Lord Ashcroft is not at home – at least not in Belize, the country where he claims his heart resides.
The electronic gates of his large but, by jet-setting billionaire standards, restrained white stucco home on the seafront at Belize City are shut and look like they have been shut for some time.
Considering that my taxi driver was grumbling to me about how much the former Conservative Party treasurer controls the small Caribbean country, I was expecting to find a huge presidential-style palace.
His real mansion is in the Turks and Caicos Islands, the taxi driver assures me.
But whatever the current whereabouts of the controversial Tory grandee (and yesterday he was on Twitter promoting his new book on Sir Keir Starmer), the scandal that has engulfed Belize has also drawn attention to him.
Ever since Canadian ex-pat Jasmine Hartin, 32, was arrested in the early hours of Friday morning last week in San Pedro on Belize’s resort island of Ambergris Caye, with the body of a police superintendent floating in the sea nearby and a single bullet wound in the back of his head, the business tycoon’s shadow has hung over the tragedy.
Lord Ashcroft is pictured (right) here with Lord Kareem Musa, Minister of Home Affairs, Commissioner of Police Chester Williams cutting the ribbon to a new gym at Belize’s main police station in February
Jasmine Hartin, 32, shot a police superintendent in back of the head in Belize Hartin says gun went off after he showed it to her and she went to hand it back
For Miss Hartin is the partner – both business and personal – of Andrew Ashcroft, the peer’s younger son, with whom she shares two young children.
And for many ordinary Belizeans, including the family of Henry Jemmott, the dead officer, the case is raising difficult questions about the perception of the country’s justice system.
Nobody has invested more in the former British colony than Lord Ashcroft, who says he never forgot his happy times there in childhood.
He has joint British and Belizean nationality, and was once even its ambassador at the United Nations.
It has not helped that the media was expelled from the courtroom during hearings and the windows shuttered.
According to police, Miss Hartin has insisted that Superintendent Jemmott’s death was a terrible accident.
She and Andrew Ashcroft had earlier attended a party on happy-go-lucky San Pedro – celebrated in the Madonna song La Isla Bonita – and she had been drinking with Mr Jemmott on a pier near Andrew Ashcroft’s luxury Alaia resort.
It’s no secret that, although violent crime in the country isn’t high and is largely confined to warring drugs gangs, the Belizean police encourage upstanding citizens to acquire guns for personal protection.
Sources say Mr Jemmott, a friend of the couple who was off-duty but carrying his gun, suggested Miss Hartin get one for herself and they examined his Glock pistol.
The firearm, which some regard as being light on safety features, accidentally went off while she was handing it back to him and shot him in the back of the head.
A local ex-pat, Eric Trachman, in fact demonstrated to me how it could happen, producing his own handgun and explaining how a tipsy Mr Jemmott, 42, might have cleared his gun’s chamber of a round before handing it to Miss Hartin but forgotten to take out the magazine, meaning that another bullet had automatically been fed into the chamber.
Prosecutors have now charged Miss Hartin with manslaughter with negligence.
This charge can incur a five-year prison sentence but, if a guilty plea is offered, it can simply result in a fine of less than $20,000 (£7,000), some of it going to the bereaved family and some to the court.
Belize Police Superintendent Henry Jemmott, who was shot to death during an incident on May 28 in Belize
Manslaughter by negligence is the least serious charge she could have been handed over the officer’s death and in Belize is most often given to dangerous drivers.
The idea that a rich white ex-pat could escape killing a senior black police officer with what – to her – would be a fairly painless fine has caused some controversy in a country where racial antagonism lurks under the outward veneer of sunny Caribbean affability.
A fellow jail inmate being held in San Pedro police station fuelled such sentiments yesterday when he claimed that Miss Hartin had sworn at officers and demanded preferential treatment in being allowed to smoke a cigarette and have access to her pills, although those reports have not been confirmed.
Her bail hearing was postponed last night until tomorrow and she will remain in prison until then.
Mr Jemmott’s family have weighed in, attacking the handling of his death.
‘It’s not right… This is not justice,’ said his sister, Cherry, 48, a police assistant superintendent.
‘The people can see what is going on here, they are already saying it,’ she added, referring to a flood of social media posts complaining that Miss Hartin has been ‘let off’ because of her connections to the rich ex-pat community.
‘I can’t say too much because of my position but it’s not fair. Something is not right.’
Another sister, Marie, 55, who is helping to take care of his five children, said not only the family but the Belizean people as a whole felt betrayed by the justice system.
The scene of the incident at Mata Rocks Alaia Resort San Pedro in Belize. At the end of the pier is the victim’s blood
The victim’s blood could be seen at the end of the pier at Mata Rocks in the island of Belize
‘I had faith in all the police departments. It’s one of their own… I think they should have taken that to court as murder and let the court decide.’
She told local media: ‘It’s a big disrespect to my brother who has served for 23 years plus and if it was anybody in his shoes, if the tables were turned, he would have done the correct thing.’
Her anger was echoed by Mr Jemmott’s friend Francisco Arceo who spent the day fishing with the off-duty policeman before he was killed.
‘I feel very saddened. I’ve been hearing the news… and I just wish that it’s fake, but apparently it looks like at the end of the road, things are not going to happen like how I was expecting to happen. Is there justice? I don’t think there is justice,’ he added.
Mr Jemmott’s family are reportedly considering bringing a wrongful death lawsuit against Miss Hartin because they are unhappy with the manslaughter charge.
Faced with criticism over what some perceive as preferential treatment of the elite family, the Police Commissioner Chester Williams denied any wrongdoing yesterday.
‘As I have said from day one that we were going to do our investigation as impartial as we possibly can and that there was going to be no special treatment afforded to her.
‘Her social status should not affect how she is to be treated or should not allow her to be treated different than any ordinary person who have committed a crime.’
Ultimately, however, it is Miss Hartin’s connection with Lord Ashcroft that is of particular interest many ordinary locals – for the peer’s name evokes very mixed feelings in Belize.
Along with his son Andrew, he has declined to comment on the killing, his spokesman stressing only that the couple are not formally married.
But those who say that she is getting preferential treatment have drawn their own conclusions rightly or wrongly given the peer’s decades-long history of financial generosity to Belize – including to its police force.
In February he was photographed cutting the ribbon on a spanking new $135,600 gym he had paid for at the main police station of the Belizean police.
Lord Ashcroft said at the event that his ‘interest in law and order’ dated back to 1988 in the UK when he ‘formed and became chairman of the United Kingdom Crime Stoppers organisation’.
He said he was approached directly by the Commissioner of Police Chester Williams to fund the project.
‘It was Mr Ashcroft who donated a gym to us not Jasmine,’ said Mr Williams this week.
‘Mr Ashcroft has done nothing wrong.’
Last July, Belize police awarded the peer – who had also given the police $60,000 to buy anti-Covid equipment – an ‘outstanding citizen award’ for his generosity.
It was ‘nice’ to receive it, said Lord Ashcroft as he posted a picture of the award on Twitter.
Even Belize’s notorious Central Prison – reputedly one of the worst in the world and where Miss Hartin was moved on Tuesday – has benefited directly from Lord Ashcroft.
Even Belize’s notorious Central Prison (pictured) – reputedly one of the worst in the world and where Miss Hartin was moved on Tuesday – has benefited directly from Lord Ashcroft
Lord Ashcroft’s Foundation website lists the Kolbe Foundation, which runs the prison, as one of his key charitable projects.
The prison facilities include the Ashcroft Rehabilitation Centre (ARC) – the only rehab centre for drugs and alcohol addiction in the country – which was built through a large donation from the billionaire.
Lord Ashcroft has funded various projects at the facility, which holds both men and women, and which is nicknamed the ‘Hattieville Ramada’.
The donations have often been made via his Covid Relief fund which has pumped millions into aiding the country’s response to the pandemic.
Andrew Ashcroft and Miss Hartin have also reportedly been involved in local philanthropy.
Staff at their hotel, who describe them as affable, down-to-earth employers, say the couple paid for a health clinic to be set up nearby during the pandemic.
However, they’ve also been accused of gentrifying San Pedro with a hotel that this week was charging up to $1,000 a night for a room. Local people claim they are barred from eating there.
Her lawyer in the case Godfrey Smith couldn’t be more establishment – he is a US-educated former Attorney General and Foreign Affairs minister of Belize, and a member of the ruling People’s United Party.
His wife, Valerie Woods, is currently Speaker of the country’s parliament, the House of Representatives. Lord Ashcroft’s Belize investments date back decades.
In his 2005 biography, he admitted that his interests there have been ‘exempt from certain taxes for 30 years’.
Four years later, its then prime minister, told his parliament: ‘Ashcroft is an extremely powerful man. His net worth may well be equal to Belize’s entire GDP. He is nobody to cross.’
He has at one time owned a Belizean bank, telephone company, TV company, and shipping and business registries.
Lord Michael Ashcroft Receives Certificate of Appreciation from Belize Police Department issued him in July last year for his donation to them for PPE
His business interests have been so entrenched with those of the country that in 2007, when his Belize Bank faced 80 separate charges of failing to comply with anti-money-laundering laws – allegations the bank firmly denied – the case was withdrawn over fears that any damage to the bank would trigger the collapse of the Belizean economy.
While his supporters say Lord Ashcroft has done so much to raise its fortunes, his opponents have questioned the extent of his financial influence in the country.
One former foe said of the philanthropist: ‘I genuinely believe he just wants to be loved.’
However, ordinary Belizeans such as Belize City resident John Lockwood are hardly convinced. ‘[Lord Ashcroft] wants to own everything and the stupid government lets him.’
Lockwood said he would expect to go to prison if he killed someone, even by accident. ‘What goes for me should go for you.’
Additional reporting: Inderdeep Bains and Daniel Bates