he saw nothing of the warehouse fire when he went into the apartment house or when he came out. But when he came out, he said, he saw some people running; a tear gas canister landed near him, and he received a strong dose of gas. He could not see, the accused said, and the girls assisted him to go behind Scratchy’s barbershop, and they treated his eyes. Later on, he continued, they all went in a taxi to Warwick, where they stayed for the night.

 

Under cross-examination Durrant agreed that the detectives had asked him questions about the fire, also about what other people were doing there, and about what he did there. But, he told the court, he did not think the detectives were writing down anything except what he was saying concerning his whereabouts. He said that he did not read what the detectives had written because he believed that it concerned only his whereabouts.

 

Ms. L.W gave an account of her movements with Durrant that night which corroborated Durrant’s testimony. However, under cross-examination, she agreed that she had made a statement to the C.I.D in which she told of sitting on a wall outside the apartment house with Durrant and seeing various persons breaking into the warehouse, throwing out boxes, setting them afire, and throwing them back into the warehouse. In reply to a question from the Solicitor General, Mr. A.W. Sedgwick, she said that the statement was true.

 

Mr. L.O, who was serving a prison sentence when he gave evidence for the defense, said that he was on the scene of the burning of Cooper’s Warehouse. He agreed that he had made a lengthy statement to the C.I.D about this and, that he had named a lot of people he saw taking part in the burning down of the building. In reply to a question from defense counsel Miss Shirley Simmons, he said that he did not see Durrant there, and that if Durrant was there he is sure he would have noticed him. O agreed that there were 30 or 40 persons there but he still would have noticed the accused if he were there, he said.

 

In her final address, Miss Simmons stressed that the prosecution had not brought forth the “best evidence” which is “direct evidence of what they say the accused did.” She noted that the detectives had told the accused they had evidence of what he did at the warehouse that night. “Why didn’t they produce this evidence?” the lawyer asked. She also noted that even though O had mentioned a lot of names of people he saw at the warehouse he insisted that he had not seen the accused.

 

Prosecutor Mr. Sedgwick asked the jury to “reject the suggestion” that three detectives each concocted the story that Durrant had made a confession of taking part in the burning down of the building. He also noted that the story as told by Ms. W of what she saw going on while she and Durrant were sitting on the wall was very close to what Durrant’s statement said, even though Durrant denied making the statement.

 

In his summation the Chief Justice pointed out that if jurors accepted statements in which the accused admitted being at the Cooper warehouse at the time the building was set alight then he would be guilty of arson. He asked the jury: “Who would be so utterly stupid as to sign a statement without taking the trouble to read it, knowing all the time the reason he was under arrest.” He pointed out that the accused had denied every single word in one of the statements although he had signed it as being the truth. In another statement the accused made a correction in a word but claimed he did not read the words making up the sentence.

 

The Chief Justice told the jury the case rested on their acceptance of evidence produced by the police and the degree of truth attached to claims by the accused that the reason he did not read the statements was because he thought they only concerned his whereabouts at the time. The jury, consisting of 11 men and one woman, retired at 11.55 a.m. returning an hour later with their verdict.

 

Winslow Vancourt  Durrant of Riviera Estates, Southampton, was sentenced to seven years in prison after a Supreme Court jury returned a unanimous verdict of guilty on a charge of setting fire to Cooper’s Warehouse in the early hours of Saturday morning, April 27. In passing sentence, the Chief Justice the Hon. Sir Myles Abbott told Durrant: “You have been found guilty of a very serious crime.”

 

The matter was later appealed and the Appeals Court judges at first felt there were insufficient grounds for appeal and legal aid was refused but later in the proceedings, in light of various questions raised, the decision was reversed, and Miss Shirley Simmons was appointed to represent Durrant. Solicitor General M.A.W. Sedgwick appeared on behalf of the Crown. Miss Simmons submitted that there was no evidence Durrant set fire to the warehouse. She said the entire prosecution case rested on two alleged confessions made by the accused.

 

She read excerpts from the statements allegedly taken by Police which said that Durrant admitted throwing a box into the burning building and running away. Miss Simmons claimed that the prosecution never produced any evidence to show that this act ignited the building. Regarding the alleged confessions, the lawyer said the Police had told Durrant they were in possession of information about his role in the affair that night, and that witnesses had seen him taking part.

 

Sir Paget Bourke observed at this point that it was a matter for care if confessions suddenly popped up when the Police had no other evidence. Referring to evidence at the trial, Sir Paget said one Police officer was recorded as saying “We were trying to get a confession.”  This, the judge said, suggested some form of pressure must have been used. Sir Paget said the Police should never produce confessions without accounting for conditions under which they were obtained. Mr. Sedgwick said he saw nothing wrong with Police endeavoring to obtain a confession from a suspect.

 

Words allegedly used by Durrant in one of the statements, ‘Oh alright, I did take part but I was not the only one,’ were sufficient to admit involvement, Mr. Sedgwick said. In answer to Miss Simmons’ point that if Police were in possession of certain evidence it should have been produced in court, he recalled the trial judge, in his summation, had said that if Police produced their source of information every time then no one would want to give any.

 

Mr. Sedgwick read several pages of questions and answers from the trial, placing emphasis on the number of times Durrant changed his story. At first the man denied being at the scene, but later when he was told his wife had not supported his story of being at home, he admitted being there, but not taking part, Mr. Sedgwick said.

 

Miss Simmons said the prosecution never proved their case. The very statements, which the prosecution’s case depended on, were suspect because of the objectionable manner by which they were obtained. She told the judges she was appealing not to them but to the law. The conviction could not and must not stand, Miss Simmons went on.

 

The Appeals Court deferred judgment on Durrant’s petition against his sentence and conviction for setting fire to the A.S. Coopers warehouse. Some months later, the Court of Appeal upheld the conviction and seven-year prison sentence of Durrant, noting that, “The appellant has a number of previous convictions.” The court concluded their judgment: “The court does not consider that the sentence imposed by the trial Judge was too severe and it must stand. The appeal is dismissed.”

 

Two of the three judges found that the trial judge was not wrong in believing that the Police had not brought pressure on the accused to confess his part in the burning of the warehouse. The third, Sir Paget Bourke, “intimated” that he disagreed. The Court’s majority judgment said in part: “His appeal against conviction and sentence was argued on several grounds but the only ground of substance was that the trial judge had not properly exercised his discretion in admitting the alleged confession of the accused. 

 

The judgement continued: “The case for the prosecution rested entirely on three statements made by the accused. The prosecution called three Police officers on the issue of admissibility of the second and third statements which had been objected to on the grounds that they had not been voluntarily given….

 

“By the cross-examination of these officers it was sought to show that these statements had been improperly obtained, but the officers all denied that pressure of any kind had been brought to bear upon the accused or that unfair means had been used. The accused admitted having signed the two statements but said that he had done so in the belief that they contained only what he had told the Police about his whereabouts on the night of the fire. He denied having told them anything else and accused them of having deceived him by adding to his verbal statements to them things that they told him he had done. On further questioning he said that he had told the Police about his whereabouts because he had been influenced or affected by the way in which he was being interviewed and that he would not have given a statement to the Police at all if they had not drawn his attention to statements made by other people and told him that if he pleaded guilty he would only be fined.

 

“The trial judge had to determine whether in all the circumstances the accused had been improperly induced to admit his guilt. The interview which preceded the second statement had lasted a long time and in answer to the question ‘Were you trying to get Durrant to confess during this ¾ hours?’ D/Sgt. Donald who had taken the statement answered ‘Yes.’

 

“This admission must however, be related to the rest of his evidence and interpreted in the light of the whole of the evidence given by the Police. They described the atmosphere in which the interviews were conducted as friendly and the attitude of the accused as co-operative throughout. They said that he gave a lengthy account of the events of the night of the fire and that for a long time he denied having taken an active part in the setting of the fire but admitted participating when he realized that his wife had not supported his alibi and that the Police knew that he had been tear-gassed.

 

“The trial judge clearly believed the Police and his decision to admit the statements indicates that in his view they had not strayed beyond the bounds of propriety in eliciting from the accused the part he played in the burning of the warehouse. The majority of the court is unable to say that his decision was wrong and the appeal against conviction must accordingly fail.  Mr. Justice Bourke wishes it to be intimated that he does not concur in this part of the judgment.”

 

REFERENCES:

Bermuda Sun Saturday 27 April 1968

BERMUDA UNDER CURFEW AS SECOND RIOT ROCKS HAMILTON

The Royal GazetteTuesday 6 August 1968

RARE CHINA COLLECTION WRECKED IN RIOT FIRE, ARSON TRIAL IS TOLD

The Royal Gazette

CONFESSION CONCOCTED BY POLICE, ALLEGED ARSONIST TELLS THE SUPREME COURT

The Royal GazetteThursday 8 August 1968

SEVEN YEARS IN GAOL FOR MAN WHO SET FIRE TO WAREHOUSE

The Royal Gazette

APPEALS COURT JUDGES REVERSE DECISION AND GRANT LEGAL AID TO MAN GAOLED AFTER RIOTS

APPEALS COURT SPLIT ON WHETHER PRESSURE BROUGHT ON ARSONIST TO CONFESS

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