San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A murky murder in Jacó

Laurie Robichaud says that when he dined with Jacques Cloutier, he always picked up the tab.

“He paid for everybody. He wouldn’t allow other people to even offer to pay for dinner,” said Robichaud, owner of Grandma’s House Restaurant in the northwestern San José district of La Uruca. “He would pay for four or five or six or how ever many people were in his party. He was good like that.”

Cloutier, a Canadian citizen living in Costa Rica, was found murdered early last Saturday morning in the Central Pacific town of Jacó. According to the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), Cloutier, 59, and a Costa Rican man named Luis Antonio Angulo, 70, were found shot to death in the front seat of a white Toyota Prado, which was located on an isolated street. Both had been shot in the head.

As the layers of Cloutier’s life are reexamined in the subsequent investigation conducted by the OIJ, many people who knew him or worked with him tell The Tico Times that he was a quiet, kind man, though very guarded with intimate details of his private life.

“Usually I don’t ask people where they’re from or what they do,” Robichaud said. “Jacques was the same way. He didn’t talk too much.”

Many who knew Cloutier from his time living in southwest Florida, in the U.S., had similar things to say. Cloutier, who founded the Venice, Florida-based home development company J&J Homes in 1972, was known for constructing quality homes throughout southwest Florida, particularly in the Venice and Sarasota areas.

Yet despite the company’s solid reputation, as the U.S. housing market began to crumble in late 2006, Cloutier found himself increasingly in trouble. He had over-leveraged himself and eventually wound up defaulting on 20 loans estimated at $115.5 million. The Florida Community Bank, located in the town of Immokalee, had provided nearly $21 million in funding for six of Cloutier’s loans.

“J&J Homes completely folded after [the defaulted loans],” John Ryan, president of the Venice Area Chamber of Commerce, told The Tico Times. “They built a very good product and were very well thought of. They did a lot of development here. But when things went bad, they went really bad for [Cloutier].”

On Jan. 29, 2010, the Florida FDIC closed the Florida Community Bank and transferred its assets and deposits to Premier American Bank, N.A., in Miami, Florida.

According to Ryan, Cloutier was one of many area builders that hung lenders out to dry when the housing market began to fall.

“We had some very good local builders,” Ryan said. “Venice was kind of known for having local folks doing the construction as opposed to some of the big national organizations. When the housing crisis hit, it took out a lot of small independents here and many left the community soon after… There was an awful lot of money left on the table.”

After his exodus from Florida, Cloutier relocated to Costa Rica, but the exact date of his move is a mystery. According to Robichaud, he and Cloutier met about five or six years ago at his restaurant and talked often about Cloutier’s plans to operate a cattle farm in the southern part of the country. At the time of his death, it is believed that Cloutier was living on his land in Costa Rica’s Southern Zone.

“He always gave me an open invitation to visit his ranch and farm near the Osa Peninsula,” Robichaud said. “I never took him up on a visit. I wish I had.”

Angulo, the other man killed, was a known cattle rancher in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.

While an OIJ spokesman originally said on Monday that robbery may have been the motive for the murders, Sarasota, Florida’s Herald-Tribune reported Tuesday that police had ruled out robbery and were focusing on cattle rustling as a motive.

According to the paper, Jacó Police Chief Luis Sandoval said Cloutier and Angulo were checking out reports that some of Cloutier’s cattle were being rustled and killed. Police suspect that one of Cloutier’s employees might have killed him.

“I was devastated when I heard about his death,” said Laura McLaughlin Bennawy, a southwest Florida realtor who worked with Cloutier. “He built four homes for me and was a very kind man. One of my homes burned down when it was six months old and he said, ‘I’ll just build it again, Laura.’… I don’t know why anyone would want to hurt him. People thought the world of him.”

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