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Police to try and trace 45-year-old files on land grab allegation

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George Brown and his brother Charles give evidence at the Commission of Inquiry into Historic Land Losses (File photograph)
Six of the seven beneficiaries of the Estate of John Augustus Alexander Virgil. From left, Gladwin “Moe” Ming (deceased), Marion Johnston (deceased), Barbara Brown, Glen Ming, Marie Spence, Sylvia Davis (deceased). Missing from the photograph is Eunice Ming, who died young (Photograph supplied).

Two major property deals carried out more than 50 years ago were fraudulent, a hearing into allegations of land grabs ruled.

A report from the Commission of Inquiry into Historic Land Losses said that several men were part of a “criminal conspiracy” to dispossess John Augustus Alexander Virgil — the great-uncle of the late MP Walton Brown, who championed the need for a commission to examine allegations of land theft.

The panel called on police to revisit a decades-old complaint and recommended that the Government should look at payment of compensation to the beneficiaries of Mr Virgil’s estate.

Commissioners said: “It is important to rewrite the wrongs of the past, especially in these circumstances.”

A claim was made by Barbara Brown, Mr Brown’s mother, with her sons Charles and George on behalf of the seven beneficiaries, who were all nieces or nephews of Mr Virgil.

They said that land in Spring Benny, Sandys, was owned by the Virgil family since 1885.

An area known as “Lot 4” — about four acres — was said to have been conveyed to “Uncle John” in 1961.

It was claimed that Eric Jones, a lawyer and a family friend, acquired a southern piece of the land unlawfully.

The report added that the family alleged that “a fraudulent scheme was engineered and facilitated by major players who conspired to dispossess” Mr Virgil and his beneficiaries of a northern parcel of the land.

It said: “The claimants argue that money, muscle and power dictated the outcome of the Virgil family being dispossessed of their land.”

The commission’s report added: “Two major transactions are fraudulent.”

The two transactions were Mr Jones’s acquisition in 1962 and the sale of the northern portion in 1969 to Russell Pearman, a real estate agent.

The report said that David Wilkinson, a lawyer and later Speaker of the House of Assembly; Algernon Doers, a taxi driver; Robert Motyer, a lawyer; Mr Jones; Mr Pearman “and others unknown participated in a criminal conspiracy to dispossess” Mr Virgil.

It said that Mr Wilkinson, Mr Motyer and Mr Jones were all dead.

A report prepared by Carlton Adams, the commission’s chief investigator, said that the Registrar General’s Office had confirmed that Mr Doers and Mr Pearman had also died.

No ʽfraudulent activity’ by Sir John

It was alleged by claimants that Sir John Swan, who became Premier in 1982 and served for more than 13 years, was a “major player” in a fraudulent scheme involving bankers, lawyers and estate agents.

The Commission of Inquiry heard allegations that Russell Levi Pearman — who applied for planning permission to subdivide land in Sandys — acted as an agent for the business magnate.

Commissioners heard that Sir John bought the land in 1970 before a “flurry of conveyances” between himself and Leslie Earl Ming, an employee.

Sir John told the commission that he bought the land from a John Augustus, who bought it from Mr Pearman. He said that he developed the land and sold the properties.

The commission’s report said that Sir John “rejected absolutely” the claim that he was a “major player” in a fraudulent scheme.

It added that he said: “Russell Levi Pearman was never an agent for me.”

The report said: “There is no specific incident of fraudulent activity that has been pointed out anywhere in the statements made or in any of the documents submitted that John W. Swan engaged in any fraudulent activity.

“There is no evidence to support such a finding or a finding that he was a major player in a fraudulent scheme.”

It added that there was no evidence to support that Mr Pearman acted for Sir John in transactions made in 1969.

The report highlighted that the practice of conveying and reconveying land was “very curious”.

But it added that there was no evidence to suggest ten conveyances between Sir John and Mr Ming “back and forth over four days” — as argued by the claimants — was fraudulent.

The CoI report said an “adverse finding” notice was to be sent to Butterfield Bank, the sole executors of the estate of John Augustus Alexander Virgil, who died on January 17, 1972.

It added that there was a question whether the bank — as it was made up during the course of an investigation into the title of the property in 1978 — should “be considered as having acted without due regard for its fiduciary duty”.

A Butterfield spokesman said last week that the bank was "pleased to provide testimony“ to the commission.

He added: “We have not heard from the commission regarding their findings, but we look forward to doing so, and will respond in due course.”

The commission heard claims that John Alfred Virgil — a cousin of Mr Virgil’s — was part of a conspiracy to defraud Mr Virgil out of land.

Its report said that a descendant of John Alfred Virgil’s, who represented his estate, denied the allegations.

The commission said: “There is no evidence to support a finding that John Alfred Virgil was the ‘impostor’ who was party to a conspiracy to steal land from the Virgil family.”

Commissioners backed the claimants’ belief that Mr Pearman “submitted a false document, that is, an application and plan for subdivision approval, with the intention to defraud” in March 1968 and in February 1969.

They accepted that he was regarded by the planning department “as being both applicant and owner of the land” in question.

Brenda Petty, a document examiner, told the commission that some documents were probably falsified.

Commissioners said that the claim “ought properly to be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions”.

But they admitted that a referral to the DPP was “an exercise in futility” because the people responsible were dead.

After an examination of documents by Ms Petty, the CoI accepted that part of a “Central Planning Authority” stamp on the 1969 application could have been “bleached” or erased to remove a signature.

Other anomalies were found in the stamp, which resulted in a finding by the commission that “the integrity of the approval process” was compromised.

The report said: “The Central Planning Authority’s role in the criminal conspiracy to dispossess John Augustus Alexander Virgil of Lot 4 is tantamount to a corruption enabling mechanism facilitating the wrongdoing.”

It added that the “scope for fraud leading to land theft and illegal land transfers was facilitated and accomplished by the brazen and dishonest role” of Mr Pearman, Mr Wilkinson, Mr Jones, Mr Motyer “and disingenuous individuals both in the private and public sectors, culminating in the dispossession of the beneficiaries of land”.

The commission said: “As a matter of urgency, the Land Titles Office ought to be invited to, in consultation with the Office of the Registrar General and, most importantly, the Attorney-General’s Department, to consider the legal recourse of the beneficiaries who were dispossessed of Lot 4 by fraudulent means by the named players, David Edmund Wilkinson, Eric Arthur Jones, Robert Motyer, Russell Levi Pearman and others unknown.

“The role of all parties to the transactions must be reviewed.

“It is recommended that the Government of Bermuda consider making an award for compensation through the appropriate mechanism of the state machinery to the beneficiaries, in light of the fact that an agent of the state, the Central Planning Authority, played an integral role, tantamount to a corruption enabling mechanism facilitating the theft of land.

“The Government ought to consider this matter seriously, one which the CoI reiterates is outside its remit.”

Commissioners heard that a police investigation was launched in 1976 after a complaint made by Mrs Brown.

The claimants presented a letter written by the Central Planning Authority to police that said Mr Pearman was “regarded by this department as being both applicant and owner of the land subject of the application”.

The CoI report said that the office of the Commissioner of Police was “being invited to give due consideration” to tracing files linked to the complaint.

It added that police should look at “having this investigation file reviewed with a view to considering next administrative steps in light of the fresh and compelling evidence from the document examiner”.

The report said: “Further consideration should be given by the Commissioner of Police in the interests of justice and with a view to rewriting the unsavoury history of the matter.

“But more so, the role of the office of the Commissioner of Police in 1975, that is, must be revisited to correct that office's glaring omission, 45 years ago, by failing to obtain the requisite expertise from a document examiner then, rather than closing the file.

But the commission said it acknowledged that “it is clear that the likelihood of reconstructing this file is only remotely possible”.

Acting Commissioner of Police Darrin Simons said last night: “The Bermuda Police Service supports all who seek justice through lawful processes and will attempt to locate the requested files.”

* To read the Commission of Inquiry’s report about the case of the estate of John Augustus Alexander Virgil, click on the PDF under “Related Media”.

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Published December 23, 2021 at 7:57 am (Updated December 23, 2021 at 7:47 am)

Police to try and trace 45-year-old files on land grab allegation

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