A Death In The Virgin Islands
When an off-duty agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives shot and killed a man in the Virgin Islands almost two years ago, the case received scant attention on the mainland. Since then, the incident has unfolded into a bitter legal battle pitting Justice Department officials against territorial authorities. It has laid bare the resentments behind the public façade of cooperation and amicability between Washington and St. Thomas. This four-part exclusive series explores the tragic shooting, the rights of an off-duty federal agent in the Virgin Islands, the tense relationship between federal and territorial authorities and the intensifying political debate in the U.S. Congress over whether the ATF agent should be honored as a hero before a territorial court has even ruled on his guilt or innocence.
Part One: A Justifiable Homicide Or Murder?
On the hot, sunny morning of Sept. 7, 2008, one man shot and killed another outside an ocean-side condominium in the Virgin Islands, where they both lived.
In a way, the incident was anything but sudden. Nor was it remarkable. It was preceded by frequent and ugly arguments between a man and his girlfriend and, on that fateful Sunday morning, apparently by too much drinking.
The Virgin Islands police are used to such killings; at last count, they had dealt with 45 homicides this year — a startling statistic for a U.S. territory with about 110,000 residents. But because William G. Clark, the man who fired the fatal shots that Sunday morning nearly two years ago, is a special agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the case has ignited a fierce debate with far-reaching legal, political and even constitutional questions.
Was Clark too quick to use lethal force, as prosecutors in the Virgin Islands contend? Should his fate be decided in a territorial courtroom or in federal court? Indeed, should he have to face trial anywhere for actions that his ATF colleagues and other supporters say amounted to self-defense, perhaps even heroism?
Answers to those questions and others surrounding the case may be months, even years, away. But the case has frayed the already strained relations between territorial and federal officials and hobbled law enforcement in the Virgin Islands which, despite its image as a sun-splashed Caribbean paradise, has been waging an uphill battle against gun violence and other crime. In November 2008, the ATF pulled its people out of the Virgin Islands in protest of the territory’s handling of the case.
Meanwhile, Clark is in a legal limbo — cleared of any wrongdoing after an internal inquiry by the ATF, a Justice Department agency, and still on the job, but charged by territorial prosecutors with second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and two counts of unlawful use of a weapon, charges that could land him in prison for years.
Clark moved into a condominium complex at Mahogany Run, a St. Thomas golf course near the seashore, about five months before the shooting. He soon met Marcus Sukow and Marguerite Duncan, a couple who lived upstairs. Sukow and Duncan had a history of heated arguments, neighbors would later say in court documents. Nor, it seems, was Clark unfamiliar with the couple’s troubles. The ATF agent said in a statement filed in federal court that he tried to act as a peacemaker between Sukow and his girlfriend on occasions before September 2008.
On the morning of the killing, witnesses said Sukow and Duncan were arguing again. They had just returned from breakfast at Molly Malone’s – An Irish Yacht Pub in St. Thomas, according to an affidavit from a Virgin Islands Police Department officer. Clark would later recall hearing “loud, pounding noises” coming from the couple’s apartment. At the time, Clark, then 33, was not on any active investigative assignments. That morning, he was leaving his apartment on his way to the gym. As always, he had his ATF-issued weapon — a five-shot revolver.
Outside the condo complex, Clark later said in his statement that he saw Sukow — naked and apparently drunk — pounding his fists on Duncan’s GMC Envoy. Sukow was screaming profanities at his girlfriend. At some point, the man went to his apartment to put on a pair of shorts. When he reemerged, he was still angry. The ATF agent said his efforts to calm Sukow failed.
“I have a gun in the house, and I’m going to get it and blow this bitch’s head off,” Sukow said, according to Clark.
Sukow hurled a large landscaping stone and other rocks at Duncan’s vehicle. The man then obtained a heavy, police-style metal flashlight, and used it to dent the hood of his girlfriend’s vehicle. Duncan ran to Clark’s 1997 government-issued Ford Explorer, getting in the passenger side to join Clark, who was sitting on the driver’s side with the door open.
Clark said Sukow lunged at him, wielding the flashlight before Clark could close the driver’s side door. Frightened, the ATF agent reached for his gun and shot Sukow several times. He died of his wounds later that day at Schneider Hospital in St. Thomas.
But that was just the beginning.
Tomorrow, Part Two: The Rights Of A Federal Agent.