The hot and humid coastal air constricted into the Tangana Lodge’s dimly lit and badly ventilated rooms . The fragrance of purchased romance reigned over the humid evening air in the house of decadence. As the night came to a climax, the sounds of illicit sex, the loud banging on the walls, the rehearsed screams, and the drunken grunts reminded all and sundry that the sailors were in town. In one of those hot rooms, Lucy Kabura lay dying.
Aprils in Mombasa are exceptionally hot and humid. On that fateful 5th April 1983 night, the temperature oscillated between 27.30 C and 30.3o C. But that heat was not the only form that induced sweat from the roamers of the night and the thousands of American sailors on liberty at the Kenyan coast. The USS America (CV66) had just docked at the port of Mombasa. Its sailors, numbering between 8,000 and 9, 000, flooded the town, driving up the demand for flesh and all other things under Dionysus’ patronage.
Three years before the aircraft carrier entered Kenya’s territorial waters, another ship, the USS La Salle, had docked and offloaded a man who would end up getting away with murder. Killing a lady of the night was not necessarily frowned upon. The Kenyan public had reacted angrily to Sundstorm’s release but very few heads had rolled over the sentence. It appeared Monica Njeri, the victim at the time, was all but a distant memory on the conscience of many Kenyans. Until a scream pierced through the warm steamy at 10.00 PM on that April night in 1983 and all hell threatened to break loose.
The short-lived scream must have been the last sound she made because when she was found the morning after, her body had already gone cold. She lay across the unkempt bed, her body covered with nothing but her own blood stains. She had been raped and strangled. A used condom lay on the floor.
A white man had been seen leaving the room just a few minutes after other guests heard the scream. It was hard to identify who the man was, given that there were thousands of sailors in such lodges all over the city. But initial investigations indicated that the man who had rented Kabura’s consort services that night had said his name was Tyson.
The Kenyan Attorney General, Mathew Guy Muli, happened to be in Mombasa at the time. Once his minions alerted him to the possibility that another US sailor had killed a sex worker, he took charge of the investigations. His predecessor at the time of the Monica Njeri case, James Karugu, had downplayed Sundstorm’s case at its height. His ‘legal impotence’, as he described it to Parliament over the case, and other mistakes had cost him his job. Muli was taking no chances. He used his powers to arrest the ship and prevent it from leaving Kenya’s territorial waters before the culprit was found.
A US sailor called James William Tyson was promptly arrested and charged with the murder of Lucy Kabura. Tyson, a 21-year-old fireman from Riverdale, Maryland, had indeed been out that night. Knowing he was going to be fighting an uphill battle, he sought defense counsel in an old hand at the job, attorney Prem D. Prinja. Prinja was the lawyer who had gotten Sundstorm the lenient sentence of a small fine and a bond to keep the peace. But Tyson did not want such a deal despite being offered something close to that by John Metho, the prosecutor in charge of the case.
When Tyson was brought before Judge Zacchaeus Chesoni, who would later become Chief Justice of Kenya, he was ready to demolish the murder case against him. Dressed in blue jeans, sneakers, and a red T-shirt, a confident Tyson had to navigate his way through throngs of spectators who hoped justice would be done this time. 31 prosecution and 11 defence witnesses would give their testimony over the course of the trial.
Over the eight-day trial, defence attorney Prinja tore through the prosecution’s case. One glaring weakness was a medical report that estimated that Kabura had been killed at 3:30 am on the morning of April 6th. Prosecution witnesses contradicted each other, with the few common storylines pointing to the fact that it had been at least 10:30pm on April 5th. Another question was whether this Tyson had even been at the Lodge that night.
The forensic evidence was weak. The discarded condom had several dots of blood on the inside. It was thought that during the sexual assault, the assailant had hurt his own penis and left the blood evidence. As this was still years before DNA became the go-to method for identifying whodunnit, the primary method of identification was still comparing ABO blood groups. The deeply flawed method showed that Tyson and Kabura were both of blood group type ‘O’, the most common blood group in most populations. Another option that was never explored was an Rh (Rhesus) blood group test.
In his defence, Tyson said he had begun the night gambling at a local casino with three of his colleagues. The party had then shifted to the Oceanic Hotel in Mombasa where Tyson had had had a tryst with a woman he was sure was not Lucy Kabura.
The prosecution case irredeemably weakened, Prinja moved in for the kill, asking for an early dismissal. Judge Chesoni agreed because substantial reasonable doubt had been raised. There was simply no credible evidence to show that Tyson had even been at Tagana, or that he had even interacted with Lucy. When Tyson heard the verdict, he broke into a hearty laugh and then shouted from the dock “This is fine. I never did it.”
Free, Tyson left the country and resumed duty in the US Navy. Lucy Kabura’s murder remains unsolved, and the trails have since grown cold.
One Story is good
Till Another is Told.
Last modified: October 25, 2021