ST. JOHN'S, Antigua - When John Allen Muhammad snatched his three young children in Tacoma, Wash., and fled a custody order 4,000 miles to the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, he landed on an atoll in flux.
The year was 2000, and the U.S. Treasury Department had just lifted an advisory that warned Americans to take precautions when investing there, even as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development called the former British colony a tax haven on the order of the Cayman Islands, Panama and Lebanon.
The island had weathered decades of indignities, ranging from gun-smuggling to South Africa and Colombia to election irregularities and raids on the medical-benefits fund. A series of money-laundering scandals, beginning with the collapse of the European Union Bank in 1997 and culminating with charges in 1999 against Pavlo Lazarenko, former prime minister of Ukraine, cost investors hundreds of millions of dollars.
Glossy magazines advertise Antigua as a tropical paradise with 365 beaches and pristine coral reefs that beckon scuba divers around the world. Stone sugar mills dot the island's quaint interior. Wattle-and-daub houses, their roofs sealed with tar, invite snapshot-taking visitors. Goats nibble freely along roadsides, and roosters crow on the busiest downtown streets. This is the birthplace of novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid and the home of the cricket world's version of Michael Jordan, Sir Viv Richards.
But Antigua, whose motto is "Land of Sea and Sun," is also a haven where people on the run settle among friendly but discreet neighbors. This is where Muhammad laid roots for 16 months, using a fake Wyoming driver's license in the name of Thomas Alan Lee to enter the country and dozens of other false names along the way, greeting neighbors warmly but keeping his distance, holding close his secrets as he hustled to and from a tiny white trailer home in Ottos.
"Antigua does have a reputation for being the hide-out of the Caribbean," said Baldwin Spencer, leader of the United Progressive Party, the opposition party in the House of Representatives. "There is something to the idea that people come here when they can't go home." Antigua also has a reputation amid the Leeward Islands of the East Caribbean as being host to an active scandal mill.
Muhammad's puzzling sojourn here has reinvigorated interest in sex, drug, election and ethics scandals past and present, and renewed calls for FBI and Scotland Yard investigations into domestic squabbles.
Last week, a teen-age girl who gave a videotaped interview accusing Prime Minister Lester Bird of having sex with her filed a lawsuit accusing Bird of statutory rape, abduction, conspiracy and sexual assault.
The same day, the British Broadcasting Corp. agreed to pay Bird damages of 50,000 pounds (about $78,000) after airing unfounded allegations that he spent government health funds on cosmetic surgery and was involved in gun-running and drug-trafficking.
This summer, copies of the girl's videotape made their way around the island. The tape contained criminal allegations against Bird and several public officials, including a junior finance minister, the commissioner of police and other members of the police force, and a handful of private citizens.
The girl, Monique Kim Barua, said she met Bird and his younger brother, Ivor Bird, who was convicted of cocaine-smuggling seven years ago, at a party in 1999 and had a sexual relationship first with Ivor Bird, then with the prime minister. She was 12 at the time. She also alleged that she made payments for cocaine deals on behalf of the prime minister, his brother and a governing party senator.
Lester Bird, whose father also was prime minister, was cleared for lack of evidence last week after a government-ordered investigation. He struck a Clintonian tone that grated with some island residents. "I don't even know the girl," he said.
On the day Muhammad's face started ringing bells with acquaintances in this nation of 70,000, the biggest story in St. John's was the release of a report by a retired British police officer into the girl's claims.
The investigation report said there was no evidence against the prime minister or his finance minister but determined that Police Commissioner Truehart Smith had circulated a wish list among a number of prominent businessmen requesting wedding gifts for himself. The commissioner has denied any wrongdoing.
No recent scandal has been more titillating than the allegations that passport officials turned a blind eye to phony Antiguan and U.S. documents such as the ones Muhammad, a former Army sergeant, apparently supplied, allegations that drew FBI investigators to the capital city in search of clues.
"It is a very interesting story, very interesting," said Augustin Sheppard, a sometimes farmer who bought Miracle-Gro and herbal supplements from Muhammad two years ago.
The passport scandal has dominated the front pages of the island's two newspapers, The Sun and The Daily Observer, since the first indications that an American who claimed Antiguan citizenship had been arrested on suspicion of being the Washington-area serial sniper. The Observer, with its sister radio station, has owned the story.
The government launched a swift inquiry into how Muhammad managed to obtain a passport using forged documents and then help others leave the island. Its preliminary report was released Saturday.
Opponents of the Labor Party government who picketed last week outside the prime minister's offices called for the broadest possible investigation into how nationals of other Caribbean islands have been able to skirt the country's immigration laws to obtain Antiguan citizenship.
"Any investigation should not be limited to just activities involving John Williams Muhammad," said Spencer. "Apart from him, we believe that there have been documented other occasions when Antiguan and Barbudan passports have been issued to people who were not entitled to them - and these individuals are all over the world now." The island's black passport is a conduit, critics said, for scofflaws, smugglers and people who want to lie low before heading to the mainland.
"Other passports are put under closer scrutiny. If non-nationals show up with an Antiguan passport they perhaps receive kinder passage than with their Jamaican passport or their passport from Guyana," Spencer said.
Callers to a local radio talk show echoed the senator's refrain, pointing this week to examples that suggest there are other foreign forgers in Antigua.
Neighbors mentioned the home of a Spanish-speaking man who lives in a gated compound in Yorks village with three partially finished concrete buildings. Taxis drop off nationals of other islands who need papers to remain in Antigua. When the cabs return, their fare may be one of the island's newest citizens, neighbors said.
An area laborer recalled a recent incident when a passenger in a taxi asked for directions to "the passport office."
"Me tell him go round to the immigration building, that's where you need to be," the man said in local dialect, referring to the official Immigration Department office five miles away. "The man say not that one, I want the Spanish man, so I show him the Embassy of Yorks village," he said, pointing to the compound.
Spencer, who penned a blunt open letter to Antiguans in Friday's Observer calling for "a change of government," has complained to authorities about the Yorks village man in the past. "People, meaning Guyanese, Hispanics, Jamaicans, are visiting that house in droves and leaving with extensions on their paperwork or with Antiguan and Barbudan passports," said Spencer.
Attorney General Gertel U. Thom said the scope of a civilian task force looking into the actions of Muhammad, Una James and her son, Lee Boyd Malvo, the second suspect in the sniper attacks, is broadly defined.
"I see a conspiracy," she said as the ad-hoc task force of two well-known local attorneys, a Catholic priest and a retired police officer began its inquiry.
But the passport-scandal talk frustrates some residents of this tourist-dependent island. They fear fickle travelers will take their vacation plans to islands where bad news isn't as common as grains of sand.
Vendors, waitresses and shop owners along the cruise ship dock where thousands of tourists spill into the bustling city center were dismayed that the island was again embroiled in a corruption drama. "Me wonder will people not want to come here anymore," said a man selling necklaces near the cruise ship dock who gave only his first name, Vincent.
Those who knew Muhammad rue the day in June last year when he retreated from their shores with his three children and the Jamaican boy, Malvo, who had begun calling him father, leaving behind fuel for a new scandal.
Even the children's school principal, who typed a glowing letter of reference that said she had known Muhammad since 1998 and recommended him for jobs teaching or coaching kids, has grown weary of talking about her friend. Last week, she admitted that she had known him only four months at the time she recommended him.
"I just was trying to help the man get a government job," Janet Harris said dispiritedly inside the doorway of the one-room Greensville Primary School. "My pressure is up, and my sugar is up, and this is all very stressful."