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April 01, 2004


'I want to know who really killed Kirsty'

By Elizabeth Mistry

Kirsty MacColl was killed by a speedboat while diving off México. The boat's driver was fined £61. Her mother is dubious about the conviction and has launched her own investigation

THE SUN was starting to set when Jean Newlove dropped the wreath gently into the sea at the place where her daughter Kirsty died. After a few moments, the ribbon bearing the phrase “Goodbye to an angel” unfurled and streamed out like a banner, and the riot of lilies and bird of paradise flowers bobbed on the surface.
Unable to lift her gaze from the wreath, Jean seemed to crumple. She gripped the side of the small boat and, for the first time since arriving on the Méxican island of Cozumel, let out a sob of anguish: “Kirsty, why did you have to die?” It is the cry of every bereaved parent, but there really are many unanswered questions surrounding the death of Kirsty MacColl, the award-winning singer and songwriter, on December 18, 2000. Kirsty was 41 when she was killed by the propeller of a speedboat as she dived with her two teenage sons off Cozumel. Afterwards, a 26-year-old boathand named Juan José Cen Yam told authorities that he had been driving, and last year he was found guilty of “culpable homicide”. He was sentenced to two years and ten months in prison, but was allowed to pay a £61 fine and go free.

But was Cen Yam, who can barely tell left from right, and who claims not to know what a knot is, really driving the boat? Jean Newlove doubts the official version of events, and despite failing eyesight and advanced years (she is 81), had come to Cozumel in search of the truth.

Unravelling the mystery of her daughter’s death was to be deeply distressing. “I heard for the first time in detail how Kirsty died, and it was much worse than I thought,” Jean said.

So traumatic was it for Iván Diaz, the 49-year-old instructor who oversaw Kirsty’s last dive, that he has given up his livelihood. He was an experienced divemaster, and Papa Hog’s, the dive shop he worked from, was recommended to Kirsty as an outfit that she could trust.

Kirsty was an experienced diver who had explored the reefs of Cozumel twice before. But she wanted to introduce her sons Jamie, 15, and Louis, 14, to the local reefs.

At lunchtime on December 18 they headed to the Chankanaab reef, which forms part of the National Marine Park of Cozumel and is one of the most popular dive sites off the Yucatán Peninsula. Kirsty and her sons, guided by Diaz, spent half an hour marvelling at a huge lobster, a massive eel and scores of fish and corals.

Diaz remembers what happened next in horrifying detail. “We had just come up to the surface and I was facing away from our support boat, the Scuba Shack. We were pretty close together, no more than a couple of metres apart. I turned round to signal to Manuel, our captain, and I saw this other boat coming right at us.”

The Percalito was only 400 yards away and, according to Diaz, was travelling at about 20 knots. It should have been able to swerve, but there seemed to be no one watching out. “It was going so quickly, I thought, ‘Oh my God, these guys are not going to change direction’. I called to Kirsty, ‘Look out!’ and tried to signal to this other boat, but it was going too quick.” Both the Scuba Shack and another dive boat, the Nazareno, tried to cut in front of the Percalito but it was going too fast. As the speedboat bore down on them, all Kirsty and Diaz could do was to try to protect her sons. “She pushed one of the boys out of the way and I grabbed the other one. Then it was on top of us.”

Diaz heard a clang, which was the sound of the propeller hitting Kirsty’s dive tank. She died almost immediately — post-mortem reports would reveal that her chest and leg were virtually severed. Both Diaz and Jamie were also hit, but not seriously injured. Surfacing, Diaz looked round and saw Kirsty floating face down.

It was Kirsty’s boyfriend, James, who had to break the news to her mother. “He called and said, ‘Jean, there’s been an accident and Kirsty’s dead’,” she recalls. Her son Hamish, Kirsty’s older brother, had a heart attack when he heard the news. Jean herself had to face not only her daughter’s death but the knowledge that her grandsons had almost died too.

After giving statements to the police, the boys returned to England with their father, the music producer Steve Lilywhite, who had flown from the US to be with them (he and Kirsty had divorced in 1995).

When her grandsons returned, Jean recalls one of them saying: “Granny, I’ll tell you all about it but only if you want me to.” Thus she began, slowly, to piece together what had happened that day. In time she learnt that not only was the boat that killed Kirsty speeding illegally, but that it wasn’t even supposed to be in the waters immediately around the reef. It was also true, however, that the divemaster had failed to put out a marker buoy and that although the dive boat was flaying a flag, it was not one that conformed to international regulations.

Then it transpired that the Percalito, a £127,000 Guernsey-registered craft, belonged to the Méxican businessman Guillermo González Nova, chairman of Comercial Méxicana, one of the country’s largest supermarket groups. Gonzalez Nova is a member of a wealthy, well-connected clan from México City with long-standing links to the island.

González Nova values his privacy and, unlike many of México’s elite, rarely appears in the gossip columns or social pages. Believed to be in his late sixties or early seventies, he owns the Méxican franchise of the warehouse chain Costco, as well as a stud farm.

Nova, Jean discovered, was on board the Percalito the afternoon that Kirsty died, along with two of his three sons, Luis Guillermo and Gustavo, Gustavo’s wife Norma and their 11-month-old daughter Isabel.

Cen Yam was also on the boat and would later tell Méxican authorities that he had been driving that afternoon but that his vision had been obscured by a sunbather who was lying against the windshield.

If Cen Yam was driving, he shouldn’t have been. He had undertaken some basic maritime training but had not attended a recognised course and his seaworthiness certificate, a mandatory requirement, had expired. In his statement to the Méxican authorities, he said that he often “confused his left with his right”.

The only person on board that day who was licensed to drive the Percalito — top speed 30 knots — was González Nova himself.

“I do not believe Cen Yam was driving the boat,” says Newlove. “I hold Mr González Nova responsible for my daughter’s death. I think someone else was driving. González Nova is a businessman. He must have known what Cen Yam was like — he’d worked for him for some time, apparently. I don’t believe that he would have entrusted such a powerful machine to a man who couldn’t tell his left from his right. If he did, then I believe that he, as the only person licensed to drive, was responsible.”

So who was driving? Finding independent witnesses has proved a struggle for Jean’s legal team. Diaz says that he could not see who it was because the boat was heading towards them so quickly that the prow was raised out of the water: “But I don’t think it could have been Cen Yam because right afterwards I got a look at the Percalito and I saw him jumping from the back to the front.”

Jean’s theory is that one of González Nova’s sons may have been driving. “I think Mr Nova was trying to protect his family, like any parent would. But this was a fatal accident and he must come clean. I have never had an apology or any expression of regret from him or anyone else who was on the boat that day.”

González Nova declined to comment for this article but when I called at the family’s house in Cozumel last week, his youngest son — who was not on board that afternoon — dismissed suggestions that Cen Yam had not been driving the boat when it hit Kirsty’s party.

“My father is a good man, a great man. Just ask anyone around here,” said Genaro González Fernández. “It was just an accident. All they want is money. Some people are sick.”

It is not only Nova’s family who seem to assume that Jean Newlove is after money. The locals seem to harbour that suspicion, too. “In Cozumel people were a bit unsure of us at first,” says Jean. “A lot of people thought that I just want to ask for money — but money isn’t going to bring my daughter back.”

Along with scepticism about Jean’s motives, there also seemed to be a reluctance to talk.

What surprises most local people is not that there may — perhaps — have been a cover-up, but that Jean Newlove is so persistent. Few in Cozumel believe that she can successfully challenge the Méxican justice system, but she remains undaunted. Last week she took the almost unprecedented step of filing a request that a new case be opened. “They were very surprised,” she says. “They didn’t want to accept the papers at first and tried to throw us out.”

Her move has certainly drawn the attention of the authorities in México City. “They didn’t think a little old lady would cause them so much trouble. Well, they were unlucky that it was Kirsty who was killed and especially unlucky that I am her mother and I don’t give up.”

After three years of polite brush-offs, Jean and her team suddenly found themselves meeting senior figures, including ministers in the Méxican Foreign Office and Tourism Ministry.

“I asked if they could arrange a meeting with Mr González Nova, but he seems to be avoiding me,” she says wryly. “But I will not allow him to continue to do so.”

Back in England she is concentrating on the next stage of the campaign — organising a benefit concert to raise funds to pay for the lawyer’s fees and the cost of the trip.

She refuses to believe that her departure will see the investigation into her daughter’s death put on the backburner, although in recent months Méxican authorities have promised to resolve several high-profile cases, including the murders of scores of women in the border town of Ciudad Juarez and the assassination of the leading human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa.

Jean Newlove’s campaign is not only about justice but about ensuring that no one else endures the misery inflicted on her family. “My daughter died in the most dreadful way, in front of my grandchildren, and this accident was avoidable. But I don’t believe the authorities have taken it seriously. Even as we sailed out to the reef where Kirsty died I could see boats zipping in and out of diving zones and ignoring speed limits. It seems to me that not only are rules regarding the safety of divers routinely ignored in Cozumel but that in México, if you are rich and powerful, you are above the law.”

A documentary about Jean’s fight for justice will be shown on BBC Four later this year.

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