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Night of terror haunts couple

Once, the Spring Hill couple shared exotic adventures around the world. But a Costa Rican nightmare has them flinching at shadows.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 2, 2001


Irv and Pat Buppert lay in the dirt, gagged and bound with packing tape.

They clutched each other's pinkies, waiting to die.

Moments before, five robbers in ski masks burst into the Costa Rican vacation home where the retired Spring Hill couple had been staying for several months.

Brandishing a machete and a pistol, the men ransacked the home, then pulled the couple outside into the stifling night air.

Dragging them 100 yards into the woods, the men told the Bupperts to lie down and not to move. Mosquitoes dug into the couple's exposed flesh as a light ran soaked their summer pajamas.

But all Irv could think about was the blade of the machete he expected to strike his neck at any moment. Pat lay frozen in terror, trying to disappear into the dirt.

Panicked, she pictured the men dragging her and Irv into the Pacific Ocean or lighting them on fire with gasoline.

The couple had seen each other through cancers -- hers nearly fatal -- and skipped through 26 years of marriage like newlyweds, traveling the back roads of three continents at each other's sides. But on this night in April, they were certain they would die on a dirt road in the swamps of Costa Rica.

Irv turned to Pat and murmured through the packing tape: "Goodbye, Patty. At least we're going together."

Pat squeezed his finger tighter, and through her gag, said she loved him.

After about 20 minutes -- and a lifetime, it seemed -- the couple heard darting footsteps, and then silence. Ten minutes passed. Irv sat up and pulled off his blindfold. The men were gone, apparently scared off by a light flashed from a curious security guard driving around on his bicycle with a machete.

The Bupperts unbound their legs and tore through the woods with bare feet to the safety of a nearby home. A few days later, after visiting police and a hospital near the central Pacific coastal town, they flew back to Spring Hill to begin the long recovery process in counseling. They lock the bedroom door at night and lie awake in anxiety, watching for shadows.

"I've always trusted people, until I find I cannot," said Irv Buppert, a soft-spoken, white-haired man teaching himself Spanish at the age of 72. "Now I keep people at arms' length until I feel I can accept them . . . I never had a gun in my house. And now I have two."

The Bupperts now realize they're not alone in their tropical nightmare.

They became the latest victims in a national crime wave targeting both residents and tourists in this small nation once called the "Switzerland of Central America" because of its tradition of peace and political stability.

The country's problems splashed onto international headlines last year after the murder of two young American women who had attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Among other crimes, two elderly Americans were killed in October 1999 in their house in the northern province of Guanacaste in an apparent robbery-homicide.

The Bupperts complain that little has been publicized by the U.S. government about the safety problems for tourists in Costa Rica. Their case remains unsolved.

Marcia Bosshardt, spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in San Jose, Costa Rica, said by phone Friday that the U.S. State Department is in the process of reviewing an update to the consular information sheet on the country to be posted on the agency's Web site.

The sheet will include news of a spate of recent crimes in Costa Rica against tourists, including the attack on the Bupperts in Parrita on the Pacific coast; two similar robberies after their attack in the same area against a Spanish family and an American family; the unsolved homicide six weeks ago of Shannon Martin, a botany graduate student from the University of Kansas in the southwest Pacific coastal town of Golfito; and the shooting death of U.S. citizen Harvey Gunter in a southern Pacific coast town by a man who claimed self-defense.

The most recent travel safety information on Costa Rica found at the State Department Web site dates from last July. It warns travelers that crime is on the rise, Bosshardt pointed out.

"We encourage U.S. citizens to be careful and take precautions when they are traveling," she said.

Touted in guidebooks as the "safest country in Latin America," Costa Rica has suffered a rash of bad publicity the past year related to its burgeoning crime.

Local media in the country the size of West Virginia have reported an explosive murder rate, counting more homicides in the first three months of 2000 than all of 1999.

Some experts blamed the arrival of social problems long present in neighboring countries plagued with civil strife fueled by the Cold War, which Costa Rica managed to escape. They've linked connections to indigent immigrants, poverty, and the perceived rise in juvenile crime and drug use.

Despite the reports and national debate to the contrary, Jessica Clark, spokeswoman at the Costa Rica embassy in Washington, D.C., says the overall crime rate in her country is not rising significantly.

"The crime statistics in Costa Rica haven't changed that much, but they are getting more attention," Clark said.

That's because news of the region's turmoil in the 1980s has died down, she said.

The nation's homicide rate in 1998, was slightly lower than that in the United States, she showed: six killings per 100,000 in her country compared with 6.2 here.

Costa Rica remains far safer than neighboring Central American countries, she added.

"You hear more about it, but they remain isolated incidents," she said.

Still, in response to those isolated incidents, the government increased the police force by 1,500 members the past year. The country does not have a national army.

The crimes that are occurring can happen to anyone, she said, and are no different from those in other countries.

"This is nothing against tourists or American citizens," she said.

The Bupperts realize they could be mugged in their community, too. That doesn't help them sleep at night. Their therapists say they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Pat Buppert breaks into a sweat at the sound of the snap of rubber gloves, worn by their assailants. Irv Buppert walks restlessly around the house, filled with anxiety and unable to sit still.

The insurance company reimbursed them for most of their belongings, valued at about $10,000. But money can't replace the stolen wedding rings of her mother and grandmother. Nor can it restore their peace of mind.

The Bupperts are convinced one of the robbers was a neighbor they befriended in the village where they stayed.

"Even now it's hard to have a positive attitude," says Pat Buppert, 62. "It really bothers me that we had all those wonderful friends and it may have been one of them."

The two fell in love with Costa Rica during a weeklong vacation in the early 1990s. They wanted to return for a longer stay. But doctors diagnosed Pat Buppert with advanced colon cancer. Miraculously, she beat it and recovered, but then prostate cancer afflicted Irv Buppert. Finally, when he regained his strength, the couple decided it was time to take their long-awaited trip.

Now they find the aftermath of the robbery more traumatic than dealing with cancer.

"With cancer you have time to get your life in order and to say goodbyes," Irv Buppert said.

"This was fast-moving terror," Pat Buppert added.

Despite the painful memories, their love of other cultures and countries helps heal the wounds. Once the 5-pound photo album opens, smiles light their faces. Here they are riding canoes to indigenous communities in Panama, they point out. There they are at a waterfall.

They mention the likelihood of more trips next summer, possibly to Spain, maybe Italy.

"We're very lucky," Pat Buppert said. "We're survivors."

- Times staff researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Discuss this and other issues in our Web-based discussion forum at http://www.sptimes.com/hernandoforum.

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