In the Bahamas, rapes often go unnoticed
Protecting tourists, including kids on spring break, hasn't been a priority here. Officials want that to change.
By TAMARA LUSH
Published October 10, 2005
NASSAU, Bahamas - When John Rood became the U.S. ambassador here in September 2004, he knew the issues he wanted to focus on: Free trade. AIDS awareness. Drug trafficking.
One year into his appointment, a new problem has almost outweighed all the others: the number of unsolved rapes reported by female U.S. tourists.
By Rood's latest count, there have been about 26 rapes in the past three years - not enough to issue a travel warning - but enough for this 50-year-old father of a teenage girl to take action.
"These were horrific situations," said Rood, who was a Jacksonville developer before becoming ambassador.
His staff briefed him about cases of women climbing into unlicensed cabs and getting raped by the drivers. Tourists raping other tourists. Personal watercraft operators taking girls to secluded islands and assaulting them.
But when he tried to learn more about these cases, he was confounded. Bahamian authorities were helpful and polite. Yet there was no clear-cut process on obtaining information. Police and court reports, shared willingly between government agencies in the United States, were kept under lock and key.
"If we don't hear about a case from the police, or if we don't hear from the victim, we may not ever know about it," Rood said.
Then came Aruba.
When Natalee Holloway, an 18-year-old Alabama student, disappeared during a graduation trip in June - and when U.S. media swarmed that tiny island nation, all but demanding the case be solved on cable television - the bad publicity sent shock waves throughout every government in the Caribbean.
Rood's cause was suddenly a top priority.
These days, island authorities are meeting with Rood once a month to update him on the progress of the rape investigations. And two weeks ago, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism gathered 500 of the island's hotel managers, tour operators and police officials to discuss how the island chain can reduce all crimes against visitors.
"Aruba has raised everyone's awareness of how criminal situations can affect countries that are dominated by tourism," Rood said.
* * *
Late in July, Bahamian authorities feared that an Aruba-like media frenzy would erupt in Bimini.
Two rich Austrian tourists - Bernhard von Bolzano, 34, and his fiancee, Barbara Frelin von Perfall, 32 - were found shot to death in their hotel.
A suspect was arrested two days later. Frederick Cardinal Francis, 22, was found in possession of a shotgun and some of the couple's belongings.
Probably because police arrested a suspect quickly - or maybe because the tourists weren't American - the double slayings received little attention in local or international media.
A detail that surfaced in a local newspaper grabbed Rood's attention. Francis was out on bail pending trial. The charge? Rape of an American tourist in 2002.
Rood was unable to lay his hands on the details: Bahamian court records are sealed until a defendant is convicted. Even the police reports are hard to come by.
Rood has no idea who the American victim is or the circumstances of the incident. He doesn't even know if that case is included in his sexual assault count, which highlights the difficulty of obtaining true crime statistics in a foreign country.
"It's like playing Clue," Rood said.
* * *
About 300,000 people live on this chain of islands, with the closest island, Bimini, just 50 miles from Florida's east coast.
Tourism is the lifeblood of the Bahamas' economy, with about 5-million people visiting each year. Eighty percent of those tourists are from the United States. Many tourists arrive via cruise ships from Florida.
Nassau, the capital, is like many small Caribbean cities: swarming with white tourists, while the largely black citizens who cater to the tourists live in less picturesque neighborhoods. Although the city has maintained some of its British feel - sweeping colonial architecture and police officers in formal dress uniforms and pith helmets - downtown Nassau's main draws are a bland mix of T-shirt shops, duty-free liquor stores and offshore banking centers.
Authorities in the Bahamas are worried about all crime, tourist and nontourist. During the first "Visitor Safety and Security" workshop on Sept. 22, Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe was quoted in th e Freeport News saying the island nation, and the Nassau area in particular, is "dealing with a crime rate that is unacceptable. If we have a priority item in this country, it is to deal with crime."
Yet along Bay Street, where the cruise ships dislodge thousands every day, it feels like a Florida vacation spot. Frozen cocktails flow freely, hip-hop music blasts from the clubs and burgers are on almost every menu.
It's like Clearwater Beach, only the water is bluer and the drinks are more expensive.
Rood is concerned that unsupervised teenagers visiting Nassau feel a little too comfortable.
"There is a vacation mentality that takes over people that come to the islands," Rood said. "Bahamians are wonderful people, very friendly. But tourists let their guard down."
Like Natalee Holloway, who went to Aruba on a graduation trip and was last seen partying with local guys, teens flock to Nassau during spring break and in June, after graduation. One reason Nassau is a popular vacation spot: The drinking age is 18 and rarely enforced at clubs.
It's no coincidence that the rapes spike during that time, Rood said. And most of the rapes that he's aware of involve a victim who has had too much to drink.
Rood and the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism have started to talk to college tour operators about reminding young partiers the common sense rules of vacation: Don't wander off with strangers. Don't lose track of where you are. Don't get too drunk.
"It is very difficult to control the behavior of 6,000 kids, determined to cram four years worth of restraint and control into four days," said Basil Smith, communications director for the tourism ministry.
* * *
Becoming a crime victim in another country is something no one thinks about when they plan a vacation. But when it does happen, it is a frightening, often confusing experience for the victim-tourist.
Some victims call the embassy immediately. Others call police.
According to Bahamian police authorities, the number of tourist rapes might be higher than Rood's count. In a memo to the Ministry of Tourism dated Sept. 16, 2004, the assistant commissioner of the Royal Bahamas Police Force said there were 55 rapes of tourists - both U.S. and non-U.S. - during 2000-04.
Most times, a woman just wants to leave the country as quickly as possible without talking to anyone - which means the rapes are often not reported and the statistics may not be accurate.
"We want any tourists that are victims to come back so there can be consequences," said Sandra Patterson, director of the Women's Crisis Center of the Bahamas, which helps rape and domestic violence victims.
Only once can Patterson remember when a tourist who was raped called the crisis center.
"We weren't able to see her," Patterson said. "She just wanted to leave."
Sometimes, victims or their parents contact police and the embassy after they get home, which is of little use to a detective.
Reginald Ferguson, the assistant police commissioner for the Royal Bahamas Police Force, said his detectives often have the same problem as their counterparts in the United States when it comes to rape cases: Many are he-said, she-said situations, while other rapes happen between lovers. When the victim - and sometimes her attacker, too - leaves the country, the case is that much harder to solve. Bahamian authorities are trying to extradite at least one rape suspect from the United States, Ferguson said.
According to Ferguson's statistics, of the 55 rape cases reported between 2000-04, nine reports were withdrawn by the victim. Twenty-one cases went to court; 23 cases were under investigation. The outcome of the court cases is unknown.
When Ambassador Rood took over, he was shocked to find that the embassy wasn't automatically notified when a U.S. tourist was the victim of a crime; when a tourist is a perpetrator of a crime, the embassy is always notified.
Rood has asked Bahamian authorities to notify his office every time they receive a call from a tourist reporting a rape.
Not only have the authorities complied with his request, but detectives on the local police force have jumped at the chance to receive DNA evidence training from the FBI agent stationed in Nassau.
Currently, all of the country's DNA is processed in the United States largely at the Broward County Crime Lab.
Yet prosecutions of all criminal cases, including rape cases, are slow. Little federal funding has resulted in a huge backlog. Scheduling conflicts with lawyers, missing witnesses and lost evidence are common.
Wayne Munroe, a lawyer and president of the Bahamas Bar Association, says the backlog has gotten better: In 1999, the average length of a prosecution was 31/2 years. Now, he said, a prosecution typically lasts 18 to 24 months.
Patterson said many rape victims - both tourist and nontourist - end up dropping their cases because of the delays.
"If you're a sexual assault victim, you really just want to forget this and move on," she said.
Rood and Patterson are hopeful the new task force will make a dent in arrests and convictions.
"I think everyone looks at Aruba and thinks, "My goodness. We wouldn't want that to happen here,"' Patterson said.
--Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Tamara Lush can be reached at 727 893-8612 or email@example.com
[Last modified October 10, 2005, 01:19:14]
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