MIAMI, April 25, 2006 -- Ah, the Caribbean. Blazing sun. Blue sea. A carefree escape.
Until something goes wrong.
Brandie Black thought she'd found paradise when she moved from Fort Worth, Texas, to the Dutch island of St. Maarten to study medicine at the American University of the Caribbean. But in late February, Black got a harrowing look at the dark side of island life.
Black was asleep in her student apartment on the university campus. It was about 4 a.m. She said she remembers hearing a noise, and in an instant a man was on top of her tearing at her clothes. He was trying to rape her. She remembers screaming and fighting.
The assailant fled, but not before grabbing her wallet with $1,000 in cash, some jewelry and her digital camera. He left her with a black eye and, she would later discover, two broken ribs.
But that was only the beginning of her traumas.
In an instant, several students who were sleeping in neighboring apartments came to her aid. One dialed 911. The dispatcher told him that the police had no one to send. Ten minutes later the neighbor called 911 again. Again he was told there were no officers available. When he asked for an ambulance he was told it would take an hour.
Several students bundled Black into a car to drive her across the island to the hospital. On the way they met the ambulance. But the attendants refused to take Black, telling her that because it was a sexual assault, they had to wait for police.
"We told them that police weren't coming," Black said. "Finally, they said they would take me."
She said it got worse when she arrived at the hospital. Because she'd been sexually assaulted, the medical staff would not touch her until the detectives arrived to gather evidence. Black said she believes it was around 6:30 a.m. that two police officers finally arrived, but she said they showed little interest in her case. Eventually, the police accompanied her back to her apartment where they took some pictures and made some notes.
Black said she has never heard anything more from the police.
Several days later her credit card company called to ask about some questionable charges. She called St. Maarten police to tell them the card had been stolen. They told her they had no record of her incident. Black said that with help from the school she filed a complaint about the way police handled the case. She has heard nothing.
"I don't think police responded properly to the incident," she said. "If I had been in Fort Worth and this happened there, there would have been three police, two ambulances and a fire truck there in 20 minutes."
St. Maarten is part of the Netherlands Antilles, an island chain in the Caribbean that is both an independent country and a Dutch territory. Much like Aruba.
A Familiar Story
It was almost a year ago that the conduct of police in Aruba became central to the mysterious disappearance of Alabama teenager Natalee Holloway. She was on the island with classmates celebrating their high school graduation. There has been no sign of her since the night of May 29, 2005. Ever since, Holloway's family has been on a crusade to find out what happened to her. Much of the family's anger has focused on what they believed was the incompetence and indifference of Aruban police in the early days of the investigation.
It sounds all too familiar to Dick Jefferson. He is one of two American TV producers who were assaulted with a tire iron outside a bar in St. Maarten in early April. Jefferson said the attack was a hate crime: The men were attacked because they were gay. Jefferson and 25-year-old Ryan Smith were evacuated to Miami in an air ambulance. Jefferson had a steel plate implanted in his skull and more than 40 stitches. Smith is now recovering from brain injuries in the trauma unit at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital, where therapists are trying to help him recover his ability to speak.
Jefferson says St. Maarten police showed no interest in investigating the crime.
"The police response has been no response," he told ABC News just days after the incident. "The best way I can put it is that when the detective finally came after three phone calls to get my report, he asked me '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."
Taco Stein, the chief prosecutor in St. Maarten, said the response time in the assault case was not acceptable.
"I have asked the chief of police to report to me why this happened," he said. "We need to find out what needs to be done to make it better."
Little Crime Means Little Experience
Stein notes that the assault happened very late at night. "The problem is that like everywhere in the world we have less police officers on duty at 3 a.m. than in daylight, so that affects response time," he said.
That is a very real challenge for an island with 41,000 inhabitants and just 70 police officers. There are only 15 detectives. Stein said most of the officers are trained in Holland, but he conceded that the very virtue of island's small size and the limited amount of serious crime is also a liability: Officers do not get the same practical experience that officers would get in Holland or the United States.
"If you only have one murder in your career, you have less experience than if you have investigated 20 or 30 murders," he said.
But Stein cannot explain the reluctance of police to investigate the assault on Jefferson and Smith. St. Maarten police spokesman Johan Leonard and the island's chief of police did not return calls from ABC News.
Several days after the April 6 assaults, inspector Leonard told The Associated Press: "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."
A report in the St. Maarten Daily Herald on April 24 said police there have arrested two suspects in the beating case, but added that neither the police or the prosecutor would confirm the arrests. The newspaper also reported that a third suspect -- thought to be the main suspect -- is still at large.
Americans 'Didn't Have Any Rights'
American Castel Santana has his own disturbing account of police conduct in St. Maarten. He, too, is a medical student at the American University. He said he was attracted to the island because of its low crime rate, but he quickly discovered that is a myth. He -- and other students -- say crime is constant, whether it is the theft of motor scooters or drivers robbed at gunpoint.
On Feb. 18 he was in a car with a group of students heading back to the university after a day on a cruise. He says they were cut off by an angry driver, who began hitting two of the students. This time police did arrive quickly, but Santana said instead of going after the assailants they handcuffed the students.
"The officer told me to shut up and that we deserved anything coming to us," Santana said. "While we were being thrown into the car I was repeatedly hit by the officer and called 'A piece of sh-t.'"
Santana said the police put the students in a holding cell and refused to let them make a phone call.
"We were told we weren't in America anymore and that we didn't have any rights," he said.
The men spent the night in jail. Santana said they were threatened with deportation. The next morning they were told they would be released if they paid for the repair of their attacker's car. Santana said it became clear that the attacker was a friend of the police officers.
A Tourism Investigation
Dick Jefferson said that two days after his assault, when he still had not heard from the police, he got a call from a St. Maarten tourism official.
"She told me they [the Department of Tourism] were taking over the investigation," he said. "I couldn't help but laugh at her. It is ludicrous that the tourism department is trying to prosecute and become a police department. They are not the experts -- 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."
Stein, St. Maarten's chief prosecutor, said he was not aware of that call. And he insisted the assault is being fully investigated.
"There is a lot of misunderstanding about our legal system," he said. "We have our proceedings more in the courtroom than in the public domain."
But that is little comfort for foreigners who turn to the police for help. The wife of a medical student -- who did not want her name used -- summarized her experience on St. Maarten this way: "There is real harassment for the people who aren't local," she said, "the police force here is horrible. They don't respond in a timely manner and when they do they treat us horribly."