Fort Lauderdale resident Stephen Zebrowski, Sr. died in excruciating pain in a Jamaican jail cell. He was 47 years old. How he became imprisoned and what his family is doing about his untimely death create one of those strange and mysterious tales that seem to flourish in the South Floridasun.
"I have dreams of my father where I'm saying, 'What happened? What happened?'" says 24-year-old Keisha Zebrowski, tears in her eyes. "He says, 'They beat me up. My head hurts, my headhurts.'"
The Zebrowskis believe Jamaican authorities killed Stephen Sr., then stole his internal organs to cover up their misdeeds before shipping the body back to America. In a sweeping attempt at justice, they're suing almost everyone of importance in that country, from the head of the Ministry of National Security to the prime minister himself. The trouble is, the family has to launch its legal salvos from prison.
In the early '90s, the Zebrowskis were running a sizable cocaine operation, buying drugs in South Florida and moving them up the East Coast to New Jersey in stolen cars. Brother Ronald, now 28 years old, was the kingpin of the operation. Family members David, age 25; Stephen Jr., age 27; Keisha; and Stephen Sr. were also involved, though the last two were minor players. Stephen Sr., a retired truck driver, made a living buying and reselling houses in Fort Lauderdale, says Keisha. "He was a good provider," she says. "The family never went without."
Local and federal police had been tracking the ring since 1994. In April1996 a Virginia State Trooper stopped Ronald on Interstate95 because the tint on his windows was too dark and found 3.5kilos of cocaine and $342,000 in cash in his car. Sealed federal indictments were later issued against 16 people active in the drug operation, including Zebrowski family members. Had Stephen Sr. lived to answer the indictment, he would have faced only a single traffickingcharge.
But before police could nab the others, David Zebrowski and two other men helped brother Ronald escape from custody during a visit to a dentist outside the jail. Accounts of the June1996 escapade state that David held a gun to a deputy's head while his brother escaped, but David denies using deadlyforce.
Ronald, David, and an accomplice named Orrandy Goodwyn forged immigration documents and boarded a plane in New York bound for Jamaica. The matriarch of the Zebrowski clan, Enid, is of Jamaican descent, and the brothers had relatives on the island. The fugitives stayed in a rented villa in Mandeville, where they were joined by Stephen Sr. and Keisha.
Working on a tip from U.S. DEA agents, Jamaican narcotics police arrested Ronald, Stephen Sr., Goodwyn, and David outside the villa August24, 1996. Jamaican officials asked Keisha to leave the country, and she was arrested in the U.S. when her plane landed in Baltimore. She served two and a half years in federal prison on conspiracy charges and is now in school studying accounting.
David says the arrest in Jamaica was the beginning of the end for his father, who died eight days later in a Kingston jail. "They murdered him and tried to cover it up," says David, speaking by phone from federal prison in South Carolina, where he's serving a 30-year sentence for his part in the drug operation. "I consider he was murdered."
In the years since his father's death, David has become a jailhouse lawyer. On July8 he filed a 150-page civil complaint in federal court in Fort Lauderdale against the Jamaican government, naming everyone from the police to the Jamaican doctor who autopsied his father to Prime Minister Percival Patterson. He's seeking almost $25million in damages, expenses, and compensation from the Jamaican government. "I won't get that much," he says. "But by asking for that amount, it will get their attention, force them to come tocourt."
He's a legal novice and he's going it alone -- the Zebrowskis say they can't afford a lawyer, and no one will take the case pro bono. But David thinks he has a shot. "I can't write or speak about the case too good, but if I can get it on paper, I know I can litigate it," hesays.
His suit stems from the assertion that Jamaican authorities knew his father was a diabetic yet refused him medicine or medical treatment. Documentation on the case from Jamaica is spotty -- no police report is available, and U.S. embassy officials say they don't keep records of their interactions with incarcerated Americans more than a year. The only thing available is a terse, heavily redacted DEA report that details the arrest but doesn't speak of Stephen Sr.'sdeath.
David's account of what happened, as outlined in his lawsuit, is unequivocal.
Stephen Sr. told police after he was arrested that his life was in danger if he didn't take his insulin, which he'd left back in his car at the villa. Police refused to retrieve the medicine, says David. Stephen and David were handcuffed together during the ride to the Kingston office of the Jamaican Constabulary Force Narcotics Division. When David refused to cooperate with police, he says they threw both him and his father to the ground and beat them with batons. They were taken to Halfway Tree jail in Kingston. The cells there were "filthy, smelly, infested with vermin and large insects," says David. They were also without running water, toilets, orlights.
Stephen was in severe pain from lack of insulin, says David. He repeatedly requested to see a doctor and was repeatedly denied. After an official from the U.S. embassy intervened, Stephen was allowed to see the prison physician, but the doctor accused him of faking his symptoms and sent him back to hiscell.
At the request of the DEA, a Jamaican judge declared the fugitives "persona non grata," essentially ending court proceedings in that country so they could be returned to the U.S. Stephen and Goodwyn asked to be deported immediately, but their request was denied. (David and Ronald hired a U.S. lawyer to fight extradition.) By August31, still in prison and without medicine or medical attention, Stephen was drifting in and out of consciousness and refused to eat or drink. He died the next day "in excruciating pain," according to David, who was in a nearby cell. He says his father was "choking on blood from his nose andmouth."
Enid Zebrowski traveled to Jamaica to investigate her husband's death and recover the body. She wanted Stephen Sr. returned to the U.S. for an autopsy, but a funeral home owner told her the body would have to be autopsied in Jamaica. Results of that autopsy were inconclusive.
The Jamaican government released Stephen's body ten days later. Enid had a second autopsy done by a forensic pathologist in New Jersey, who discovered that all of her husband's internal organs, including his brain, had been removed and kept in Jamaica. The body cavity was filled with shredded newspaper, and his skull was stuffed with "white dirty socks and other rags," the pathologist noted in his report. There was no visible evidence of trauma on the body, the report notes, and the lack of organs makes it impossible to determine a cause ofdeath.
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After more than two years of inquiries, the Zebrowskis received a report from the U.S. embassy that listed their father's cause of death as "arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease," or heart trouble. He had no prior history of such a problem.
Like his sister, David says he can't get his mind off his father's death. "A part of me died when my father died in that prison," he says. He's furious about the way his father's body was treated, and he wants answers about the cause of death. "I want the organs back, I want his brain back, I want to know why they put dirty socks in his head. What kind of a madman would dothat?"
Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address: