In 1952 Paul Thompson was recruited by the Royal Bahamas Police Force in his native Trinidad. One of his early postings was to a special squad assigned to raid the Numbers houses. Thompson was a legendary detective who rose through the ranks at CID to become an assistant commissioner of police before retiring in 1981. Since then he has been a security consultant. Now 85, Thompson is about to publish his memoirs. The following extract from his forthcoming book - A Policeman's Story - describes a dramatic encounter with the equally legendary Numbers boss, the late Talbot "Stokes" Thompson. The encounter led to a blazing shootout on Mackey Street - most unusual for the time.
From A Policeman's Story, by Paul Thompson
The Numbers racket has been widespread on New Providence for many decades. In my day, Bahamians bought numbers from street vendors, or in bars and petty shops over-the-hill. Some number sellers visited offices, shops and other businesses to provide custom service.
Buyers would choose a number (often based on their dreams) and the vendor would give him a piece of paper with his number on it. The seller would record the name of the buyer in a notebook for reference when the draw was made. This differed from the present-day operations, in which the numbers are drawn outside of The Bahamas, usually in the United States, and all of the administrative work is done by computers.
Back then, the Numbers houses held the draws locally - except for the Cuban lottery, which was drawn in Havana every Saturday and broadcast over Cuban radio stations. There were three main Numbers houses on New Providence operated by very wealthy men - Talbot Thompson, Percy Munnings and Eugene Toote.
Apart from their Numbers houses, Thompson and Munnings were known to be involved in heavy personal gambling, often winning or losing small fortunes in a single night. In later years, Father Allen, a well-known restaurant owner, established a fourth Numbers house. All of these men are now dead.
Thompson owned several businesses and a lot of real estate on New Providence. His main business was the infamous Corona Club on Bay Street, just west of Deveaux Street. This building housed a nightclub, restaurant and bar, as well as a station to buy numbers and a place where the winning numbers were drawn. The bar was frequented by prostitutes and when warships were visiting the port of Nassau, servicemen would flock to the Corona in search of entertainment. In those years, the police rarely entered the premises.
Percy Munnings was more low-key. He too owned a lot of real estate as well as two liquor stores and a club on Wulff Road where the numbers were drawn and where the night gambling occurred. But he was a quiet and well-mannered man who did little to attract attention to himself. He made large donations to sporting activities, especially cricket, which he loved to play and watch.
For years Munnings would take a Bahamian cricket team to compete in Jamaica. Eventually, he discontinued these trips to give full support to the Wanderers Cricket Club on its tours to Canada, the United States, the West Indies and England. He was also a president of the Bahamas Cricket Association.
Gene Toote was also flamboyant, although he could not compare to Thompson. Toote was loud, had a great sense of humour, and was a good family man, but he was not in the habit of donating his money to anything. Father Alien, like Munnings, was a quiet character. Most of the time he worked in his own chicken shack on Wulff Road or at his bar on East Street.
I recall when Munnings had a disastrous Saturday. The Cuban draw took place much earlier than usual and punters in Nassau, who had heard the broadcast on Cuban radio, were able to buy the winning number before sales were closed. Percy lost quite a sum of money on that day.
The drawings involved placing numbered balls or marbles into a paper bag, which was shaken, thrown into the air, and caught. The catcher would hold one of the balls in the bag, which would be tied, and the others released from the bag.The tied ball was the winner. There were rumours that the Numbers houses often removed heavily sold numbers from the bag before it was thrown, but these stories were never connected to Munnings or Thompson, who were both considered trusted operators.
In the 1950s, CID was looking for a burglary suspect nicknamed Bull-Lizard, and I received information from a local prostitute that he frequented the Corona Club in the early afternoons, so I paid the club a visit for the first time. While there I observed persons buying numbers, and detained two women along with the bar tender, who had sold the numbers. I confiscated the receipts and called CID from a telephone in the bar.
Detective Inspector B. J. Nottage (father of the present National Security Minister) arrived promptly with detectives Courtney Strachan, Reginald Dumont and Leonard Taylor. We searched the premises using a rapidly acquired warrant and seized a lot of Numbers paraphernalia. Thompson and two employees were prosecuted for breaches of the gaming law. They pleaded guilty and paid their fines.
After this, Wenzel Grainger, a highly respected senior officer, was chosen to form a special team of police to address the Numbers racket. In the ensuing weeks, several arrests were made, mostly of vendors for Thompson’s operation. We were not picking on Thompson, it was just that his vendors tended to be less discreet than others.
Eventually, it was decided to go after Thompson himself. We observed his bag man collecting money from vendors, which he would take to Thompson’s Mackey Street residence in the evenings. We planned to arrest junior (as the bag man was known) when he arrived with the money, and then execute a search warrant on Thompson’s home. But what actually transpired was a nightmare.
Courtney Strachan was the sergeant in charge of a squad of detectives armed with the search warrant. The remainder of the squad consisted of Sergeants Fletcher Johnson, Lawrence Major and myself. Grainger and his team had worked on the investigation of Thompson in strict secrecy. Grainger apparently had a premonition of danger and so had authorised Strachan to carry a firearm - a loaded .38 revolver with six spare rounds.
On the night of the raid, Junior arrived at the scene with a bag containing records of the number sales from various outlets. We arrested him on the street outside Thompson's two-storey home, but the commotion alerted his boss, who tried to get away. We chased Thompson into his garage, with Strachan holding Junior at the back of his trousers to restrain him, me walking alongside Strachan, and Johnson and Major following.
At the rear of the garage was a room with an open door. As we entered the garage I saw Thompson walking towards us from the room with one hand behind his back. He stopped about six feet away and shot Junior, who fell to the floor dead. Then Thompson took aim at a stunned Sergeant Strachan and pulled the trigger - but the gun misfired. I shouted “shoot, shoot” as we rushed for cover, and Strachan fired into the air. Thompson retreated to the room at the back of the garage and began shooting at us. The gunfire soon attracted a large crowd on Mackey Street.
Eventually, a squad from the Internal Security Division arrived in the Riot Squad vehicle. They were well-armed, but for some reason remained on the opposite side of Mackey Street and did not enter Thompson’s yard, where the action was taking place. Strachan ran over to them and I could hear him shouting at the ISD officers. He then returned to our position just outside the garage door, where we were still under fire.
Suddenly, we were joined by Superintendent Hamish Dougan, an English officer attached to the Criminal Investigation Department, who had arrived on the scene by accident on his way home. Dougan was a combat veteran, having served in the Royal Marines. He was quickly briefed and we pointed out the dead bag man lying at the garage entrance. Dougan sent Lawrence Major to get a tear gas gun and two canisters of gas. He also asked for a loud hailer.
Dougan fired a can of tear gas into the room where Thompson was holed up. When it exploded, Thompson began shouting to his wife that the police were out to kill him. Using the loud hailer, Dougan ordered Thompson to drop his weapons and come out with his hands up. He repeated this instruction three times but the only response from Thompson was “they come to kill me”.
So Dougan fired the second cannister of gas into the room and Thompson rushed out with a gun in each hand and hid behind a pillar in the garage. Dougan warned him to drop the weapons and, when he hesitated, fired three shots from his revolver, which ricocheted off the pillar near Thompson, who then emerged with his hands up, but still clutching the weapons. After some hesitation, he dropped the guns and we were able to handcuff him.
Playing to the crowd, Thompson began shouting that the police had shot poor Junior down like a dog. The body was taken to the morgue, while we escorted Thompson to CID, where an intense investigation was launched.
Junior’s bag contained cash and records of number sales. The room in the garage contained more records and other numbers paraphernalia. A revolver that had recently been fired was also found in the room. Another gun was found on the floor of the garage, and over 40 rounds of spent ammunition were collected from the scene, as well as the bullet from Junior’s body.
Thompson was charged with murder and remanded into custody, but we knew he would argue that we had killed Junior. This was also the story circulating on the streets.
The revolvers used by Strachan and Dougan were secured, along with all bullets and shell casings which were properly tagged. We contacted the Jamaican police for assistance because at that time we did not have the kind of relationship with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and other American law enforcement agencies that we enjoy today.
I was chosen to take all of the firearms evidence to Jamaica, where I met a forensic pathologist named Ellington, who took several days to complete his work. His report identified the bullets and casings found on the scene that were fired from the various guns. Most importantly, he identified the bullet taken from Junior’s body as having come from one of the guns used by Thompson.
At the preliminary inquiry, Thompson was represented by two top lawyers - Eugene Dupuch and Gerald Cash, but the prosecution's evidence was presented with very little cross-examination by either of them. At the trial in the Supreme Court, I was called to testify early so that the exhibits, which were crucial evidence, could be presented and marked.
Cross-examination focused mainly on the identification of the exhibits - firearms, bullets and casings. Knowing the ability of Eugene Dupuch, all detectives were well prepared, with pocket-book notes documenting times and stages of the incident. The questioning was intense as Dupuch and Cash tried to poke holes in the evidence, but there were none to be found. I had the distinct privilege of listening to Dr. Ellington when he gave evidence.
He spoke of the test bullets from the police guns and Thompson's guns, and pointed out to the jury the striations that were similar to the striations on the bullets collected at the crime scene. He showed photographs of the area at the rear of bullets that are hit by the striking pin when guns are fired, and demonstrated the similarities between test bullets taken from the guns delivered to him.
The most critical evidence was the fact that the bullet taken from Junior's body had come from Thompson's gun, which he identified. Cross-examination by Dupuch followed, with the attorney trying to discredit Ellington, who was a criminologist, chemist, firearms examiner and pathologist with years of experience. Eventually, Dupuch read a paragraph from a book on firearms examination that supported his arguments. But Ellington was able to recite two of the next paragraphs in the book and the attorney took his seat.
The "police shoot poor Junior down like a dog" defence was torn to shreds by this noted expert from Jamaica, and the jury returned in no time with a manslaughter verdict. There was always the possibility that the fatal bullet had been intended for Sergeant Strachan, and the jurors may have taken that into consideration.
In the end, Thompson, after an eloquent mercy plea from Gerald Cash, received only a light sentence of imprisonment.