The investigation into the killing of a British woman in the Turks and Caicos Islands will be given fresh attention thanks to the deployment of 24 UK government-funded detectives.
The move comes after a rise in violent crime in the self-governing territory owing to warring transnational drug gangs with military-grade automatic weapons.
Denise Buck, 60, from Pulborough, West Sussex, was bludgeoned to death during an unrelated home invasion on Grand Turk in January. To date her killer has not been found.
It was the first of 35 homicides committed in the territory so far this year – a number unheard of before in the upmarket holiday destination with a population of just 45,000.
Denise’s sister Lesley Campbell said on Wednesday that the 11-month investigation had been slow and inconsistent.
She spoke of her battle for answers from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and police, and said it felt as if she was fighting for justice “largely alone”.
She said: “They’ve been absolutely deluged with this crime wave and they really don’t have the staff, the police or the systems to deal with it.”
The Turks and Caicos governor, Nigel Dakin, said the killing of Denise Buck was “genuinely tragic” and UK detectives were prioritising the investigation.
“I’ve been in touch with Lesley, her sister, and I’m pleased she’s championing us getting a resolution around her sister’s death. We all want this murder resolved.”
In 2007, Buck moved from the UK to the north Caribbean archipelago, which is known for its award-winning beaches and hotels, in what her sister described as a “romantic escape”.
With about 4,500 people, the capital island Grand Turk is home to a “small, tight-knit community”, Campbell said, and her “open, friendly, kind-hearted” sister had made many friends.
She initially managed a small resort before moving on to run a beachfront bar and dive centre, but during the pandemic the business closed and Buck was left without work.
Just weeks before her death, the owners sold the business and gave Buck $4,040 (£3,300) in cash as severance pay, which she took back to her one-bedroom house on The Ridge.
On 3 January at 1.07am the Providenciales police emergency centre received a 911 call from Buck in which she said there was an intruder trying to break into her home.
Less than 20 minutes later, according to police records that Campbell was shown, they received a second call on Buck’s phone from a man saying he had committed a murder.
On arrival at the scene, officers found Buck dead in her bedroom with blunt force trauma to her head. The money was still in the drawer where she had put it.
Campbell was devastated at the news of her sister’s death and immediately began seeking answers.
After some correspondence with the FCDO, she was referred to the Royal TCI police force, which, the office explained, was leading the criminal investigation.
Soon conversations with members of the force and the local community led her to believe the service was lacking resources and “basic investigations” were not being carried out.
The 911 call recorder had been broken for several years and there was no recording of the emergency calls from Buck or the suspected murderer, she said.
Campbell also discovered that in the weeks after the death police had not interviewed her sister’s neighbours, and checked neither her phone records nor her bank statement.
Repeatedly failing to pin down elusive officials in the police force and FCDO, Campbell said the past 11 months had felt as if she was “fighting the whole system”.
“If I hadn’t pushed, made a nuisance of myself or just accepted the ‘nothing’ that was happening … nobody who should care would have done anything about it,” she said.
According to a House of Commons Library report on TCI’s crime wave published on Friday, the UK government is “ultimately responsible for the good governance, safety and defence of the territories”.
The paper added: “The territory’s constitution also reserves to the UK-appointed governor powers over a range of issues, including defence, internal security and the police.”
However, Dakin told the Guardian that as governor he could make a request for UK assistance only on recommendation of the police commissioner and in emergencies.
“What TCI police faced this year would have been the equivalent of the Metropolitan police having over 5,000 gun and gang related murders committed in one year in their force area.
“No UK domestic police force could manage that upswing; that’s why we’ve got this significant UK police detective support.”
In the House of Commons on Wednesday, a written question from Andrew Rosindell MP asked what assessment has been made on the recent significant crime increase in the TCI.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, minister of state in the FCDO, said: “The UK is committed to the security of the TCI and is supporting their response to the recent increase in serious crime.”
She described a package of support including the deployment of a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship and the National Crime Agency as well as specialist officers and the UK-funded crime team.
During the 2020-2021 financial year, the TCI government spent $25m, or 9% of its total $264m expenditure, on the police force. This increased to $28m in 2021-2022.
The governor said this funding had been provided “really willingly” by the islands’ government.
“Local funding of the police force has increased year on year over the last three years – including during the pandemic – even as our economy came under immense pressure.”
The territory’s police commissioner, Trevor Botting, who has held the post since 2019, said he was glad to receive financial support to enhance “operational capability and capacity”.
UK government funding allowed for the deployment of 24 “specialist, experienced and well-trained” detectives to the TCI to support the investigations team, he said.
The TCI government funding provided for a team from the Royal Bahamas police to support the tactical unit and the purchase of two armoured vehicles and other equipment. Botting said: “This matter remains an active and live investigation so I cannot comment in any detail regarding the investigation.”
However, he revealed that a reward for information was being considered as part of an anniversary appeal.
Campbell, who visited Grand Turk to spread her sister’s ashes in November, said despite the past difficulties she continued to have hope that the murderer could be found.