Finding closure 49 years after murder

  • David Roberts on Pomander Road near the spot where he found the body of his friend Jean Burrows in 1971 (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
  • David Roberts placing flowers on the grave of his friend Jean Burrows, murdered on July 3, 1971 (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

When David Roberts got a job in Bermuda in 1970, he was told not to worry about the racial tension he had heard about.

The British journalist had been inundated with tales of mini riots staged by the Black Beret Cadre in protest against black inequality and discrimination.

“That’s all sorted out now,” a friend told him.

But on Easter Sunday, only two weeks after Mr Roberts arrived, the old Devonshire Church was reduced to rubble when a crude bomb made from gas cylinders was detonated inside.

Police linked the explosion to the Black Beret Cadre.

“I remember standing beside a police car and taking out my camera to take a picture of the aftermath and thinking, ‘Ah, so it’s all settled is it?’,” Mr Roberts said.

On a visit to Bermuda this month, he recalled it as just one of the many incidents he reported on.

“It was all in the run up to even more dramatic things,” he said. “I can remember teargas sprayed on Front Street on a Saturday night. I can remember coming down the road and watching tourists choking on the teargas.”

To unwind, he and his colleagues would gather at the Hoppin’ John bar on Front Street on a Friday night.

“During the week The Royal Gazette and Bermuda Sun journalists used to try to scoop each other for the Saturday paper,” he said.

“By the time we all met at the bar, it was too late to scoop each other and we could talk freely.”

The meet-up came to a tragic end on the evening of July 7, 1971 when Mr Roberts met Mike and Jean Burrows for drinks.

“They had come over from England together,” he said. They had a two-year-old son, Patrick.

“They both worked at The Gazette, but Jean had left to work for the Bank of Butterfield in public relations. It paid a heck of a lot more than The Gazette did. Jean was a lovely person.”

At 1.30am the group decided to go back to the Burrows’s home on Pomander Road in Paget to hang out.

“Mike and I left and Jean, who was on her own moped, stopped to chat with someone,” he said.

The pair became alarmed when Ms Burrows did not appear after a few hours.

Mr Roberts and another friend who had been at the Burrows’ house, retraced their route back to the bar, but could not find her and walked along Pomander Road, thinking she had come off her bike.

“Pomander Road was very dark back then,” Mr Roberts said. “Aberfeldy Nursery wasn’t there. That was just uncultivated land.”

As light began to dawn, he spotted Ms Burrows’s body floating in the water just offshore. Her bike was lying on the grass, about 600 yards from the Burrows’s home.

Police later determined that she had been pushed off her bike, sexually assaulted, hit over the head and thrown in the water.

For the next 48 hours, more than 66 police officers combed the island for clues or suspects. They spent three days grilling Mr Roberts and his friends about their involvement.

“Finally they decided we didn’t have anything to do with it, and let us go,” he said.

Despite that, gossip swirled around him and his friends as police struggled to find the culprit.

“In terms of the media, it was a badly covered case, because half of the media were assisting police with their inquiries,” Mr Roberts said.

Two officers from Scotland Yard were called in, but for several weeks there were no leads. Then in September, a young man called Paul Belvin came into the picture.

“He was picked up for shoplifting or some minor crime,” Mr Roberts said.

“Then he started talking about the case and knew a lot more than he should have. He confessed. I think everyone was fairly satisfied that he’d done it. I gather it filled in all the cracks about what he’d done.”

In January 1972, Belvin was sentenced to death, but was later given a reprieve.

“They hadn’t hung anyone in a long time at that point,” Mr Roberts said.

Belvin died in 2004, aged 60 at St Brendan’s Hospital, after spending 32 years in prison.

Mr Burrows and his son left the island within days of Ms Burrows’s funeral at St Paul’s Church in Paget.

Now retired, Mr Roberts left at the end of 1971 for London, where he worked for the Associated Press as a photo editor. Mr Burrows joined News of the World.

“We kept in touch,” Mr Roberts said. “When I lived in Docklands he sometimes crashed at my place.”

Mr Burrows died of cancer in 2003 but Mr Roberts never forgot his friend Jean.

In 1990, his first trip back to Bermuda since he left, he intended to put flowers on her grave but could not remember where it was at St Paul’s.

“It was a pretty emotional time when she died. I always told Mike I’d go back one day and try to find the grave again.”

Staff at The Royal Gazette helped Mr Roberts, who now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, track down Ms Burrows’s unmarked grave at the Paget church so he could leave flowers on his recent visit.

He said in many ways coming back to Bermuda brought the events back to him. “I did get some kind of closure,” he said.