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Bank Heist Rocks Montserrat

May 21, 1998

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Montserratians, already bedeviled by an angry volcano that has devastated their island, now find that the money in their pockets may be worthless.

Angry islanders and sheepish officials were struggling Wednesday to piece together the story of a bizarre bank heist dating back to the calamitous 1995 eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano, which led to the evacuation of the capital Plymouth a year later.

The Eastern Caribbean Central Bank said this week that during the evacuation nearly a million Eastern Caribbean dollars, worth about $300,000, were left in a bank vault made of 20-inch reinforced concrete.

This week, police arrested a veteran worker of Barclays Bank and seven alleged accomplices and charged them with burglary in connection with the missing money.

The Eastern Caribbean Central Bank then shocked islanders by announcing that any cash traceable to the vault was not legal tender and providing serial numbers of the bad bills.

Officials said they did not know exactly when the money was stolen or the precise amount in circulation _ only that a lot of it was floating around.

Apparently, it has been used in hundreds of legitimate institutions including banks and supermarkets not only in Montserrat but also in the several British and former British islands that use the Eastern Caribbean dollar.

On St. Kitts and Nevis Wednesday, some merchants refused to accept any money bearing serial numbers ending with an ``M,″ for Montserrat. Others refused to accept any Eastern Caribbean notes at all, asking for checks, money orders or U.S. currency.

In Montserrat, where a mass exodus in the recent years of volcanic activity has reduced the population from 12,000 to 3,500, business was reported to be slow as a result of the confusion.

``One gentleman got his paycheck last Friday and cashed it at a bank, only to discover on Monday that all of it was stolen money. And the bank is refusing to take the money back,″ said Montserrat government spokesman Herman Sergeant.

Sergeant admitted that there was no answer yet to the question on the minds of many islanders: Why was the money never recovered by authorities, even though access to Plymouth has been permitted during periods of low volcanic activity?

``We find it strange that that money was left lying in the evacuated area for so long,″ conceded Rupert Weekes, acting chief minister of Montserrat, which is a British colony.

The unanswered questions fueled rumors of official complicity, and two officers from the British-ruled Cayman Islands flew to Montserrat Wednesday to assist in an internal police investigation.

Weekes said he was urging Eastern Caribbean Central Bank Governor K. Dwight Venner to reimburse people who innocently acquired bad bills.

``It has to have an adverse effect on the economy, especially the poor and those who came into possession of the money legally,″ he said.

But Venner was making no such promises. In a statement issued Wednesday from the bank’s office on St. Kitts island, he asserted that the stolen money was jointly owned by the central bank and Barclays Bank.

Barclays Bank _ which moved its Montserrat operations and some Montserratian employees to the nearby island of Antigua last year _ had no comment.

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