Auki, Malaita, Solomon Islands | Brenton Stacey/ANN

The future of Atoifi Adventist Hospital appears safe despite the acquittal of the two men accused of murdering Seventh-day Adventist missionary Lance Gersbach, say church leaders in the region.

The men, Na’asusu Tome and Silas Laefiwane, are free following an April 2 decision by Solomon Islands High Court judge Justice John Brown to release them.

Judge Brown said the prosecution’s case “rested on circumstantial evidence,” and that while the evidence established that Gersbach was murdered, it did not establish who was responsible. “The nature and extent of the wound—a complete decapitation—does establish malice aforethought. I am not satisfied, however, of the [perpetrator],” he said.

The judge also noted the manner in which some Kwaio tribal witnesses gave evidence during the trial. “I have no idea what moves the collective will of the Kwaio. It may be the terror of retribution ... that caused this outward manifestation of an inward fear.”

Gersbach, business manager at Atoifi at the time of his death, was murdered May 18, 2003, while working alone on a building site at the Malaita-based hospital.

Six current and former staff members at Atoifi testified during the trial. Two say they will not return to the hospital because they fear retaliation.

Church leaders in the South Pacific will discuss how to improve the safety of staff members at Atoifi. The church is negotiating the establishment of a police station on the hospital campus.

“Atoifi is at a crossroads,” says Dr. Percy Harrold, associate health director for the church in the South Pacific, who has visited the hospital regularly over the past 12 years. “It reverted to clinic status after Lance’s death, but reopened with an assurance from members of the community that they would capture the murderer. Now the murderer, whoever it is, is at large, and this casts doubts in the minds of some over our ability to run the hospital.”

Hospital members and members of the community signed a memorandum of understanding during a ceremonial “reopening” of the hospital in July last year. Dr. Lemuel Lecciones, the hospital’s medical superintendent and chief executive officer, said, at the time of the signing, that the memorandum “completes the transformation of the hospital from uninvited guest, to visitor, to friend and now partner.” But he says security is still an issue. “We’ve adopted 35 local villages this year. But our staff members—even the Kwaio—are reluctant to enter some of the villages. The question of safety is always in the back of your mind.”

“I believe there is a possibility by working with the Kwaio chiefs to provide the assurances and security needed to keep the hospital functioning,” says Dr. Harrold. “If the hospital were to close, we could expect a child to die almost every day in that area from diseases easily treated in the hospital by competent doctors and nurses.”

The Australian High Commission has a standing travel advisory for expatriates in the Solomons to maintain a high level of personal security. It also released a bulletin advising of the need to be vigilant in the area of Atoifi.

Representing the Adventist Church at the trial were George Fafale and Teddy Kingsley, president and secretary-treasurer of the church on Malaita, Martin Losi, president of the church in the Eastern Solomons, and Titus Rore, associate education director for the church in the Trans-Pacific region.

The church established Atoifi in 1965. The 80-bed hospital serves the eastern half of Malaita and is the only private health care institution in the Solomons that provides training for nurses.