April 11, 2006 — -- They were six friends on vacation in the Caribbean, escaping the last bluster of the New York winter on the easygoing island of St. Maarten.
One of them, Ryan Smith, 25, and 6 feet 7 inches tall, had the resume of a rising star: a graduate of Columbia University, a former White House intern, a former intern at the David Letterman Show, and now a researcher at CBS News.
His mother, Patricia Smith, was at home in Sandusky, Ohio, last Thursday morning. She had just sent an e-mail to her son asking him how his vacation was going. She remembers that just after she clicked the SEND button on her computer the phone rang. It was one of her son's friends calling from St. Maarten.
"He told me that Ryan was badly hurt, had a head injury," she said. "And they were attacked, and Ryan took the worst of it."
"You can't believe it," she said, eyes filling with tears. "You can't believe it's your son."
Ryan Smith was airlifted to Miami where he is now in the intensive care unit of Jackson Memorial Hospital with a crushed skull and brain injuries in a suspected gay-bashing attack.
Dick Jefferson, a friend and colleague who was vacationing with Smith, also suffered injuries and was airlifted from St. Maarten to Miami. He was released from the hospital, but his head bears a huge scar, dozens of stitches, and a titanium plate implanted by neurosurgeons.
Jefferson, a senior broadcast producer for the "CBS Evening News," said the attack happened late at night, as he and others in a group were meeting at their car to head home to their rented villa. Smith and his boyfriend, Justin Swensen, had been at Bamboo Bernie's, a popular local bar while other friends had stopped at a casino nearby. As Jefferson approached the parking lot at Bamboo Bernie's, he saw a scuffle. He realized that Smith was being attacked by several men and was about to be hit by a speeding car.
"What the hell is going on?" Jefferson remembered asking.
Moments later, Jefferson said, he was knocked unconscious with a four-pronged tire wrench.
Swensen said that he had witnessed the entire incident and that the attack was a hate crime. He and Smith had been sitting together in Bamboo Bernie's, a bar where they had been previously welcomed. Smith was talking to Swensen about a recent family tragedy. They were hugging.
"Some of the local guys in the bar were sitting across from us. They started making fun of us," Swensen said. "We really we did nothing to provoke them."
The couple's hecklers were thrown out of the bar, but they allegedly waited in the parking lot for Smith and Swensen. Smith walked ahead of Swensen, who said he saw him get hit with rocks, spray cans, and then a tire iron. Meanwhile, a car headed straight at Swensen, who jumped onto the hood to avoid being run over.
Swensen and the others eventually got Smith and Jefferson to the hospital. He wasn't able to call Smith's parents until the morning.
It was a difficult conversation, he said. Smith's parents did not know who he was and yet he had to tell them their son had been gravely injured. When he was pressed to explain why the assault happened, Swensen said, he finally explained that it was a hate crime because he and Smith are gay.
"Ryan hadn't told them that before," he said.
Patricia Smith is not ready to talk about those issues. She is unwavering in her love for her son and her sense of injustice.
"It doesn't matter if I know, if my husband knows," she said. "What's important is that these hate crimes are unjustifiable for any reason."
The part of the island of St. Maarten where the assault took place is Dutch territory in the Caribbean, just like the island of Aruba. It was almost a year ago that Natalee Holloway disappeared in Aruba. Since then, her parents have had an exasperating odyssey through the island's Dutch legal system. Smith's family and friends are bracing for a similar journey.
St. Maarten police, Jefferson said, initially did not want to investigate the incident.
"The police response has been no police response," he said. "The best way I can explain the police response is when the detective finally came after three phone calls to get my report, he asked, 'Why should I even bother talking to you? Are you guys even going to file charges? You are just going back to America.' Police were totally indifferent to the situation, the crime, or to the seriousness of it."
"Two days after the incident I had not heard from the police," Jefferson said. "Yet I heard from the Department of Tourism, which told me they were taking over the investigation. I couldn't help but laugh. It is ludicrous that the tourism department is trying to prosecute and become a police department. They are not the experts in police work; they are the experts at getting tourists to the island. It's like saying you got hurt in Miami and the Miami Chamber of Commerce is investigating your beating."
However, St. Maarten police insist a full investigation is underway. On Monday, they published a newspaper advertisement asking witnesses to the attack to come forward.
"We do not take the ill treatment of any person, whether resident or visitor, lightly, and we are pursuing this matter to find the suspects," said police spokesman Johan Leonard.
Swensen and Jefferson said that they could help identify some of the assailants and that there were several witnesses.
Smith, however, is still in intensive care and cannot talk coherently. His mother said doctors did not yet know her son's prognosis, but she had been warned he faced a very long recovery.