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Resorts in Jamaica are facing a 'historic' sexual assault problem

Hartford Courant 2018-11-07 15:22:00

In a dark laundry room at a Jamaican Sandals resort, pinned to the floor by a hotel lifeguard, a Michigan teenage girl lay paralyzed with fear as the man bit her lip and raped her, violently robbing her virginity.

When her mother found her after the assault, trembling and holding herself in a hallway, the 17-year-old couldn't speak. She could only point to a metal door.

Behind the door, her friend was being gang-raped by three resort lifeguards.

This is the Jamaica that the U.S. State Department has repeatedly warned tourists about. This is the island paradise that the government says has a pervasive sexual assault problem, the place where two Detroit women were raped in September, and an estimated one American is raped each month.

Over the last seven years, 78 U.S. citizens have been raped in Jamaica according to State Department statistics from 2011-17. The victims include: a mentally handicapped woman in her 20s; an Indiana mother gang-raped by three Cuban soccer players in a resort bathroom stall; a 20-year-old woman raped by two men in her hotel; two Detroit mothers raped at gunpoint in their room; a Kent County teenager and her 21-year-old friend, gang-raped by lifeguards in a locked laundry room at the resort where they were staying.

Perhaps most alarming for tourists is that sexual assaults are occurring inside gated resorts the place they are led to believe that they are most safe. For example, this year, the Beaches Ocho Rios Resort & Golf Club, where the lifeguard assaults occurred in 2015, was given the Travelers Choice Award by TripAdvisor; it's the travel group's highest recognition given to the top 1 percent of hotels.

According to U.S. Embassy reports, 12 Americans were raped in Jamaica last year, half of them inside resorts by hotel employees. The U.S. government suspects this number may be higher as sexual assaults are often underreported, and the embassy figures don't include victims from other countries.

The Detroit victims knew none of this when they booked their trip to Jamaica. The two women were raped at gunpoint on Sept. 27 at the five-star Hotel Riu Reggae in Montego Bay, allegedly by a hotel employee who had worked there just three days. They are now outraged, praying for justice after the terror they encountered during what was supposed to be a fun 33rd birthday celebration.

When the women reported the rape to hotel staff, management told them that they had never heard of this type of assault happening there before. Local officials took the same position, implying that sexual assaults were rare.

But according to multiple victims interviewed by the Detroit Free Press, lawyers, lawsuits and hundreds of State Department and U.S. Embassy records, Jamaica has a sexual assault problem that it is not confronting. And the tourism industry is well aware of the problem.

As the State Department warned in a travel advisory this year:

"Exercise increased caution in Jamaica. ... Sexual assaults occur frequently, even at all-inclusive resorts. Local police lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents," the State Department wrote in a Jan. 10 travel advisory.

The travel advisory wasn't the first such alarm.

For three consecutive years, the State Department issued similar warnings in 2012, 2013 and 2014 crime reports, stating: "A special concern continues to be the number of sexual assaults perpetrated by hotel employees at resort hotels on the north coast of Jamaica, and the need for forceful investigation and follow-up by the hotels and by police and other security officials."

Last year, Jamaica was ranked the third most dangerous country for female travelers by Trip by Skyscanner, a California-based travel research company that reviews destinations worldwide. Egypt and Morocco topped the list.

When the Detroit women booked their reservation at Hotel Riu Reggae, they didn't know about the survey, either.

They looked forward to their island getaway and enjoyed it, until the last day of their vacation, when a gunman burst into their room through their balcony and demanded money. The women said they had no cash and threw credit cards on the bed.

"He cocked the gun and said, 'You bitches know that this is a gun ... go turn the lights off or I'm going to f------ kill you,'" one of the victims told the Free Press.

The lights went off. He raped them both, they said, until one of the women got hold of the gun and shot him twice. He was arrested the next day and is facing charges.

The Detroit victims have said the police were helpful, but the hotel seemed dismissive.

"They said they had never heard of this before," recalled one of the victims.

The Sandals resort victims and their mothers all of them from Michigan heard the same line in 2015 when they reported the laundry room rapes to the hotel management.

"The hotel said, 'This has never happened,'" one mother recalled. "The manager wanted us to sign paper work saying nothing happened."

The mother wouldn't hear of it, and has been reeling ever since.

"My daughter will never have justice," the woman said in a recent exclusive interview with the Free Press. "These girls aren't the same girls."

Dr. Lee Bailey, who chairs a police civic committee in Jamaica, said the country has "very strict rules" as to who works in hotels.

When he learned about the rapes of the Detroit women in Montego Bay, he said: "I've never heard of this happening before." He also expressed concern that the hotel company an international chain based in Spain did not properly vet the employee charged in the attack.

The suspect is 24-year-old Demar Scott, a dancer and entertainment coordinator who was wanted by police for other crimes before landing the job at the resort.

Six months before he was hired to work at the Hotel Riu Reggae, the Manchester police in central Jamaica posted a wanted ad for Scott on its community Facebook page, calling him a person of interest in connection with a string of rapes in their parish.

The police offered $35,000 for tips on Scott's whereabouts.

Six months later, he got a job at the Montego Bay resort, where police say he stole a gun from a guest's room and then used it to rape the two vacationers from Detroit.

Meanwhile, the management of RIU Hotels & Resorts is defending its hiring practices, calling the Montego Bay rapes unfortunate, and isolated incidents.