Cocoa Piece mass murder overshadows Fraser-Pryce’s brilliance
Without a doubt, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce’s majestic run to win an unprecedented and possibly unmatched fifth World Athletics Championships gold medal in 2022 – 13 years after winning the first one in 2009 and at age 35 – should be unchallenged for the Newsmaker of the Year for 2022.
She outclassed a stellar field of women’s 100-metre sprinters from around the world at the championship held in Eugene, Oregon, in the United States, speeding to a world-leading 10.67 seconds for an event she now owns.
Effervescent, iridescent, driven and masterful, the petite athletic genius hails from a country blessed with athletic prowess that has been a dominant force on the world stage for decades.
For many commentators, that win not only defined her stock, but solidified her as an athletic icon.
Born and raised in Waterhouse in St Andrew, Fraser-Pryce comes from a community where too often children take cover more than they are allowed to play.
Dubbed the ‘Pocket Rocket’ and ‘Mommy Rocket’, her burst of speed at the sound of the starter’s gun continued to mesmerise competitors from around the world.
When the diminutive Jamaican athletic rocket launcher sped downfield in Eugene on that fateful day of July 17, the argument of who owned the women’s 100-metre event was sealed. It was later solidified with the national honour, the Order of Jamaica (OJ), on National Heroes Day in October, for her continued high performance in athletics.
Fraser-Pryce, who turned 36 on December 27, won the event for the fourth time in Doha in 2019, and many wondered if she could beat the ferocious and devastatingly beautiful form of Elaine Thompson-Herah, who has a staggering legal 10.61 at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, as well as the raw power of Shericka Jackson.
She did, and represents the very best of a little country with the audacity to sit at the top of the world’s athletic dome for its size.
Fraser-Pryce ended 2022 as world number one by World Athletics in the women’s 100-metre, and was one of five finalists for the IAAF Female Athlete of the Year.
THAT HEART-RENDING TUESDAY
When Fraser-Pryce and the team of Jamaican athletes headed to Oregon for the World Athletics Championships in July, the weight of one of the most devastating events in Jamaica’s history sat on their shoulders.
Fraser-Pryce’s was the first gold. In fact, it was a clean sweep for Jamaica, as the country’s top athletes took all three medals in the women’s 100-metre. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Shericka Jackson and Elaine Thompson-Herah radiated the pride of all Jamaicans on the podium as the Caribbean country’s national anthem thundered inside Hayward Field.
Nothing else should have had a greater impact on Jamaica that year.
But that was not to be.
Jamaica was forever stained with the blood of a gruesome event a month before Fraser-Pryce’s brilliance on the world stage on July 17.
On June 21, 2022, the nation was shook to its core with a most barbaric act. Nothing could unburden the heavy weight of what is now known as the Cocoa Piece massacre.
It was a crime so heinous that its brutality left many Jamaicans in disbelief, bludgeoning the country’s consciousness into shocked submission and pain.
On that fateful Tuesday morning, a dark vale clouded the close-knit rural community of Cocoa Piece in Clarendon. Residents awoke to the horrifying news that a mother and her four children, who were like family to them, lost their lives in a most brutal way.
The bodies of Kemesha Wright, 31, and her four children – Kimanda Smith, 15; Shara-Lee Smith, 11; Rafaella Smith, five; and 23-month-old Keshawn Henry – were found at their home with multiple stab wounds and their throats slashed. The house was washed in blood. All slaughtered by the hands of one of their own – their cousin 23-year-old Rushane Barnett – who Kemesha had welcomed into her home about a year earlier because he was in need.
The grisly and gruesome act united a community and a nation in unimaginable grief and anger.
Barnett later confessed to the crime.
A post-mortem report revealed chilling details of the murders. A total of 107 wounds were inflicted on the five victims.
Kemesha, the mother, received 48 incised wounds to her neck, chest, abdomen and limb. Her 23-month-old son, Keshawn, suffered 11 incised wounds inclusive of one to the neck. The eldest child, Kimanda, had nine incised wounds and four stab wounds; Shara-Lee received 22 incised wounds and two scratches; and Rafaella had five incised wounds and a gaping wound to the upper neck.
The family of five died as a result of haemorrhage, shock, multiple sharp force injuries and throat wounds, the report said.
Barnett was convicted in July of five counts of murder. In October he was sentenced to five concurrent life sentences, with eligibility for parole after 61 years and eight months.
He blamed voices in his head for his murderous misdeeds, claiming he had been hearing them since he was 18.
During the court proceedings, a forensic psychiatrist who interviewed Barnett described him as someone with “superficial charm and glibness, and this refers to a tendency to be smooth, engaging, charming, slick … deceitfulness; the quality of being disingenuous … Lacking remorse and the absence of a sense of deep regret. Lacking empathy … does not accept responsibility, failure to accept responsibility for his actions.”
EMBRACE AND EMULATE THE POSITIVE
Analysing those two significant events in Jamaica last year, both at the extreme ends of the spectrum, attorney-at-law Alimi Banjoko said Fraser-Pryce’s feat earned her the top newsmaker for 2022.
“Fraser-Pryce just keeps getting better and better, faster and faster and it’s the kind of activity that you want to embrace for the accomplishment and joy it brings. Rising from sociological and economic challenges, it’s a positive story that you want to impart on your society, so that’s why she is my choice,” Banjoko explained to The Sunday Gleaner.
“Her performance is exemplary and worthy of repeat. It is something to be emulated and it has far more transformative value. So that’s the reason for my choice.”
He continued, “The Cocoa Piece murders were devastating, but, unfortunately, people lose their lives in this manner all too frequently in Jamaica. Look at the child in Montego Bay whose throat was cut (Gabriel King). These are things we should not be repeating. Cocoa Piece captured the nation in the worst way.”
That view is supported by Dr Paul Bourne, acting director in the Department of Institutional Research at Northern Caribbean University.
According to him, Fraser-Pryce’s accomplishment was widely discussed among social media users, the videos racked up multiple views, and she drew heavy traffic everywhere she was featured.
“So if you view it in that context, you would have to say the race had the greatest impact, and her win was therefore more impactful. However, amongst traditional media of radio, print and television, Cocoa Piece was widely debated. If we used social media as the yardstick, as a researcher I would say Shelly-Ann was last year’s newsmaker,” said Bourne.
‘I COULD SMELL THE BLOOD ABOUT A MILE AWAY’
For the police, however, while Fraser-Pryce’s performance was outstanding, the murder of the family of five had the greatest impact on the nation.
Chairman of the Jamaica Police Federation, Corporal Rohan James, said the Cocoa Piece massacre is seared in his memory and that of many others across all ranks in the police force.
“One thing I can tell you is that I could smell the blood about a mile away from the scene. The whole area was covered in blood, the environment, everything about the place. In fact, some of the police personnel who went there are still receiving psychological care because the weight of it has been so onerous,” James told The Sunday Gleaner.
“You have to understand that police officers would come across scenes like these in the normal course of duty, but many of them cannot understand how family could do this to family, especially family that was trying to help them. That’s a hard part for them.”
He added, “I have never seen so many police officers traumatised by a single incident. Big people cry. People who didn’t even know them still cried.”
For James, every policeman who is a father and who is away for long periods from their families pictured themselves in an identical situation.
COCOA PIECE MASSACRE HAD THE GREATEST IMPACT
For some members of the public, the Cocoa Piece tragedy left an indelible mark.
Of the nine persons The Sunday Gleaner spoke to at a popular fast food outlet on Constant Spring Road in St Andrew, six said the Cocoa Piece murders when asked what was most the most momentous news in 2022. Among the six were five women, and a man with two young children.
Of the three who said Fraser-Pryce was the biggest news, two were women.
In another outlet in downtown Kingston, of the 11 persons polled, six women said Fraser-Pryce was the biggest news and five men said Cocoa Piece.
And at an eatery in Half-Way Tree, St Andrew, of the 17 persons The Sunday Gleaner spoke to, six women and three men said Cocoa Piece; four men said Fraser-Pryce; and four men said the death of social media influencer Donna-Lee Donaldson impacted them the most in 2022.
‘FOUR PICKNEY CAAN DEAD ONE TIME’
“Four pickney caan dead one time, no,” head of the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA), Rosalee Gage-Grey, recalled as her initial utterance when she heard the news about Kemesha Wright and her four children.
She was stunned into silence.
The CPFSA team was soon mobilised to travel to Cocoa Piece to lend their support.
“It is simply the worst news on so many levels that came out of Jamaica in 2022. It topped everything else, and it’s so painful because so many good things happened,” Gage-Grey told The Sunday Gleaner.
BETRAYAL OF KINDNESS
The weight of the Cocoa Piece massacre is heaviest for Gwendolyn McKnight – mother of Kemesha, the children’s grandmother, and Rushane’s aunt.
In a riveting victim impact statement read out in the Home Circuit Court in Kingston in September, McKnight revealed that it was her kindness that her nephew betrayed and ripped out her heart with it, which will forever haunt her.
Nearly a year before the tragedy, Barnett and his brother were unemployed and in a financial bind when they telephoned McKnight for help.
The brothers wanted to move to Clarendon, where McKnight and her family lived, to find jobs because “nothing was happening for them” in their community of Wilson Run, Trelawny.
The request initially aroused her suspicion.
Before agreeing, McKnight called Barnett’s mother, her sister Janet, to enquire if they were involved in any wrongdoing there, forcing them to leave.
The answer was no and she was reassured that they were only seeking employment. With her mind at ease, she allowed her nephews to come and stay with the family in Clarendon, and helped both find employment.
Barnett quickly bonded with his cousin Kemesha, more popularly known as ‘Chunny’, and her four children, who lived in a rented house a few metres away from McKnight. He even helped with babysitting while assisting in the little shop Kemesha operated while doing her hustle to provide for her family.
When he lost his job, Kemesha would ask persons around the community to assist him to get a job.
A year later, McKnight’s generosity became the source of her greatest pain.
“To see that she died in such a violent and cruel manner committed by a family member I took in to help was the last thing I expected to happen … I do not know when and how I will recover. A part of me died with them,” the elderly woman said in the statement.
‘I WILL NEVER GET OVER IT’
The voices of Kemesha and her four children have been silenced, but not that of the mother and grandmother.
Last week, McKnight told The Sunday Gleaner, “I will never get over it. I am not even sure I can get over it, even if I want to. This is my daughter and my grandchildren. Oh God, man.”
Her tone was heavy with pain, anger, grief and loss, noting that Barnett’s mother, her sister, had telephoned her only once since that dreadful Tuesday.
“I forgive them. I forgive them,” she said, with deep sadness.
With a broken heart unable to mend, Kemesha’s grandfather, 81-year-old James Wright, died about a month after the tragedy.
Kemesha and her four children were laid to rest on July 31 at the Sutton Memorial Cemetery in Clarendon.
Kemesha’s common-law partner, Kishawn Henry, a serving member of the Jamaica Defence Force, lost his 23-month-old son. He did not want young Keshawn to be interred alone in the coldness of the earth, so mother and baby were buried together.
Today, the once unknown rural community of Cocoa Piece is on the lips of Jamaicans, home and abroad. Several officials and hundreds of persons have visited to pay their respect.
A black banner now hangs high in the community bearing the images of Kemesha and her children Kimanda, Shara-Lee, Rafaella and Keshawn with the message ‘Forever Loved’ in remembrance of the loss of five of their own.
They were celebrated, mourned, and are now lovingly remembered.
In 2022, Fraser-Pryce’s performance displayed Jamaica’s bipolar ability to be at both ends of the behavioural and emotional spectrum – moments of extreme greatness erased with moments of extreme evil.
Fraser-Pryce did everything she could to make Jamaica beam with great pride.
In 2022, the Cocoa Piece horror united a nation, with an excessive and never ending-appetite for murder and terror, in grief.
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce’s performance should be emulated.
Cocoa Piece should never be repeated.