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Did he do it?: Navigating the Alleged Murder of a Kenyan Prostitute

An unfortunate, but not uncommon, part of a consul’s job is to help American citizens who are in distress — and often not of their own doing. Robert Gribbin, who later served as ambassador in the Central African Republic and Rwanda, was assigned to set up a consulate in Mombasa, Kenya, where he had to deal with an American who was unfairly charged with the murder of a prostitute. Coincidentally, he is one of the select few Foreign Service officers who also had to deal with a “delegation of prostitutes” as part of his official duties. He was interviewed by ADST’s Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 2000.

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A Delegation of Prostitutes

GRIBBIN: This was the third time America had a consulate in Mombasa…. When I opened again in 1981, it was also for strategic reasons, related to the troublesome situation in Iran and in the Middle East. Jim Mark, who was the admin counselor in Nairobi, and I went down to rent space, find housing and set things up. The U.S. already had a Navy office, in the sense that we employed a local shipping agent to buy up stores and fresh fruits and vegetables and to make arrangements for port calls…. We had a small American team but spent a lot of money; $50 million was a lot of money even in Mombasa. In the course of my tenure, about 60 American naval ships came for shore visits. Often they arrived in groups of 10 or 11, with up to 13,000 sailors.

Q: Did you have any particular problems with all these young men come ashore? 

GRIBBIN: We did, we did. I think by and large our sailors acquitted themselves well, but then I have dozens of stories that relate to ship visits. Once we had a tender come in, and tenders, you know, travel independently of the fleet because they’re not warships, they’re support vessels. The Navy assigned the first women sailors to tenders. The first one in Mombasa with women aboard had about 200 on it, out of a crew of 1,000. The women were on shore leave and wandering around town in their uniforms and so forth, and the fleet was due in the next day or two.

Rosemary, my receptionist called. She said, “Mr. Gribbin, there’s a delegation out here to see you.” I said, “Oh, who is it?” “Well, I can’t tell you over the phone. Maybe you had better come meet them.” I asked, “What’s it about?” She replied, “It’s about the ships’ visit.” I said, “I’d be glad to see them.”

It turned out to be a delegation of prostitutes who came to tell me it wasn’t fair that we brought our own women. That was their job. I assured them that there would be plenty of business for everybody.

Facing a Murder Charge

During the visit of the battle group around the USS America, a prostitute died. The police decided that she’d been killed, murdered. Then, pursuing a long chain of circumstantial evidence, they decided that the killer was a sailor off the USS America. In cooperation with the Kenyan police, the Naval Investigation Services screened men to find out who was ashore that night and where they might have been, and so forth.

Two witnesses might be able to identify the perpetrator of the crime outside the little hotel where the death happened. One was the night watchman, and the other a taxicab driver who picked up a man near the hotel and drove him back to the rendezvous point where he could get the bus down to the dock. The driver was paid – the guy didn’t have any money – with a lighter with the insignia of the USS America. Armed with that evidence, the Navy agreed to do a walk past on the America. That was done, but the witnesses did not identify anyone.

But as they were sitting in the ward room waiting to go ashore, the ship’s executive officer brought in two or three young men who hadn’t made the identification parade, but who had been ashore the night before. So they asked, “Is it one of them?” One of the eye-witnesses said, “Yes, it looks like him.” Which was less than a clear identification. Remember, these two witnesses were sitting there with two Kenyan cops, and they knew that if they went ashore without having identified somebody they would be in trouble.

The upshot of all of this was that this young man – his name was Tyson – was ultimately taken ashore, left in my custody when the fleet left, and then when properly charged and so forth, transferred to the Kenyan Police custody, imprisoned and tried for murder.

In what would be amazing in any judicial system – the event happened in April -the trial got underway in late June. It was a fairly complicated trial in and of itself, but hanging over it all was the fact – before I had gotten to Mombasa – sometime in 1978, on an earlier ship visit, there was a similar death of a prostitute killed by an American sailor. In that case the sailor admitted to the crime and was convicted of manslaughter by a British judge sitting on the Kenyan bench. For punishment he was slapped on the wrist and told to go home and not do it again. People remembered the earlier case and so hanging over Tyson’s trial were emotional issues of justice, racial equity, and kow-towing to the U.S. It was clearly politically important for Kenya to get a conviction.

What was also evident to me and to others was that, whereas someone from the USS America might have been involved in this crime, it was not completely clear how the girl had been killed. She was certainly dead, but it also appeared that she may have asphyxiated in her own vomit. Autopsy reports conflicted on that point. But it was clear that some Kenyans would be determined to get a conviction no matter what.

Those of us who had gotten to know this young man and who had studied his alibi story strongly believed that he was innocent. The court heard all the evidence. Essentially the Kenyan prosecution did not try to refute Tyson’s story; they just tried to add the murder event into the middle of it. This got fairly ridiculous, but it still seemed possible that Tyson could be convicted.

There was no jury, but three assessors gave non-binding opinions. One wouldn’t make a decision, one said that the American hadn’t done it, and the other one said that he must have done it. The judge, this time a Kenyan judge, decided that the police had not proved Tyson’s guilt. Therefore, although not acquitted, he was released. Tyson went back to America and then on to whatever he’s done subsequently in his life. It was a learning experience for him. He admitted that he had not been serious about life, but he said there is nothing like a murder charge to sober you up and get your attention. So if anything good came out of this, Tyson emerged a changed man…