*Can it all be simple? Apparently not for two American brothers who found their simple life overseas transformed into life behind bars for a crime they say they did not commit
Blavity reports Ronell and Roja-John “John” Stephenson got way more than they bargained for when they were arrested for killing two boys from an indigenous family in 2017. The crime resulted in a sentence of 34 years and eight months for John and Ronell, despite being busted without evidence for possession of guns, drug trafficking and murder.
In a two-part interview, titled “Americans Seek Justice In Ecuador Prison,” posted in June on the You Tube channel dcbornrob – Erasing Borders, John Stephenson retraced what led to their current situation, which started as an attempt to live a simple life without complications after falling in love with Ecuador while participating in a 2012 exchange program. At the time, John was living in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, as a student of Washington and Jefferson College. Two years after graduating from the school, John moved back to Ecuador with this dad.
“I fell in love with what I saw here. I love the natural, organic life and it inspired me to move back here,” John told dcbornrob.
Starting fresh in Ecuador with his brother, John purchased a farm in Palora, Ecuador in June 2013. The Stephenson brothers eventually fixed up their new surroundings, built several other homes and opened a small tourism resort.
Life was good for the brothers. That is until indigenous locals started reacting negatively to their presence.
John and Ronell revealed their arrest came at approximately 5 am when police arrived at their farm on March 11, 2017. Ecuadorian authorities claim they were informed by locals that the pair had a cocaine plantation and were stashing American police weapons on the property. The Stephensons said this isn’t true. The indigenous family, who were at the scene with the police, uncovered two bodies after digging in the brothers’ backyard.
Looking back, John believes the indigenous locals were upset with how quickly he and Ronell made progress on what indigenous communities call sacred and spiritual land. For Ronell, the fact that it was just he and John living together made them targets, as the indigenous people from that community showed their strength in numbers.
“It’s a community of 100 that came against myself and my brother,” Ronell said, adding that he and John have since learned that most Americans in Ecuador only purchase property in the inner cities because of a legitimate fear of being dangerously targeted by Indigenous locals anywhere else in the country.
Disputing the murder charges and the locals’ reason for calling the police, the Stephenson brothers said the accusations aren’t true and it was the indigenous family that likely planted the bodies of the murdered boys and used false claims of drug distribution and firearms as a cover-up to get onto their farm. John claimed the victims’ father later revealed in court he was already aware of the bodies on the property.
John went on to tell Blavity how the indigenous family arrived on their property with shovels hours before the authorities, as if they already knew where to dig. John noted how the family “overpowered the police presence” as they were served the search warrant alongside the police, which the brothers said is illegal.
“Why did the victim’s family know that a warrant was being served and at what time the warrant was being served?” Ronell questioned.
As John and Ronell were taken away, John remembered the Indigenous family remaining at the crime scene, adding that cops allowed one of the family members to punch him and Ronell. After their arrest, the brothers were subjected to a yearlong legal process before they were sentenced in January 2018.
Evidence that would have proved their innocence, including camera footage and receipts, was never looked into, Ronell told Blavity.
“It actually became detrimental to us in court because the prosecutor sent an investigator three months after [the arrest] and the investigator then says, ‘Oh, we don’t know for sure [the Stephensons] went there because there’s no receipts and there’s no video footage.”
“We need forensics,” Ronell said. “If we only had forensics, we’d be out of here tomorrow.”
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As the Stephensons struggled with their prison time, the reality is their story has not gained much traction in U.S. media. According to John, the U.S. government has done little to protect them in prison.
“The only thing [the U.S. government] offered to do for us, they said they could give us a list of lawyers that they recommend,” he told dcbornrob – Erasing Borders. That list the brothers received contained the names of primarily retired and civil attorneys. Since then, the government has only contacted Ronell and John every six months, as communication has been limited to video chat since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It feels like the government just wants to step back; they don’t want to touch it,” John said.
The effort has been just as limited in Ecuador, with Ronell admitting that no one is speaking on their behalf. The country cites corruption as its excuse for not furthering their case in a timely manner, despite its constitution being mirrored after that of the U.S, Ronell stated.
“In our case, it’s only the victim’s family that is speaking [to the news]. No, no one from the legal end to verify what took place on our farm,” he said.
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Lawyers for the duo were no help at all either, as they were too afraid of the Indigenous family to speak up, John and Ronell mentioned. According to John, lawyers never performed a cross examination, nor did they give objections or rebuttals to the prosecutor in court, for fear of retaliation.
“We were told the whole time to be quiet, don’t speak, that this will blow over and everyone knows what’s going on,” John said.
After several years of trying to become bilingual, the brothers are now able to speak two languages and can effectively communicate in Spanish with their attorneys as they currently work together to get an appeal.
Taking matters into their own hands to increase awareness of their case, John and Ronell created an Instagram account in June that details the brothers’ arrest and the events that occurred before it. As it stands now, The Instagram account has roughly 2,600 followers.
In addition to social media, the brothers called on the public to contact Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen as well as Rep. David Trone to request a fair trial for the brothers. The politicians, as well as the head of mission at the Ecuadorian Embassy in Washington D.C., have been unresponsive.
All in all, the Stephensons just want their freedom, the ones who actually murdered the boys to be found and reparations for the property they lost.