Scott Hapgood case casts shadow on popular Caribbean destination

Photos shared on the Facebook page of the Malliouhana hotel in Anguilla paint a tranquil scene of the resort, showing off its flawless cerulean water and smooth, white beaches.

But comments on the photos tell a different story.

“Tranquility wrapped in blue or a hotel covering up an attack on an American guest and his CHILDREN by their crazed and desperate employee out on rape and drugged up on lethal amounts of cocaine? Doesn’t sound so tranquil to me,” one person commented.

“I see a nightmare that happened to dear friends and have been treated so unfairly by the government and the hotel for hiring a drunk and coked up employee who attacked them in their room!” another person wrote.

The Malliouhana hotel, owned by Auberge Resorts, has come under fire since April when Darien resident Scott Hapgood got into a deadly encounter with one of its employees, Kenny Mitchel.

The Hapgood family said Mitchel, 27, came to their hotel room to fix a sink, which they say wasn’t broken, and tried to rob them at knifepoint. A violent struggle ensued with Hapgood “fighting for his life,” according to the family. Mitchel died at the hospital and Hapgood was charged with manslaughter.

Hapgood, 44, who is on leave as a UBS banker, is now considered a fugitive after skipping a court appearance on the Caribbean island last week. Hapgood’s defense team said they advised him to remain in the U.S. due to safety concerns and unfair treatment during the judicial process.

“We knew what the repercussions of not returning would be, but for law abiding, rule followers, the actuality of them was definitely more difficult than we could ever have imagined,” Hapgood’s wife, Kallie, wrote in a statement posted Friday on Facebook. “That being said, everyday we become more confident in our decision.”

But Anguillan authorities have called the concerns “totally groundless” and are seeking a warrant for Hapgood’s arrest.

‘Unfair from the get-go’

The landmark case for the small British territory of less than 15,000 people has invoked strong feelings from those close to Hapgood and Mitchel.

Anguilla natives remain outraged that Hapgood was released on bail. Since returning home, Hapgood has received numerous threats, including some directed at his family, his defense team said.

“Mr. Hapgood is afraid to face the evidence. He came to Anguilla, he did what he did, he enjoyed his stay at a five-star resort after Michel was killed, and no one troubled him,” Anguilla resident Ivy Plank said. “He knows he has nothing to fear from Anguillans concerning his safety. The kind of police protection he has been given here has never been given to no one in Anguilla before. He needs to return and face the court, but I guess he wants to run away from justice.”

Meanwhile, Hapgood supporters have been criticizing the hotel’s safety and calling for tourists to boycott the island. Some have left negative comments on the Malliouhana’s social media pages and others are campaigning for people to vote Anguilla off U.S. News and World Report’s list of Best Places to Travel in the Caribbean. Some are vowing never to visit.

“There is no way I would step foot on Anguilla,” Darien resident Mary Lopiano said. “The government has shown they are corrupt to the core and the judicial system is a disgrace.”

Those on the island, however, say Hapgood did not give the judicial process enough time.

"I think it is very unfair from the get-go. This is the reason why Hapgood should never have been granted bail knowing what transpired,” Anguilla resident Everlette John said. “His life is in no danger whatsoever if he returns here. Justice must be served. If it was the other way around, a local would have been locked up and properly tried. We need to bring closure to this situation."

The resort chain has been criticized for not addressing the incident and allowing Mitchel to work while a rape charge was pending against him. The New York Times reported that Mitchel was charged with the rape of his former live-in girlfriend on March 25 — a few weeks before the incident in Hapgood’s hotel room.

Following Mitchel’s death, the woman said the incident was “a misunderstanding.”

A toxicology report also showed Mitchel tested positive for cocaine and other drugs at the time of his death and had a blood-alcohol content of .181, more than double the legal limit of .08 in the United States and United Kingdom.

A hotel manager declined to comment on Friday.

This is not the first time Auberge Resorts has been at the center of a controversy. In 2017, a San Francisco woman filed a lawsuit against Auberge after she said she was sexually assaulted in Mexico at the Esperanza Resort, which appears to be owned by Auberge Resorts, according to the New York Post.

However, the Post reported Auberge Resorts officials said they don’t “actually own or operate” the Mexico resort and only provide brand compliance standards. Instead, a third-party company was responsible for the vetting, training and hiring of the employees, including the person named in the complaint who allegedly posted sexually explicit and violent posts on Facebook around the time he was hired.

‘I love the place’

Despite the recent negative attention, those who know Anguilla well have been fiercely defending the island. Norwalk Town Clerk Rick McQuaid is one of them.

McQuaid has vacationed in Anguilla for two decades and has been there twice this year: once in April, shortly after the Hapgood incident, then again in August.

“I’ve never not felt safe in Anguilla. Never,” said McQuaid, who first visited the Caribbean island on his honeymoon.

McQuaid said he and his family prefer to stay at villas when visiting and feel safe enough to leave their belongings on the beach while going in the water. McQuaid has befriended many islanders and he plans to visit again next year, though he worries how the attention on the Hapgood case will affect tourism on the island.

“I love the place,” he said. “I see Anguilla differently than what a lot of people see it as right now...It is difficult right now to see it on the news and called unsafe. I just don't like that.”

While murders are considered rare on the island, the Royal Anguilla Police Force do not list the number of homicides on its 2018 crime report. The data only indicates the number of homicides were the same between 2013-2015 and 2016-2018. The police commissioner could not be reached for comment.

Overall crime was down nearly 40 percent between 2016-2018 compared to 2013-2015, according to the report.

Anguilla maintains a Level 1 travel advisory with the U.S. Department of State, meaning tourists only need to exercise normal precautions when visiting. The Anguilla Tourist Board said the island has seen a record amount of visitors this year with a 70 percent return rate.

Donna Banks, chairwoman of the agency, said she is aware of the negative comments posted on social media and the board has received some consumer inquiries, but has also heard a lot of support from people who know the island.

“Naturally, there is great public interest in this case,” Banks said in a statement. “We are a small island, so many people also know the deceased and his extended family. However, it is important to note that there have never been any demonstrations or threats of unrest made around Mr. Hapgood’s visits to the island for any of his court appearances. Anguillans regret that he feels personally unsafe on the island and assure him that they mean him no harm. They share Mr. Hapgood’s desire for the facts of the case to be revealed and ask only that the impartial judicial process be allowed to take its course.”

James Harrigan is a freelance reporter based in Anguilla.