Jamaica resorts facing a ‘historic’ sexual assault problem

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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.

Oct. 2: Raped in Jamaica: Woman turns gun on attacker who had climbed on her balcony at 5-star hotel

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 Free Press, a part of the USA TODAY Network, 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.

Rapists hiding within hotel staff

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 (expletive) 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.

“On September 27th, there was a very unfortunate incident in the RIU Reggae Hotel in which a man, who was a trainee at the entertainment department of the hotel, attacked two of our guests,” RIU Resorts said in a statement to the Free Press. “The aggressor, who had been in training for only three days, managed to escape at first, but thanks to the work of the police with the full collaboration of the hotel management, he was arrested a few hours later and brought to justice.”

The suspect has not been brought to justice; he has only been charged. And he was not arrested a few hours after the attack, but rather the next day when hospital staff alerted police that they were treating a shooting victim, police said.

RIU also said that it took proper vetting steps in hiring Scott.

“It is relevant to note that RIU Hotels & Resorts has a very severe and rigorous security protocol regarding the hiring of employees and trainees. The protocol was followed and the documentation requested,” the company stated.

According to RIU, when Scott applied for the job, he had a recommendation letter from a justice of the peace, a recommendation from an entertainment manager from another company, and a résumé with experience and education relevant to the position he applied for.

“The police record is also always requested prior to formalizing the work contract,” RIU stated, without explaining if a criminal record  or police report actually turned up in Scott’s background check.

RIU also said the hotel management acted appropriately that night, saying its “immediate priority” was to accompany and support the victims, work closely with the police and other authorities, and “to maintain the calm and normal operation of the hotel in consideration for all of the guests.”

“This was an unprecedented event,” RIU said.

Lifeguards assault women at Beaches

In May 2015, a young lady from Ingham County named Paiton was surprised by her mother with a trip to Jamaica for her 21st birthday.

The five-day getaway to the Beaches Ocho Rio Resort & Golf Club, a Sandals property in Boscobel, cost $5,000, which was split with another mother and her daughter.

For four days, Paiton enjoyed the perks of the all-inclusive resort, until the last night of her trip, when three hotel lifeguards she recognized from the pool lured her into a locked laundry room and each one raped her.

“I froze up. I was completely paralyzed with fear,” the now-24-year-old Paiton said in a recent interview. “The one thing that really still stands out is being left in that room alone, and my mom finding me. … I thought that I had done something wrong.”

Paiton wasn’t the only victim that night. Her 17-year-old friend Amber also was raped by one of the lifeguards. The teen was assaulted first in the same laundry room, though the resort tried to hide what happened, she said.

“They wanted to keep us quiet. They didn’t want anyone to know that anything like that could happen at their resort,” Paiton said.

For years, Paiton, Amber and their mothers said nothing about the sexual assault they experienced, but grew tired of staying silent. This month, they decided to share their story with the Free Press after learning about the rapes of the Detroit women.

Like the Detroit victims, Paiton, Amber and their mothers  believed that the resorts where they were staying were safe, and they were unaware of the State Department’s travel advisories.

“I want people to be more aware of what could happen,” said Amber’s mother, Maggie, who couldn’t sleep for months following her daughter’s rape. “Every time I’d close my eyes, all I could think of is what happened.”

According to Paiton, Amber, their mothers and dozens of court documents filed in a pending civil suit, here are the events that led to the night of terror at the Beaches Ocho Rio Resort.

During the trip, Amber and Paiton spent time at the pool and water slides, where three lifeguards fraternized with them, engaging in casual conversation and asking how long they were staying.

On May 8, 2015, the last night of their trip, Amber and Paiton ran into the lifeguards in a hotel hallway while on their way to a piano bar. That’s when one of the lifeguards took Amber by the hand and said, ‘Cmon, I want to show you something.’

He opened a locked metal door that read employees-only and led Amber inside what was an industrial  laundry room. Paiton, who had her back turned to Amber for a few seconds, became alarmed and asked one of the other lifeguards where the man had taken Amber, noting she was responsible for the younger girl. The other lifeguard said, ‘Cmon, I’ll take you to her.’ ”

Once inside, Paiton would suffer the same fate as Amber, who was released by her attacker after having an anxiety attack. But the lifeguards did not let Paiton go. She was trapped in the room, where three hotel employees, including the man who raped Amber, sexually assaulted her.

The first guy pushed her up against the wall and pulled her pants down.

She pleaded with him to stop. She said she didn’t want to do this, that she had to go back to her room. But the lifeguard wouldn’t listen as he forcefully raped her against the wall.

Then came the second lifeguard. He raped her, too, as she quietly wept.

The third lifeguard was equally forceful. She dug her fingernails into his leg to try to push him away. But he overpowered her, so she stayed quiet until it was over, fearful her attackers might kill her.

Meanwhile, Amber and Paiton’s mothers were back in the hotel room packing when they decided to go find the girls and have them start packing, too. It was about 10:30 p.m. But the mothers couldn’t find their daughters. They combed the hotel floors, the pool area, the beach. The women started to panic.

Eventually, the mothers came off an elevator onto the fourth floor when they saw Amber slumped against a wall dazed.  . When they asked her where Paiton was, she pointed to a metal door. It was locked. The mothers started pounding on the door, screaming. A hotel employee walked by them, and just kept walking.

Paiton’s mother then ran to the front desk and yelled to the night manager, “My daughter is locked in a room with employees and I can’t get in there!”

By the time the manager got to the laundry room with a key, the attackers had fled out the metal door, but left Paiton locked inside. When the hotel manager unlocked the door, Paiton’s mom yelled out her daughter’s name.

“She was crouched down and cowering behind a wall,” Paiton’s mother, Janet, recalled. “She climbed over these towels and put her arms around me.”

The mothers took their daughters back to the hotel room. They still didn’t know what had happened.

The young women were shaken, and not talking. Paiton cried, and said she wanted a shower. One of the girls held up three fingers — trying to signal that she was assaulted by three men.

Paiton’s mom said, “Oh my God, were you guys raped?”

The girls nodded and sobbed.

“I told the girls, ‘We’re going to the front desk.’ I  made a scene. I slammed my hands on the counter,” recalled Paiton’s mom, noting the U.S. Embassy and police were summoned.

The nightmare continued late into the night. Police officers in a Jeep Cherokee drove the four women to a local hospital that they said looked like a run-down clinic. The flowered sheets on the hospital beds were stained. The staff members who tended to them did not wash their hands.

The medical staff who performed the rape tests were men. Paiton’s mom, an oncology nurse, said the men didn’t know how to administer the rape kits, so she showed them. The victims were also given HIV medications and the morning-after pill at the hospital, though they didn’t take the medicine until later.

After six hours at the hospital, the girls were transported to the police station for depositions, which took six more hours. Eventually, they were taken back to the resort, where they continued to pack their bags and were then transferred to a couples-resort. Sandals staff asked the women if they wanted to return to the U.S. right away, or stay longer in Jamaica to oversee the investigative process.

The victims and Amber’s mom all wanted to leave. Paiton’s mom disagreed.

“I said, ‘We’re staying. If we go home, we may never get justice,’ ”  Paiton’s mom recalled.

In the five extra days that they stayed in Jamaica, the victims identified the suspects in a photo lineup. They obtained hospital records and police reports. Charges were filed against the assailants, but the suspects were released on bail.

It has been more than three years since the 2015 laundry room assaults and there has been no trial; the suspects remain free on bail.

The mothers are now skeptical about whether justice will prevail. Amber is still hopeful, and says she is sharing her story to protect other women.

“You’re supposed to feel safe at the resort,” Amber said. “And it was the employees who assaulted us.”

No justice in Jamaica for U.S. rape victims

Amber, Paiton and their mothers filed a civil suit in federal court in Florida, seeking to hold Sandals Resorts International, Beaches Resorts and other travel companies liable for the sexual assaults that occurred in Jamaica.

Sandals and the other defendants are trying to get the case dismissed, arguing it doesn’t belong in American courts, but rather should be transferred to Jamaica because the defendants, witnesses, police and potential evidence are there.

“Litigating this lawsuit in Florida would be inconvenient and an inefficient use of the judicial resources of this court,” attorneys for Sandals argue in court documents. “In this matter, Jamaica clearly has an interest in having this action decided by the courts in Jamaica, where the events and factual allegations are local to Jamaica. This action also bears on one of Jamaica’s largest industries: tourism.”

Sandals also maintains that it cannot be held liable for the suspects’ actions, arguing the resort wasn’t on any notice of any sexual misconduct by the lifeguards, nor could it have known that the suspects would engage in such behavior.

Moreover, Sandals attorneys argue, the suspects’ alleged actions “undoubtedly have nothing to do with the resort.”

“These individuals stepped outside their employment as lifeguards … and committed these acts solely to further their own self-interest,” Sandals lawyers have argued in court documents. “In fact, the alleged actions of (the suspects) if anything, hurt Beaches’ tourism business.”

Nobody was more hurt than the victims, argue the plaintiffs.

“The thing that stands out is that my clients had no idea that Jamaica was this dangerous,” said attorney Todd Weglarz, of the Fieger Law firm in Southfield, who is representing the four Michigan women.

Since the 2015 incident, Weglarz said the U.S. Embassy has shared information with his clients about sexual assaults at Jamaican resorts, specifically telling them that attacks typically happen on the last night of tourists’ vacations. The thinking is that predators — who know know when guests are checking out — presume that visitors don’t want to go through the hassles of an investigation.

Rather than sticking around and filing police reports, he said, assault victims head back home and put it behind them, with the rapists walking away.

“There’s no justice in Jamaica,” Weglarz said. “The resort industry knows it. The law enforcement people know it. The embassy knows it. … It’s dangerous there.”

Jamaican attorney Gordon Brown, a former adviser to the Jamaica Tourist Board, said he is aware of sexual assaults involving tourists, noting his law firm has “had considerable exposure to that sort of thing in the course of our practice.” But it doesn’t appear that sex crimes are a widespread problem, he said.

“The Jamaican Tourist Board tends to monitor and police this information quite rigorously. All allegations of assault, robbery or any incident of criminal activity is  typically very rigorously investigated,” Brown said, adding that support and counseling are offered to victims once sex assault claims come to the attention of the board.

Brown said that he is not aware of the State Department statistics that show on average, one American a month is raped in Jamaica. He said that over the years, his law firm has represented hotels and hotel operators in civil suits involving sexual assaults, but that in “several instances the allegations have not been substantiated.

He said a big issue with sexual assault cases in Jamaica is consent.

“I would never wish in any way to demean or reject the allegations by a woman that they have been assaulted, but in the context of an allegation that this is happening on a widespread basis in Jamaica — this requires a very careful analysis,” Brown said.

“Most hotels have a zero-tolerance attitude toward hotel employees having any type of sexual encounter with guests … this is particularly so in the case of all-inclusive hotels,” Brown said, adding that sexual assault claims by guests are “virtually impossible” to defend. “Most hotels simply take a zero-tolerance attitude.”

Gordon added: “Crimes against tourists in Jamaica remains very, very low.”

But victims say otherwise.

In March 2015, an Indiana woman and her boyfriend took what was supposed to be a relaxing, six-day getaway to Jamaica. They stayed at the all-inclusive Holiday Inn Sun Spree resort in Montego Bay.

During their trip, Cuba’s national soccer team was staying at the same resort, in town for an international friendly match with Jamaica.

On March 31, 2015, the Indiana woman’s life was upended, allegedly by three Cuban soccer players. According to federal court records, the woman was in a locked bathroom stall when the players barged into the restroom, entered the stall next to hers and climbed over to her stall, one at a time, and raped her.

The woman was eventually rescued by her boyfriend, who became concerned that she had not returned from the restroom and went to check on her.

That’s when he heard the screams.

The boyfriend entered into the restroom and physically fought off the attackers, who “were captured by a video surveillance camera fleeing down a stairwell,” court records show.

The woman reported the attack to the hotel staff, who summoned the police, the U.S. Embassy and medical personnel. The woman identified her attackers in a photo lineup. A rape kit was collected at a local hospital. DNA evidence was collected from the woman, her boyfriend and the scene of the assault.

The woman and her boyfriend left Jamaica four days after the incident.

The suspects eventually left, too, but unscathed.

According to court records and an attorney for the woman, the suspects refused to provide DNA evidence in the case, so police had to let them go, claiming Jamaican law prohibits compelling suspects to provide DNA.

Nine days after the incident, the Cuban soccer players were released from custody and allowed to return to their country.

“When you  hear something like this — this could happen to anyone at any given time. You go someplace and it turns into one of the worst experiences a person can have,” said Indianapolis attorney Jason Shartzer, who represented the woman and her now-husband in unsuccessful civil suits.

“There was no justice for my client.”

Shartzer was frustrated on several fronts: There was no security in the hallway where the bathroom attack occurred, he said; Police were unable to pursue the matter criminally; and there were no legal remedies in the United States.

“It was disappointing that we couldn’t do anything,” Shartzer said.

Shartzer filed a lawsuit against the hotel, alleging it failed to protect his client while she was a guest there. But the lawsuit was dismissed on March 26, 2018 on jurisdictional grounds.

He also filed a civil suit against Cuba, alleging the Cuban government intervened on the players’ behalf and compromised the investigation. But a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in November 2017, concluding the soccer players weren’t acting within the scope of their employment as Cuban athletes when they attacked her.

To this day, no charges have been filed against the rapists.

Jamaica unable to handle problem

According to the Jamaica Tourist Board, more than 1 million Americans visit Jamaica every year, accounting for about two-thirds of all visitors to the island, whose blue-green coastal waters, sunny weather and laid-back reggae vibe draws billions in tourism dollars.

Americans are the biggest contributors, spending more than $3 billion in Jamaica in 2017, a 15-percent increase from the $2.6 billion they spent in 2016. Jamaica also has enjoyed a steady increase in American tourists over the last five years, from 1.1 million U.S. visitors in 2013 to 1.5 million in 2017.

But while tourism has grown, so have warnings about sexual violence, as evidenced by the numerous State Department travel advisories and crime reports that refer to sexual assaults as a “historic concern” in Jamaica.

Jamaica, however, has made some progress on this front. The State Department said that hotel sex assaults involving Americans dropped in 2016. For example, out of 18 Americans raped in Jamaica that year, just one occurred at a resort.

But the problem crept back in 2017: Out of the dozen of Americans sexually assaulted in Jamaica that year, six were attacked in resorts at the hands of employees.

“Sexual assaults against American guests by hotel employees at resort hotels on the north coast have again risen,” the State Department wrote in a 2018 report.

“The Department of State has no greater responsibility than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas,” a State Department official wrote in an email to the Free Press. “Part of that responsibility is providing information to help U.S. citizens make informed decisions about traveling abroad.”

The Jamaica Constabulary Force, the country’s official police force, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Neither did Jamaica’s Ministry of Tourism.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department has questioned Jamaica’s ability to do anything about the problem, noting its police force is considered “underpaid, poorly trained and understaffed.”

“Reporting crime can seem archaic,” the State Department has stated. “And the confusing, lengthy process is widely believed to be a waste of time.”

This can leave victims feeling violated further, helpless and hopeless.

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