As sun-dappled vacationers snorkeled, sipped rum and sunbathed under a crisp blue sky, police officers raced to a beachfront condo to investigate a find that would rattle the small island of St. Maarten.

On this warm September day, a friend had found a married couple dead inside their home, the scene a grisly tableau of violence.

The couple, Michael and Thelma King, hailed from Mount Pleasant, but they were more than occasional tourists. They kept a part-time home in this tiny Dutch Caribbean territory, had plenty of friends on the island and planned to invest in a rum-export business.

Word that they had been brutally stabbed sparked an intensive investigation and heated debate over crime in St. Maarten as ripples of grief stretched from the island to central South Carolina.

The case is about to heat up again as prosecutors prepare to take the three suspects in the Kings' killings to trial next month.

Solicitor General Taco Stein told The Post and Courier last week that the trial is scheduled to begin on Jan. 22. All three suspects will be tried at once, and the proceeding, conducted entirely in Dutch, is expected to last up to two days, he said.

Under the Dutch system, the case will be presented to a judge who will render a verdict. No jury is involved, Stein said.

The three suspects have been detained since their arrests, but they have not been formally charged with murder. In the Dutch judicial system, charges are usually lodged just before suspects are summoned to court.

In their first interview since the killings, the Kings' families told The Post and Courier they plan to travel to St. Maarten to attend the trial. The relatives said they are handling the tragedy as best as can be expected.

They declined to discuss specifics about the case before the trial “to protect the best interests of Michael and Thelma,” and said they will not be granting further interviews until its completion.

“We will say, however, that up to this point, we have been very pleased with the progress of the investigation and how it is being conducted by the officials in St. Maarten,” the families said in a joint statement.

“We are also pleased with the cooperation that they have received from our FBI. We have been involved and well-informed throughout the investigation, which has made it easier than we expected to deal with a foreign judicial system. We have also been present in St. Maarten on several occasions since their deaths and funeral.”

Prosecutors still believe robbery was the motive for the killing, Stein said, alluding to cellphones and other small items taken from the Kings' home.

In October, some media outlets reported that unidentified sources were indicating that the Kings were slain in a murder-for-hire plot. Stein said those reports are “ludicrous” and completely false.

A brutal crime

The Kings were found Sept. 21 in their condominium at the Ocean Club Resort on St. Maarten, a 16-square-mile territory with about 50,000 inhabitants that shares a small island with the French dependency of St. Martin.

Chief Prosecutor Hans Mos has said Thelma King, 57, was found tied to a chair, and Michael King, 53, was lying on the floor, partially over an overturned chair. This Monday would have been Thelma King's 58th birthday.

Island police arrested the first suspect two days after the killings. Privacy rules prevent St. Maarten authorities from naming suspects, but multiple island media outlets have identified him as Meyshane Kemar Johnson, a 28-year-old Jamaican working as a security guard.

Johnson also has been implicated in the robbery of the Happy Star Chinese restaurant. Authorities reportedly found Michael King's credit cards and cellphone inside the getaway car used in that robbery.

Johnson has confessed to his role in the killing, Stein and other authorities have said.

The St. Martin News Network has reported that Johnson had worked as a security officer or bouncer for someone close to the Kings, but local authorities have not confirmed that account. He is said to be in the country illegally, helped back onto the island by his aunt after authorities deported him from St. Maarten some years ago, SMN News reported.

Two more suspects

Also detained in the killings are 17-year-old Jeremiah Chevon Mills and Jamal Jefferson Woolford, a 20-year-old Guyanese national, authorities said.

Mills, a Dutch national of Jamaican descent, is said to be Johnson's cousin. SMN News has reported that Mills attended school with Woolford and that the two are close friends.

SMN News reported that Mills was expelled last year from St. Maarten Academy for beating another student with a baseball bat. He is also on probation after being convicted of robbing a Global Wealth Trade store on the island, the news agency stated.

Like Johnson, he and Woolford are said be suspects in the Happy Star restaurant robbery as well.

Authorities said Woolford bolted from St. Maarten after news reports surfaced that Johnson had confessed in the killings. He was brought back to the island after being detained on St. Thomas.

Dealing with the tragedy has been challenging for the Kings' families, but they said they have been buoyed by support they have received from far and near.

“We would like to express our sincere appreciation to the countless number of people from all over the world, and especially the citizens of St. Maarten and South Carolina, who have continued to show an outpouring of support during this difficult time,” the families' statement read.

“Hearing from so many of our friends and acquaintances, it is obvious that Michael and Thelma had a major impact on everyone they encountered and that their lives centered around their families, their friends and giving to others. It speaks volumes about who they were and how they lived their lives.”

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.