The Tragic Death of "Small-Boy" Raises a Big Question for Liberia's Charles Taylor

William E. Allen

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

December 24, 2002

The growing controversy swirling around the recent tragic death of Liberia's Deputy Chief of Traffic Police, Fitzgerald Vampelt popularly known as "Small-Boy" by many of his boyhood friends, has again evoked a number of questions about the Human Rights Record of President Charles Taylor of Liberia. The obvious question must be whether the President would give his son, Chukie who is accused of wilfully slaying the Deputy Chief of Traffic, the opportunity to clear his name? Put differently, would the President allow the world to see that Liberia is still a member of the civilized community, a place where the right of the innocent is affirmed? After all, the President himself acknowledged the contention surrounding the cause of Vampelt's death during a meeting with political parties. Mr. Taylor reportedly told the group that the demise of the police officer was an unfortunate vehicular accident that was being misconstrued as premeditated murder perpetrated by his son.

Similar incidents in the recent past show a deliberate pattern of cover-ups and obstruction of justice by the Taylor Government. Nevertheless, this is another opportunity for the President to prove that he and his son are not the murderous thugs they are frequently portrayed to be in the International Press. The elder Taylor is consistently hounded by questions that he ordered the murder of a number of trusted friends and aides (e.g., Samuel Dokie and Vice President Enoch Dogolea). Apparently, the younger Taylor has taken his filial piety seriously by closely following what appears to be the vicious footprint of his father: It is widely whispered in Liberia that Chuckie killed his driver, Isaac Gono, a couple of months ago (because of a dent in his luxury automobile?). Therefore, the allegation that Police Officer Fitzgerald Vampelt was slain plus the widespread belief of a government cover-up, coming at the time when the reputable Economist magazine published its gloomy forecast about Liberia (i.e., "worst place to live" in 2003), can only be a political liability for President Taylor.

But there is another reason, a moral duty, to establish the cause of death of the diminutive police officer. Small-Boy was a likable and caring person, who was always sensitive about offending others. Friends and neighbors did not hesitate to ask the "short policeman" for help because they knew his response would be sincere. While it is hard to imagine working in the Liberian Government (or the Police Force for that matter) without being tainted by spiraling corruption, yet one was instantly impressed by Police Office Vampelt's sense of duty. Standing proudly in his neatly starched/pressed police uniform, the Deputy Chief often personally directed traffic at the busy Jallah Town-Capitol Bypass Intersection. In fact, Small-Boy met his death on December 16 while carrying out what was the high point of his official function, i.e., ensuring that the Taylor presidential convoy had unimpeded access to the Monrovia-Robertsfield Highway. If nothing else inspires the Government to address the unsettling question surrounding the mysterious death, it must act at least on Vampelt's dedication to duty and his service to President Taylor.

There are two current versions to this tragedy. The official story is that Vampelt died as a result of being hit by Chuckie Taylor's vehicle while the officer was urinating in the bushes alongside the Monrovia-Robertsfield Highway. Both Chuckie and Officer Vampelt were returning to Monrovia in separate vehicles after escorting the President to the airport for his trip to the West African nation of Togo. At this point, the accident explanation sounds very plausible. The Monrovia-Robertsfield Highway, along with all the motor roads in Liberia, is a narrow two-lane meandering thoroughfare, with hardly any shoulder or sidewalk. Such conditions can be particularly hazardous for pedestrians. Moreover, given the maniacal speed that the President's convoy, vehicles owned by the First family, and those operated by the Security Forces ply the cramped streets of Liberia, accidents of the kind attributed to Vampelt's death are quite common. I am almost certain that police statistics will confirm that deaths and injuries to pedestrians resulting from speeding automobiles are one of the leading causes of homicide in Liberia. So under these poor road conditions, it is very likely that Small-Boy was the victim of a routine traffic accident. Under the rule of law whosoever was driving Chuckie's car is culpable for his death. Vehicular homicide and not murder would be the likely charge. That should be the end of this "unfortunate accident" as far as determining the cause of death is concerned.

But one factor appears to be undoing the accident explanation. This is in turn giving credence to the unofficial account for Vampelt's death. The unofficial account is that Chuckie stopped alongside Officer Vampelt on the highway and shot him to death. According to this story, Vampelt was killed because of his support for one of the opposition political parties. This second explanation has gained momentum primarily because reports from Liberia throughout last week indicated that the Government is preventing the relatives from taking possession of Small-Boy's corpse for burial. Injuries on the corpse, it is rumored, are inconsistent with wounds inflicted by a moving automobile. The wounds are said to be clearly consistent with those made by bullets.

Liberians remember that the last outstanding case where their government withheld a corpse from a grieving family, turned out later to be that the victim was bayoneted to death under the watchful eyes of their President. That was in 1985, the victim was Charles Gbenyon and the president was Samuel Doe. On national television, President Doe told - what everyone knew was a boldfaced lie in the aftermath of the abortive Quiwonkpa's coup d'état - that law school student Gbenyon was accidentally killed while struggling with soldiers who were attempting to disarm and arrest him. Gbenyon's dismembered corpse was never given to his distressed family, in spite of pleas from many Liberians, including Catholic Bishop Michael Francis. Withholding the corpse of Officer Vampelt from his family is a clear reminder of the Gbenyon episode. This action by the Government, if it is true, serves to undermine the president's claim that Vampelt's death was a mere traffic calamity.

One of the reasons advanced by the Economist magazine for its dreadful projection (i.e., Liberia will be the worst place to live in 2003) is that President Charles Taylor will repress the opposition parties and their swelling ranks of supporters who are determined to unseat him in the 2003 election. Given the President's brutal track record in suppressing his critics, the prediction was easy to make. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the tragic death of Fitzgerald Vampelt, the affable Small-Boy, is the beginning of the political repression the Economist predicted. President Charles Taylor has one more opportunity to show, that contrary to growing perception at home and abroad, he is not the bloodthirsty fiend and the ruthless dictator often portrayed in the Western media. A transparent and an uninterrupted inquiry into the cause of death of Officer Fitzgerald Vampelt will bring some closure to the grieving family and at the same time, President Charles Taylor would be doing what is right in the sight of the Liberian people and the civilized world.

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