With palms swaying in the Caribbean breeze and azure waves gently lapping over crystal-white sandy beaches, Ambergris Caye is the last place on Earth you would expect darkness to strike.
Just 25 miles long and one mile wide, this sleepy tropical island off the coast of mainland Belize is nicknamed La Isla Bonita by its 15,000 laid-back residents after Madonna’s 1987 song of the same name in which she sang about San Pedro, the island’s capital.
But at around 2am on Friday, the muggy night air was pierced by the sound of a single gunshot – followed by a woman’s scream.
Jasmine Hartin pictured with husband Andrew Ashcroft, the youngest son of Tory peer and philanthropist Lord Ashcroft, at their Alaia resort in Belize
One resident said: ‘People heard it. It is so quiet here that a lot of people were woken up by it. Then all hell broke loose. There are so few facts. But it’s all anyone has talked about since.’
According to Belize Police Commissioner Chester Williams, who is heading up the investigation, this much is known. Around midnight on Thursday night into Friday morning, Jasmine Hartin, the beautiful blonde partner of Andrew Ashcroft, 43 – youngest son of Tory grandee and billionaire businessman Lord Michael Ashcroft – left the couple’s luxury hotel, Alaia, and walked a short distance down a beach to a small wooden jetty.
The petite 38-year-old American, a former estate agent who has two young children with Andrew, met up with an old friend, police superintendent Henry Jemmott, 42, a giant 6ft 3in bear of a man nicknamed ‘King’; a father-of-five who was engaged to be married later this year. Commissioner Williams confirmed the two were alone, drinking alcohol, and breaking the island’s 10pm to 5am Covid curfew.
‘They were both fully dressed,’ he told reporters. ‘They were known to each other. They were drinking for a couple of hours before the incident occurred.’
What is unknown is how Mr Jemmott ended up dead, shot with his own police service weapon; a single bullet hole piercing the skin behind his right ear.
Commissioner Williams said: ‘The first person who arrived on the scene after the incident occurred said that she was in an emotional state. When she was detained last night she was not co-operating.
‘She stated that she needed to have her attorney present in order for her to say what she needs to say, and it’s her right by virtue of the constitution, but that raises a red flag. The situation is such that it does require an explanation from her. In the absence of an explanation then she would have to be treated as the killer and we will proceed accordingly.
‘His body was recovered from the water. His weapon was recovered at the scene. The investigation is ongoing. It is too early to speculate but I can assure you that if any crime has been committed whoever did it will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.’
Police are trying to understand how Henry Jemmott ended up dead, shot with his own police service weapon; a single bullet hole piercing the skin behind his right ear
As the yellow crime-scene tape sealing off the wooden jetty fluttered in the warm tradewinds, it seemed everyone on the island had a theory.
Ms Hartin was in custody in a holding cell at the San Pedro police station jail which one local described as ‘hell on earth’.
He added: ‘She is a lady who is used to luxury. Whenever you see her she is always perfectly dressed, her children are always perfect. She is a nice lady, very polite and beautiful. I can’t imagine her in there. I have been inside that jail. The cell floors are made of dirt and the whole place smells of urine.’
Lord Ashcroft’s long-time lawyer, the nation’s former attorney general Godfrey Smith, was seen visiting the prison on Friday afternoon after flying in from mainland Belize. It is not known whether she will appoint her own criminal lawyer – and provide an explanation.
Lord Ashcroft, 75, a former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party and philanthropist, has invested heavily in Belize for decades and has dual Belizean and British citizenship. Marie Jemmott Tzul, the older sister of the slain policeman, confirmed he and Ms Hartin were known to each other. Her brother served as a senior officer on Ambergris Caye for three years from 2016 after which he returned to his family on mainland Belize. He arrived back on the island a few days ago after taking time off work ‘to sort out a personal matter’.
‘I spoke to him that night. He was in his room when he got a call. He wouldn’t have gone out unless it was for a friend of someone he knew well,’ said Ms Jemmott Tzul.
Around midnight on Thursday night into Friday morning, Jasmine Hartin, the beautiful blonde partner of Andrew Ashcroft, 43 – youngest son of Tory grandee and billionaire businessman Lord Michael Ashcroft – left the couple’s luxury hotel, Alaia, pictured, and walked a short distance down a beach to a small wooden jetty
‘I do not know about that person [Ms Hartin] but I know if the family [the Ashcrofts] would call him out, definitely he would come out there for them.’ She insisted there was ‘no relationship at all’ between her brother and Ms Hartin, adding: ‘My brother would never kill himself. He had a passion for life. He looked forward to being with his five children and his fiancee. My brother loved life. He had passion for his work. He did his work with integrity. My brother loved people.
‘I called him “the Big Smile Brother” because he’s the youngest of our family and no matter what he went thought he had that ability to still smile, no matter what.’
She added: ‘I believe he was killed. The investigation can tell me otherwise, but I believe he was killed.’
Last night, Mr Jemmott’s family claimed that a post-mortem examination had ruled out an accident or suicide. The police could not be contacted for comment, but the results of the examination are due for release tomorrow. There is a possibility that Ms Hartin will appear in court as early as tomorrow.
In the bars and coffee shops around downtown San Pedro, speculation about what had happened was rife.
‘I’ve heard lots of theories,’ said one woman. ‘That they were drinking and maybe she was playing around with his gun and it accidentally went off. Or maybe they were playing a game and she didn’t think it was loaded. I don’t think he killed himself because you wouldn’t shoot yourself behind your right ear.’
According to one source, a local security guard raced to the scene when he heard the gunshot and alerted police who arrived to find Ms Hartin ‘deeply distressed and shaking’. The police commissioner confirmed Ms Hartin had been found with blood on her hands, arms and clothing. Another unconfirmed report claimed she told the first officers on the scene the gunshot had come ‘from a passing boat’.
Police tape marks the area where the shooting took place on Friday morning, pictured
One source offered a potential explanation for Ms Hartin being covered in blood. ‘After the gun went off, Jemmott fell on top of her and so she pushed him off and that’s how he ended up in the shallow water by the pier,’ he suggested.
‘His gun was found there on the pier. People have been speculating there was some sort of romantic relationship between them but I don’t believe that, the family doesn’t think that. I knew Henry [Jemmott], he was a big bear of a man, grossly overweight.
‘He’s a good guy and I know he was friends with several members of the Ashcroft family. He got to know them well when he was living here on the island. It’s a small island, we all know each other.’
The shooting has stunned islanders who say the Ashcroft family has been part of the fabric of Belize – formally British Honduras – for generations.
Lord Ashcroft was raised there as a child and returned in the early 1980s, took Belizean citizenship and built up a series of hugely successful businesses including banks, telecommunications firms and tourism ventures.
‘Lord Ashcroft spent most of Covid here in Belize,’ said a source. ‘He only left a short while ago.
‘The Ashcrofts are integral to Belize. Many people are grateful to Lord Ashcroft for all the millions he has invested in this country.
‘He has created thousands of jobs but, like anywhere, there is also some resentment and a lot of politics going on.
‘He is embedded in the culture and has made a lot of money from his businesses here and some people aren’t happy about that.’
The Ashcroft’s latest venture – in partnership with hotel giant Marriott – is the gleaming new hotel Alaia, which was completed during lockdown and opened just three weeks ago. It has a rooftop pool and rooms that start at £280 a night.
‘It’s the fanciest hotel on the island,’ said a local who recalled Mr Ashcroft cutting the opening ribbon and thanking his ‘wife’, Jasmine. ‘It’s all eco-friendly and is booked up for months. It’s stunning.’
The Ashcrofts are also building a condominium building on nearby land. ‘That hasn’t broken ground yet,’ said a source. ‘But Andrew remains committed to Belize. This is his home and it is where he is raising his kids.
‘He used to have a different accent but now he sounds like a local. He loves this island and he does everything to fit in. The new hotel has created 300 jobs for the island. We love him. This has all come as a terrible shock.’
A hotel worker said staff have been instructed not to discuss the shooting with guests.
Sources at the police station in San Pedro suggested that Ms Hartin could be moved to a central jail on the mainland.
The big question is what charges she might face, if any. Commissioner Williams said he has been given the ‘full support’ of Belize’s Prime Minister John Briceno. ‘There has been no external influence exerted on me. This will be a fair and just enquiry … and let the chips fall where they may.’
Outside the island’s bright yellow police station, flags flew at half-mast for Mr Jemmott.
As one resident passed on a golf buggy, the mode of transport used by many to travel around the island, he shook his head. ‘Nothing like this has ever happened before. Things like this don’t happen on Ambergris Caye. It’s just so sad.
‘This is our little piece of paradise. You don’t expect death to come calling.’