In 1980, Kenya set free Frank J Sundstorm, a US sailor who killed a 32-year old woman called Monica Njeri. 32 years later, the same man killed three more women.
Early on the morning of 11 December 2012, a drunken man drove into the wrong side of Intestate 95 in Old Lyme, New London, Connecticut. He raced his 2000 Oldsmobile Alero straight into oncoming traffic, oblivious of the danger he was posing to others and to himsel.
On the right side of traffic, a 2007 Nissan Maxima carrying 71-year old Tamara Nolin, her friend Marjorie Minore (90) and Minore’s daughter, Barbara Prato (63) sped down the highway. The three ladies were from a night out at a local casino and Barbara was on the phone with her daughter, Melissa. Sometime during the call, Melissa heard her mother scream, then heard a loud pop followed by silence before the call dropped. Although Melissa did not know it at the time, a drunk driver car had just hit the Nissan, killing all its three passengers instantly.
When the severely injured man was later tested for alcohol, he had more than twice the legal limit. He had passed out and had to undergo over five surgeries before he was fit to be tried in August 2013. He was charged with three offences: second-degree manslaughter with a motor vehicle, improper entry into a highway, and driving under the influence. In 2014, he pleaded no contest to the charges and was sentenced to 30 years in prison, suspended after serving 14 years.
His name is Frank Joseph Sundstorm from Warwick, Rhode Island. In Kenya, that name ignites memories of a bizarre story of sex, murder, and blatant injustice from more than 3 decades ago.
On August 3rd 1980, US Navy ship USS La Salle docked at the port of Mombasa. Sailors in their thousands flooded the city and its neighbouring towns, seeking all the guilty pleasures they had lacked while stuck at sea. Among them was a 19-year-old fireman’s apprentice called Frank Joseph Sundstorm from Coventry, Rhode Island.
A few years prior to this liberty stop, Kenya had entered a military partnership deal with the US. The treaty made the Kenyan port one of the liberty ports for US ships patrolling the oceans to guard Middle East oil-shipping lines. The result was that thousands of sailors would perennially flock into Mombasa. As expected, the most lucrative business at the coast was sex. Groups of prostitutes would travel on the overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa in search of the young, randy sailors. The business of debauchery became one of the key economies, perhaps more than it had been during the decades of tourism. Among the young women who sought to enjoy the spoils of war was Monica Njeri, a 32-year-old mother of two.
Njeri met Sundstorm at a night club. They had a wild night, drinking beer and smoking weed before they headed out to a hotel room. Njeri’s fee for the night was $41 which Sundstorm paid when they got to the room. Then they had sex, drank more beer, and went right back to it. But then the night went downhill, eventually costing Njeri her life.
As they fucked, Sundstorm proposed a type of sex that made Njeri uncomfortable, so she withdrew consent. The news reports from the time don’t indicate what type of sex it was, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is what happened next.
Sundstorm demanded his money back and grabbed her purse. Njeri pulled her purse away from him, screaming her head out. As they fought, Sundstorm grabbed a beer bottle and broke it on Njeri’s head. Then repeatedly stabbed her face and neck with the shard of glass in his hand. She bled to death right there on the hotel bed.
The 19-year-old US sailor was arrested and charged with robbery with violence before 74-year old Judge LGE Harris. The government prosecutor was Nicholas Harwood, and Sundstorm’s criminal defence lawyer was Prem Prinja. In an abhorring deal that would ignite public outrage, Sundstorm confessed to killing Njeri in a drunken alteraction. The judge found him guilty of manslaughter and fined him Shs. 500 and made him sign a two-year bond of good behaviour.
Sundstorm was a free man despite openly confessing to killing his escort for that dark August night. He quickly left the courtroom and the country. US officials claimed they didn’t know his hometown but newspaper records from the time show he was from Coventry, Rhode Island.
There was public outrage across the country, with legislators putting the Attorney General at the time, Joseph Karugu, to task over the clear miscarriage of justice. Karugu claimed he was legally impotent to do anything about the case. Judge Harris was, however, retired four months later. Njeri’s brother, Peter Muigai, sued the US government on behalf of Njeri’s children. The case was settled out of court with Njeri’s family getting $16, 860 in damages.
Monica Njeri’s murder case file was closed, and her story only reappears in newspaper stories and academic articles.
The Frank J. Sundstorm who killed Njeri would be 53 today (he was 19 at the time), the same age that the Warwick drunk driver is. Coventry and Warwick are barely 14.3 kilometres from each other, a short 20 min drive within the Rhode Island state. It could just be coincidence, but the universe is rarely that lazy. It is likely that the same man Kenya set free thirty four years ago despite confessing to killing Monica Njeri ended up killing three other women.
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