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MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Skyjacker’s Tale,’ A Film About Fountain Valley Mass Murderer Ishmael LaBeet of St. Croix

theskyjackerstale_01-h_2016

ISHMAEL LABEET: Ponders his future

HAVANA — Safe for now in Cuba, Ishmael Muslim Ali admits to hijacking an American Airlines flight in 1984.

But still denies committing the murders that led to that crime.

One might expect, in a film called The Skyjacker’s Tale, to hear a lot more detail of the crime than one gets from Jamie Kastner’s documentary about Ishmael LaBeet’s 1982 midair escape from US custody. Here, even the acquisition of the gun LaBeet (now named Ishmael Muslim Ali) used is a literal afterthought — only during the credits does he laughingly recall how he brought it on board himself, smuggled in his underwear, after having assembled it piece-by-piece in jail.

Is Ali joking about how he got the gun? Kastner doesn’t seem to care. Surprisingly, the film is equally lackadaisical about whether Ali was really one of those who killed eight people at a St. Croix golf course in 1972 (now called Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Beach Resort & Spa).

The only question it really cares about is whether Ali and his co-defendants were tortured by local cops before they made the confessions that put them in jail for the rest of their lives. (Until LaBeet took an unscheduled flight to Cuba, that is.) The question of decades-old torture is an important one, of course, but hardly makes this a must-see doc when there are so many present-tense stories of police misconduct to investigate.

We meet Ishmael in present-day Cuba, where he seems to enjoy a happy life with family. The doc begins by pitting scenes of his present happiness against interviews with passengers on the plane he hijacked, several of whom are clearly furious that he remains free. But after quickly sketching the event that got him to a Cuban tarmac, Kastner starts a fairly confused account of how he got in custody to begin with.

We get a primer on the territory’s race/class friction there, then hear of the 1972 massacre that was either a robbery gone wrong or a flare-up of class warfare. Then we’re back in Cuba, listening to stories of Ishmael’s childhood.

The movie keeps bouncing around in time and space for reasons that aren’t apparent, doing little to get us invested in the backstory to the event we’ve come to see discussed. It’s only an hour into the 75-minute film that we finally see Ishmael imprisoned (in American jails) for what he may or may not have done at that golf course — then hear of the habeas corpus plea that got him sent back to St. Croix and facilitated this skyjacking.

During the film’s midsection, Kastner collects conflicting accounts from many lawyers and policemen about how Ishmael and his codefendants were treated in police custody. Despite having no evidence, locals simply assumed LaBeet was one of the killers because he’d long been on the run for other crimes — “I stuck up so many motherf—ing tourists,” Ishmael recalls, framing his thefts as political acts — and there were clearly many problems with his prosecution. After giving a good deal of screen time to Legrand Lee, a white Virgin Islands cop who helped catch LaBeet, Kastner eventually shows his repulsively “clever” acknowledgement that he helped torture the suspects.

Viewers are left wondering if that abuse alone is supposed to put us on Ishmael Muslim Ali’s side, to make us not care whether he helped kill those people. Though Kastner gives us plenty of reasons to lament how mainland wealth and corporate interests were exploiting locals in the Virgin Islands, he certainly doesn’t convince us that murdering golfers (to say nothing of the golf club’s employees) was a justified response.

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The Author

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy is primarily known for his investigative reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands. A series of reports beginning in the 1990's revealed that there was everything from coliform bacteria to Cryptosporidium in locally-bottled St. Croix drinking water, according to a then-unpublished University of the Virgin Islands sampling. Another report, following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, cited a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confidential overview that said that over 40 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands public lives below the poverty line. The Virgin Islands Free Press is the only Caribbean news source to regularly incorporate the findings of U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is the former news director of WSVI-TV Channel 8 on St. Croix.

2 Comments

  1. Deborah
    March 2, 2017 at 9:01 PM — Reply

    There was only one passenger on that plane that actually had contact with Mr. LaBeet. Only one passenger who saw Mr. LaBeet exit the bathroom, moments before he disarmed the Officers.

  2. Katrina
    October 30, 2017 at 6:19 PM — Reply

    Hello Mr. McCarthy, please remember there was only one employee killed, and the other seven were white tourists. I am not condoning what was done at Fountain Valley by no means. However, if you wish to report on what happened that day, please give your readers the facts. They will appreciate it, and you will retain your credibility.

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