September 2000. More than 20 years have passed since that date. But Ryan Cave’s memories of his first few days at North Eastern College in Sangre Grande remain as fresh as ever.
At 15 years old, and just like he is now, Cave was perceptive and outgoing–a people’s person.
Within the first week or so, he recalled striking up a conversation with a classmate. The boy seemed shyer than the others.
"He was not much for words. I recall him saying, a couple of times, that he was hungry, but at age 15, I mean how much compassion you could have when you hear something like that? It’s only now I can look back at these things and see how they may have come into play," Cave said.
As the weeks went by, however, the classmate started associating more with older students with reputations as troublemakers.
Just how far his association with trouble would go wasn’t clear then.
It is now.
Cave’s classmate’s name was Joel Balcon–the man believed to be the mastermind in the kidnapping and murder of Andrea Bharatt, and who died while in police custody.
Balcon, also known as Devon Charles, Joel Diaz and Joel Ottley, who was facing up to 70 charges, was known to the police as a sexual, drug, firearms, robbery and larceny offender, said to be responsible for raping several women who have come forward after his death to relate their ordeals.
Cave said, "I didn’t go to school with a monster. This was a young man who would laugh and play and old talk, just like everybody else."
He related to Guardian Media, "My story begins in September of the year 2000. I entered the gates of North Eastern College shy and uncertain of what lies ahead. Making new friends is often the path to social comfort and belonging. I would often sit and chat with a classmate. He often seemed shy and uncertain himself. It would take a few months for me to become aware of how troubled he was.
"He often spoke of coming to school having not eaten any breakfast, never having any spending money. It would not be long before he gravitated towards the company of the older more wayward boys of the school. Skipping class, failing exams, smoking cigarettes behind the school all became the norm. Tried as much as she did, our from teacher could not reach him in a desperate attempt to derail the train he was on. The current education system was just not structured to address the intervention or rehabilitation of troubled, mislead youths.
"Eventually high school would end for some and the same system continued with another batch. Having left school without a proper education it's obvious the path my fellow classmate would continue. Poorly paid jobs, the wrong association, and lack of guidance all seemed to seal his faith with a run-in with the law. Almost 21 years later, as police uncover more of the remains of the victims spanning more than a decade, Joel Balcon now stands as probably the most infamous serial rapist and killer our country has ever know."
Cave expressed grief and sadness, not just for Bharatt, but for "all the victims who fell prey to predators" just like Balcon. "We all failed them. We used to live by the proverbial 'it takes a village to raise a chid', but those values have long deteriorated. It's time we all do our part to change a broken system that still exists today. A system where people like Joel can continue to develop and perpetuate deviant behaviour that is not addressed."
'His behaviour got increasingly worse over two years at the school'
Another classmate, Mariella Richardson (name changed to protect her identity) remembered Joel as more outgoing than Cave did.
She also remembered him as being mostly normal but mischievous.
"Skipping school, going out with the girls, getting caught. You know, doing things we considered, as teenagers, as mischievous or probably, as a teenager, something we considered to be so cool," she recalled.
"But looking back at it now, I can safely say, he may have had a conduct disorder," Richardson added.
According to Richardson, Balcon’s behaviour got increasingly worse over his two years at the school.
The suspensions started adding up, and so too did the letters sent from teachers to his parents.
Their headteacher did her best, but she lacked the necessary support systematically.
"He wasn’t the kind of student who when the teacher was talking to him, he would roll his eyes with disrespect all over them. He wasn’t that kind of person. He used to listen and hang down his head and acknowledge his mistakes. I saw Miss talk to him a few times and it almost brought tears to his eyes, but it never stuck," Cave said.
While it was unclear whether Balcon was involved in criminality at school, it became clear not long after they all left the Sangre Grande school.
Meanwhile, in the North Oropouche Road community where he lived as a young man, people in that area said growing up he was quiet and respectable. He later moved out and went to Duranta Gardens, close to the North Eastern Settlement area. Having fallen into bad company, he would return to North Oropouche Road from time to time when he fell out with relatives after police would come looking for him causing embarrassment.
A male relative had appealed for him to get help "since he had a weakness for young girls," a community member said, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.