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ST. JOHN'S, Antigua -- Nobody here wants to talk to strangers about the yacht that was towed into the harbor 10 days ago with four cadavers aboard, seated as they were when they were murdered -- an American couple and two English crewmen.

This is the height of the tourist season. Images are important.

The England vs. Leeward Islands cricket matches. The harbors that attract some of the world's most expensive sailing yachts. The hundreds of soft, white-sand beaches.

Those are the images they want.

This place depends on well-heeled visitors for nearly 70 percent of its domestic income. It can hardly afford to let the first multiple slaying in its modern history tarnish its reputation as a carefree tropical paradise.

But like the perfumed chemicals used liberally here to rid hotels and gambling casinos of roaches and tobacco odors, an air of contrived innocence hangs over Antigua.

Nearly two weeks have passed since a curious sailor stopped by the 65-foot racing ketch Computacenter Challenger as it lay silently anchored in the blue waters off Antigua's sister island of Barbuda. When the sailor climbed aboard and peered below decks, he discovered four decomposing bodies.

William Norman Clever, 58, was shot in the back and in his right side. His wife, Kathleen Marie, 50, had been shot once in the back. Skipper Ian Trevor "Criddy" Cridland, 33, had a gunshot wound in his chest. Deckhand Thomas Williams, 22, was shot in the head and in the back.

These were clean livers, not underworld characters from what anyone can tell. The Clevers were the parents of five grown children in California. The yacht cruise was a gift from a grateful British employer. The English crewmen were the kind of young men that make their mothers proud.

There was no apparent motive for the slayings.

Sketchy and often contradictory news of the killings raced around the world, fed mainly by the British tabloid press that happened to be here to cover the international cricket matches. Anxious inquiries came from as far away as Australia and Thailand.

On the island, friends of the murdered crew got drunk and cried. A few put on black armbands. Somebody chipped in a few dollars to start a reward fund to find the killers. With the help of an anonymous yacht owner, the fund quickly grew to $150,000.

Yet within the closed circles of Antiguan power and influence, the subject of the killings has been treated as if it were a whiff of the island's raw sewage. Give it time and the Trade Winds will blow this nasty business out to sea.

No island official has publicly denounced the murders. None has offered condolences to the victims' families.

Asked if he had anything to say about the killings, Prime Minister Vere C. Bird was abrupt. "Not a thing," says the 83-year-old island patriarch. "Let the police handle it."

Local police handled the matter by turning it over to Scotland Yard investigators, who were coincidentally on the island looking into last year's slaying of a customs official who came upon some thieves in his house. They had the boat towed over.

Upset over the treatment of the yacht murders in the British press, Antigua Police Commissioner Edric K. Potter issued an official directive calling upon residents of Antigua and Barbuda not to jeopardize the tourist industry by sensationalizing the incident.

If locals were puzzled by the police commissioner's demand, it may have been because they knew so little about the crime. The government-managed television and radio station paid little attention to the murders. Two weeks after the bodies were found and brought here to the capital, only one of the island's two newspapers had published anything about the deaths.

"It does seem rather callous," said editor Tim Hector, whose newspaper Outlet carried the story last week on the front page.

Lester Bird, son of the prime minister and the Labor Party candidate likely to take over "Papa's" parliamentary position in the March election, took pains to play down the slayings.

"There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans who come to Antigua," he said. "The Mellons, the Kennedys, they all feel safe."

Tourism officials are quick to point out that as Caribbean crime goes, Antigua and Barbuda are among the safest vacation islands in the West Indies. Firearms are forbidden, except for wealthy businessmen. Local police handle one or two murders a year and spend the rest of their time looking into domestic quarrels and petty theft.

Few candidates for the country's 17-member Parliament raise crime as an important issue.

Everyone knows what happened aboard the yacht. But no one seems to have a clue to why it happened. Speculation has wandered from piracy to drug smuggling, both common in the Caribbean. But there was no real reason to link the murders to drugs, and the piracy theory is weakened by the fact that valuables on the yacht were left behind.

This week, Scotland Yard investigators refuted original reports that the victims had been stabbed repeatedly with a marlinespike, a knife and an ice pick.

All four were killed by gunfire, said Detective Superintendent Michael Lawrence of the Scotland Yard's International and Organized Crime Branch.

The Clevers, vivacious Californians who looked far younger than their years, were guests of the yacht's owner, British multimillionaire Peter Ogden, for whom they worked in developing and managing a private island estate in the English Channel Islands. Mr. Ogden, who was not on board the $1 million vessel, is head of Computacenter, Britain's largest computer dealer.

"Mr. Ogden was so pleased with my parents and the job they did on the island that he gave them the company yacht for a vacation," Bonnie Clever Floyd, one of the couple's five children said in a telephone interview from California.

Mr. Cridland was an experienced skipper and had made many trips through the Caribbean. He had brought Mr. Williams over from England with the vessel.

The four left English Harbour here on Friday, Jan. 28, for a six-day cruise of sailing and snorkling. They anchored off Green Island to the east of Antigua, then headed northwest for Barbuda.

Mr. Cridland telephoned a friend in English Harbour on Thursday evening to say they had arrived at Barbuda and were enjoying themselves, Mr. Lawrence said.

After sundown, police believe, at least two people boarded the yacht as it lay at anchor a mile off a deserted stretch of beach.

Whoever boarded the vessel forced the passengers to sit around a small table. Their hands were bound with tape and their mouths gagged.

The boaters apparently had been preparing for bed, because the men were dressed in their underwear and Mrs. Clever was wearing a light night shirt.

"One can only assume that they died one at a time," said Mr. Lawrence. "It's as if [the killers] were seeking information. I can't put into words how the victims must have felt, seeing your mate killed and wondering if you are next."

The carnage was so great, he said, that blood covered nearly everything in the cabin.

So far, police have uncovered no strong clues that the Challenger's passengers were ever a threat to the intruders. Unlike many vessels in the area, it appears the Challenger carried no weapons for protection.

Had the visitors to the boat not been armed, Mr. Lawrence said, the skipper and the deckhand likely would have put up a fight.

"Both British lads were well fit," he said. "And Williams, the deckhand, was so strong he was supposed to be able to hoist the mainsail by himself."

The search for a motive in the killings grew even more frustrating when police noted that nothing seemed to have been stolen from the yacht or the victims. Jewelry, a television and other expensive equipment were found still on the yacht.

The absence of drugs led to speculation that those aboard might have been silenced after unwittingly coming across a drug drop or transaction on another vessel.

Still unexplained, too, is why a dinghy believed to belong to the Challenger was found drifting two miles from where the ketch was anchored.

Getting all the answers might be difficult, said Superintendent Lawrence. The start of the all-out inquiry was delayed as local authorities awaited the arrival last week of a Scotland Yard forensics team.

Mr. Lawrence said Antigua police are not equipped to handle the intricacies of a multiple murder investigation. The victims' bodies were taken to Barnes' funeral parlor for examination by Scotland Yard. They are likely to be sent home to their families late this week.

Robbery is the most likely motive, said Superintendent Lawrence. Rumors that Mr. Cridland had cashed alarge check on Antigua and brought the money aboard for boating expenses are false, the detective said.

Perhaps the killers heard the same rumor and came looking for the cash.

"It's still all speculation," Mr. Lawrence said.

From a fishermen's dock in St. John's, where native islanders play the old game of Warri and repair lobster traps, to the exclusive yacht haven of English Harbour on the southern end of the island, the calypso chatter takes up the murders.

"We don't have no pirates around here," said an old fisherman braiding a makeshift boat line at water's edge in St. John's. "Only kind of pirates we might have are those who steal from our lobster pots. Those people, they must have been with drugs."

"Pure rubbish," countered Pam Hale, 38, a boat cook who said that she might have sailed with Challenger when it left English Harbour, had she not already had a commitment on land.

"Criddy was not a wild man, and he was thoroughly professional about his work," she said.

"In this sailing world, if you're ever caught drunk or smoking a joint in a crew uniform, you're sacked. This is like being in the British Navy."

And that's the image of Antigua and Barbuda most islanders say is essential to their livelihood. With little agriculture or industry, the islands subsist on the nearly half-million tourists who arrive each year by airplane, by private yacht or on the weekly cruise ships that dock in St. John's.

With its many unspoiled natural harbors and generous breezes, Antigua is popular among the international sailing set. The three-island federation, which gained independence from Great Britain in 1981, is a land of yellow-breasted songbirds, ambling cattle and goats, swaying palms and as many beaches as there are days in the year.

All but about 1,200 of the country's 78,000 residents live on Antigua, the largest of the islands. Barbuda, a small, flat island, is often the destination of day-trippers seeking greater tranquillity among the wild sheep and horses. Uninhabited Redondo lies 30 miles below Antigua.

One of the biggest attractions locally is the annual Antigua Sailing Week, a late April event that draws yachtsmen from as far away as Australia.

Unless a visitor brings up the subject, talk of the killings is avoided, said Selwyn Lake, a 31-year-old who earns a living taxiing tourists around the island.

"I drive people around all day, but I don't talk about things like this with them because it's not nice," he said. "I don't want people to think we're like Jamaica."

Lorick A. Osborne, who was born in Guyana and educated in England, said he moved to Antigua eight years ago to practice law because he wanted his family to live in a relatively crime-free environment.

Like many islanders, Mr. Osborne guessed that the killers are not from the area.

"This one is unusual," Mr. Osborne said. " And I have a sneaking suspicion the culprits might not be from Antigua. We get many, many boats from all over the world here. There are others who are capable of this."

But some islanders hold a different perspective of their home. "All this shooting dope, burning hemp," said one cab driver. "It's barbarous."

News of the murders has been slow to greet some tourists. But when it does, it can have unnerving effects.

Chicago residents Kavi and Mark Larson, on a honeymoon cruise of the Caribbean aboard the liner Monarch of the Seas, said they were not aware of the incident until they arrived in St. John's.

"It scares the hell out of me," said Mrs. Larson.

Said her husband: "When I come to an island, I expect there are probably pickpockets. You don't think about getting murdered."

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