Liberia: Family Seeks Closure, Survivors Yearn for Justice from Brutality of ex-soldier

Cole on the grounds of the Police headquarters following his arrest

.... Cole reportedly brutalized 27 men he suspected of being gay. He had earlier claimed this was a mission ordained by God to cleanse Liberia of its LGBT population. Survivors, during the Police investigation, recalled being robbed at his residence—tied with electric wires from elbow to elbow, drugged with narcotic substances, deathly beaten, placed over fire hearths to roast, burn, and later thrown out to wander late at night to meet a grim fate at the hands of community vigilantes who would often have them mistaken for criminals.

Gboko Stewart,

It has been two years since the disappearance of Dominic Renner and Winston Toe on September 24 and October 4, 2020. For Emmanuel Renner, father of Dominic Renner, September 24—the last day he saw his eldest son—continues to live in infamy.

“It’s kind of hard because things went bad when Dominic went missing,” he says. “We are looking up to God. His mom has been pressuring me–what am I doing? “The grandmother had been crying so much until she passed away–she had been crying that she couldn't see her son.

Renner, 41, is a laity from the Marist Brothers of the Roman Catholic Church who has been missing since September 24, 2020. According to family sources, he had returned from Marist College in Zambia and had been due to take up an assignment in Accra, Ghana. The Marist Brothers could not be reached for comment.

His disappearance has been linked to Cheeseman Cole. Cole, 41, is an ex-soldier of the Armed Forces of Liberia who was dishonorably discharged. Cole, according to a Police investigation, used social media to catfish men he suspected of being gay on Facebook.

Cole reportedly brutalized 27 men he suspected of being gay. He had earlier claimed this was a mission ordained by God to cleanse Liberia of its LGBT population. Survivors, during the Police investigation, recalled being robbed at his residence—tied with electric wires from elbow to elbow, drugged with narcotic substances, deathly beaten, placed over fire hearths to roast, burn, and later thrown out to wander late at night to meet a grim fate at the hands of community vigilantes who would often have them mistaken for criminals.

According to some of the survivors, the ex-soldier and his marauding gang would strip them naked and threaten to place their photos on Facebook if they reported to law enforcement. Gbada Flomo (name changed to protect his identity), a survivor of Cole’s alleged sadistic act during the Police investigation said he was catfished by Cole via Facebook.

“When he took me to his house, he offered me food to eat but I wasn’t hungry—I was just browsing on my phone and not paying attention because my office had just sent me a five-dollar scratch card,” he said to journalRAGE in an interview prior to the arrest of Cole in October 2020.

“Before I could imagine, a whole crowd was standing over me with knives, cutlasses, scissors, wires—all types of desperate instruments I met over me. One slap he [Cole] put in my ear, it made blood run down my ear,” he said tearfully. “The other one took the cutlass and knocked it on me and said ‘here is the motherfucker we been waiting for. I went off [fainted]. They stripped me naked—they took the new clothes I was wearing and all my valuables, including my passport.”

Dominic Renner and Winston Toe were also victims who were allegedly brutalized by Cole. They have not been seen since September 24 and October 4, 2020. Police investigation and corroboration by Cole’s accomplice, Emmanuel Tarpeh, established that Dominic Renner and Winston Toe were captives of the ex-soldier.

Tarpeh furthered that Dominic had an unspecified amount of cash that was taken away from him by Cole. And according to Dominic’s father, the amount—US$2,000—was meant to help Dominic settle into his new assignment.

“Investigation further established through defendant Emmanuel Tarpeh’s testimonies that defendant Cheeseman Cole interacting with victim Dominic Youconjah Garduah[Renner] and Wilson [Winston] Toe on separate date and time at the defendant’s residence during which time they were also tied, beaten, and their money, as well as their phones, were taken away from them on different dates and time which evidence can be seen on the call log requested for,” the Liberia National Police stated in its investigative report.

Tarpeh said he recalled seeing Dominic pleading with Cole to be set free following hours of torture while Winston was reportedly tied elbow to elbow with a stream of tears flowing down his face.

According to a police charge sheet in possession of journalRAGE and highly placed sources within Orange and Lonestar GSM companies, Dominic and Winston’s last calls were placed to Cole, and the GPS coordinates from the tower placed them within the vicinity of Cole’s residence.

However, Cole, during the Police investigation, denied carrying out acts of brutalization against the men suspected of being gay or seeing Dominic or Winston. The former military man was later charged with Aggravated Assault, Criminal Attempt to Commit Murder, Possession, and Sale of Physical Objects for Lethal Use, Felonious Restraint, and Theft of Property.

However, he was not charged with the disappearance of Dominic Renner and Winston Toe. The family of Winston could not be reached for comment. Following his arraignment at the Monrovia City Court, he was remanded at the Monrovia Central Prison for a period of two weeks and later granted bail.

Two years later, the case is yet to be prosecuted, drawing ire from Emmanuel Renner, father of Dominic, and other survivors. A journalRAGE investigation has found that the case did not cross the preliminary stage at the magisterial level of the Monrovia City Court.

For the father of Dominic whose vested interest was seeing the man linked to the disappearance of his son being prosecuted, the justice system is a failure.

“I am very much disappointed in the Police force and court,” said the older Renner who is also a former law enforcement officer.

LGBTQI+ persons continued to record instances of assaults, harassment, and hate speech by community members, according to the 2021 US State Department report.

On May 8, members of a community watch team allegedly beat three men on suspicion they were gay in the Gobachop community of Paynesville. According to two of the victims, the community watch members threatened the three men and assaulted them, rendering one of the men unconscious.

Recently, a student of the Trinity United Methodist School was expelled for crossdressing when a viral video on Facebook showed him in a playful but fiery exchange with a female street preacher who had sought to preach damnation upon him.

Liberian law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults. Articles 14.74, 14.79, and 50.7 [of the Penal Code of 1976] consider “voluntary sodomy” as a first-degree misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to one-year imprisonment. There has been no publicized case in recent years. But the gay community says harassment and discrimination are widespread.

Liberia’s LGBT community saw a glimmer of hope that they might make progress in achieving rights in 2012 when Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, announced that “gay rights are human rights” and aid would be tied to how countries treat sexual minorities.  

“…being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights,” Secretary Clinton said. 

That hope was soon dampened when President Sirleaf, in an interview with the Guardian, defended the current law which criminalizes homosexuality.  Then, Jewel Howard Taylor, former first lady, Senator, and current Vice-President,  introduced a bill to make homosexuality a first-degree felony. That bill did not pass. 

Sirleaf backpedaled on her earlier remarks in an interview alongside former Irish President Mary Robinson, saying, incorrectly, that there is no law that criminalizes homosexuality in Liberia. In 2013 Lofa County Lawmaker, Rep. Clarence Massaquoi, introduced a bill on the floor in the lower house of the Legislature to make same-sex practices criminal.

With the election of President Joe Biden who promised the protection of LGBT people worldwide, the Liberian gay community continues to remain hopeful. Liberia has not defined its stance on the protection of the rights of its LGBTQ population. President Weah has often maintained that his government is one that places a premium on human rights.

Attorney General, F. Musah Dean, during the launch of the UN SOGIE report in November 2020 at a private resort said the Liberian constitution guarantees protection for all. Liberia is amongst 33 countries on the continent that criminalizes same-sex relations, according to, Graeme Reid, Director of the Lesbian, Gay Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch.

In an article highlighting the progress and setbacks facing LGBT communities across Africa during the commemoration of 2022 Pride Month, Reid stated that many countries, including Liberia, have poor reputations when it comes to LGBT Rights.

“When it comes to the rights of sexual and gender minorities in Africa, the past year has been a mixed bag,” he wrote. “In the first half of 2021, instances of violence against LGBT people in Senegal were reported by rights groups there, while police in Kenya came under pressure to properly investigate the brutal murder of a non-binary lesbian in Karatina, north of Nairobi.”

Reid contrasted the grim reality facing LGBT communities across Africa with hopeful signs, pointing to countries such as Angola, Botswana, Gabon, and Cape Verde that have decriminalized same-sex sexual acts or are in the process of doing so.

“But legal opposition and challenges to these archaic laws are increasing, if not always successfully.”

Victims Cry for Justice

Two years following the disappearance of Cole, survivors of his alleged brutality are still yearning for justice. Albert Dahn, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, says he is disappointed in the country’s justice system.

“I feel the government only got interested in certain gay people,” Flomo said. “The way they treated the case of John Tubman was not how they treated us,” Flomo said. Tubman was the son of former Liberian President, William V.S. Tubman who was found murdered in his home. He was believed to be gay. His death sent shockwaves across the country, and in less than a year his murderer(s) were prosecuted.

Dahn’s displeasure is shared by fellow survivor, Jenkins Wright. Wright, 29, said he suffered a blackout due to the excruciating pain he experienced at the hands of Cole.

“From the way he treated us if God were not on my side, I don't think I would have been alive,” a tearful Wright said.

He said his ordeal at the hands of Cole left him in a mental sinkhole for a long period. “I had to move up country because I was very afraid. When I think of the things he did to us, I can be miserable.” For Renner whose son’s disappearance is also linked to the ex-soldier, it is frustrating and agonizing. He accused the Police of being bribed with money taken away for his son.

But the Ministry of Justice, responding to these allegations, said they have not been in the know of Cole’s case, according to Maude Somah, spokesperson of the Ministry. Neither Cole nor his lawyer could not be reached for comment.

The Liberia National Police, for its part, said the case of Renner and Toe has not been closed and the men cannot be declared dead in the absence of a body. But in February 2021, an anonymous source who bought land adjoining Cole’s discovered human skeletal remains near his property.

The video was shared with Police spokesman, H. Moses Carter. Days later when contacted by journalRAGE to inquire whether the Police acted on the tip and what the preliminary investigation revealed, the police spokesman said, “human bones are not evidential.”

LIPRIDE Condemns slow pace

The lackadaisical approach by the Ministry of Justice on the prosecution of Cheeseman Cole is not going down well with the human rights coalition Liberia’s Initiative for the Promotion of Rights Identity, Diversity and Equality (LIPRIDE). Responding to inquiries from journalRAGE, the coordinator of LIPRIDE, Maxwell W. Monboe, said it is disheartening to see that the government is failing to protect its citizens.

“We would say that justice is far from being served to members of the LGBTI community who were brutalized and missing to date,” he wrote in an email to journalRAGE. “We condemn this act, and we are calling on the Independent National Commission on  Human Rights, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, and all relevant authorities to step up because regardless of their perceived sexuality, they are humans and their rights need to be respected and protected.”

Monboe stated that it’s sad to note that the government partners only with LIPRIDE when it wants to paint a rosy picture. “The Government of Liberia is still far from accepting and protecting the rights of marginalized persons especially members of the LGBTI community.”

He added that he feels sad that the murder case of the former President’s son, John Tubman was given swift preference while others deemed not so important were left with shaking heads.

“Given the fact that the late John Tubman was a son of a former president, his case was given preference over those who are from the lower class. In short, the government has to do better with it comes to the protection of all. Marginalized people are also taxpayers who contribute immensely to the economic growth of this county, and also their votes are valid not just to elect, but also to take into consideration that those we elect will also protect us.

Catholic Church Lukewarm; Facebook

The Catholic Church, of which Renner served as a laity, has been reticent on the issue of its former flock. Church observers believe it is due to the issue of his sexual orientation, a matter that the church frowns on. The secretary general of the Catholic Bishop Conference of Liberia (CABICOL), Rev. Father Dennis Nimene, in a brief interview with journalRAGE said it is unfortunate that the younger Renner is missing.

“Every human life is important,” he said. “Life is sacred, no one has the right to take it away. It’s a sad situation when someone is missing they can’t find the person.”

The Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, the human rights arm of the church could not be reached for comment as its director, Rev. Fr. McDonald Nah, was reportedly out of the country. Facebook, the social media site that Cole allegedly used to lure his victims, when contacted, could not condemn the alleged acts carried out by the ex-soldier who reportedly used the social media website as a conduit.

In a statement emailed to journalRAGE, the company stated that it has made massive investments on the issue of safety and security by spending US$5 billion in 2021 alone and having 40,000 persons working on it.

“We regularly partner with experts to inform our approach to safety, and we have developed the LGBTQ+ Safety hub – a resource for anyone seeking support and help for issues specifically related to online safety for the LGBTQ+ community.”

Queried by journalRAGE on the level of visibility the safety hub is given on its website, the company did not respond further.

Renner continues to seek closure for his missing son with hopes lost in the country’s justice system. For the retired law enforcement officer, it would be an exacting of a pound of flesh if he spotted the man linked to the disappearance of his son and the torture of others.

“If I’m opportune to meet Cheeseman Cole one on one, he will regret the minute and hour he [is] surviving.”

This article was funded in part through a grant from the US State Department.