Ryan Smith was with a group of friends in a St Maarten bar, having a few drinks after yet another lucky wins at the local casino. St Maarten is promoted as a gay-friendly destination, and although the bar they were in was not specifically a gay bar, the locals are generally welcoming and gay visitors have usually felt comfortable everywhere on the island. But as Ryan and his boyfriend, Justin, were sitting off to the side they gave each other a hug, when a group of locals spotted them.
What resulted is told in the story that follows. Honestly, it’s infuriating, not just because of the attack, but because of what has happened since with the police, the government, and the attackers who still have not been caught. The small island “St Martin” is split into two territories: St Martin is French, and St Maarten is Dutch; but the entire island’s systems of government are grossly negligent.
There has been a lot of attention on this case because Ryan and Dick Jefferson, another friend in the group who was attacked, work for CBS News. Nothing was done about this case until Dick flew back to the island, threatened the government with media pressure, and they feared the negative press would deter future tourists.
I spent several days with Ryan, talking about the incident; when I mentioned the gay cruises that are still scheduled to stop at the island, he said he wanted to tell the story of what happened that night. It was far beyond the typical “gay bashing,” if there is such.
Although he has healed well over the past month and should make a full recovery, Ryan still has problems communicating. Sitting for several sessions over two days, he told me what he wanted to say, and I typed. Please read.
We were all sitting in a bar, talking, and Justin and I gave each other a hug, when a big group of locals came in and sat across from us, and starting yelling at us and calling us names. There were about six or seven people in that group.
A bouncer told us we should go to the other side of the bar, and we did, but the group kept following us and bothering us. So we tried to leave, when one of the guys picked up a chair, and tried to hit Justin with it. Then he threw the chair at me.
So the bouncer kicked the group out of the bar, but I wanted to leave, I had a feeling like this is not over.
As we left the bar, we realized some of the people were in a small white car outside. We walked to our van, but the car came up behind us and tried to run us over. Justin rolled over the hood; I was hit on my side and got knocked over. I stood up and we all started to run away, but they got out of the car, and started throwing things at us, spray paint cans and a tire jack, whatever they had lying around. They blocked us up against a row of parked cars, so I tried to hit one of the guys to push him out of the way, but another guy grabbed me by the head and shoved me down. And he hit me on the side of my head with a tire iron.
A lot of people came out of the bar to see what was happening, and several people called the police, but they only got an answering machine. So they left messages, including the car’s license plate number. Dick was hit in the head as well, and was sitting on the curb, covered in blood. I was sitting on the ground, holding a shirt on my head to stop the bleeding. Everyone was saying “you’re not okay,” and they could see my skull, but I kept saying I was fine. And then I tried to talk but it just came out as jibberish and didn’t make sense.
We didn’t know where the hospital was, and everyone kept calling emergency to ask how we could get to there, but no one responded, so we just sat on the curb and waited. I was told later that someone ran to the nearby casino and asked for help there, and finally got two police officers to show up.
The police said “We’re getting the ambulance” but they didn’t ask any questions about what had happened, where the attackers went, the car’s license plate; they didn’t ask any of the witnesses for any statements. When the ambulance finally showed up, Justin told a police officer he wanted to give a statement so he could leave with me in the ambulance. And the officer said, “There’s no reason. Why would I need to do that?”
When I got to the hospital in St Maarten, they realized our injuries were too extensive, so CBS paid to have Richard and I airlifted to a hospital in Miami. CBS also flew my parents from Ohio to Miami, and they arranged all my medical care. I had brian surgery, to remove fragments of my skull from my brain, and to relieve brain swelling. A section of my skull was too damaged to fix, so they have to put in a plate to replace it. That will happen in a couple of months. Until then, I have to be very careful not to hit the side of my head, as there is no skull there; it’s just muscle and skin over my brain. I have a helmet I’m supposed to wear. My friends want me to get some stickers and decorate it. I probably will.
I was told later that all the phone messages to the police were erased, and that they never looked for the car, even though they had a complete description and a license plate number. The police chief has said they know where the car is, and they will investigate it once it is impounded, but it seems obvious that they won’t find any evidence on it, after all this time. And I can’t imagine why they haven’t impounded it yet.
From my understanding, there are several people in custody. A woman was arrested on the Dutch side of the island, who may have been involved in our attempted murders, and last weekend a man and a woman turned themselves in because they feared being sent to jail by the French authorities. If the French police caught them, they would be sent to another island which has a prison that people say is much worse, so they turned themselves into the Dutch side with hopes that they’d have easier conditions. Now there are two others that have not been arrested yet, and people are saying that they actually were the main attackers.
There are a few things that complicate the situation, besides the fact that nothing was done the night of the crime.
The island of St Martin is actually two different provinces. One side is French, the other is Dutch. From my understanding, there has been very little cooperation between the two sides; both have separate police departments, and they don’t seem to cooperate, as they are run by two separate countries. It is known that, after the people committed the crime on the Dutch side, they went to hide on French side. And on this very small island, people go to both sides all the time; you go to the beach on one side, and to eat on the other, never passing any sort of border. So if you were to be robbed or attacked on one side of the island, the criminal can simply go a mile and cross to the other side of the island, and the police can’t follow them. And because the police work for two separate governments, apparently they don’t work with each other. It’s amazing.
Local residents have said the attackers have caused crimes before, and were well-known on the island. I don’t know why the police let this go on for this long. Although to be honest, I doubt the police knew the extent of their criminal histories, since they never talk to each other.
There are several things I believe we need to work on:
1) We need to make sure that the people who did this are prosecuted.
2) We all need to realize what we’re getting into when we go to an island to have a good time, that just because a place has nice beaches and good weather, and the government encourages you to come spend your money, it doesn’t mean they have any sort of resources to protect while you are there. The resorts may be nice, but these islands in the Caribbean are very poor.
We need to insist that if the island is going to welcome visitors, they must have some sort of a police force that will answer their phone if they are called with an emergency. Attacks on gay people happen everywhere, and they will happen again. But you would like to think that if a place is being marketed as a gay-friendly destination, the police would be ready to handle these problems when they arise.
3) In St Maarten, the police don’t seem to have any basic protocol to follow if a crime is reported. St Maarten especially, and the Caribbean as a whole, needs to have some sort of system to investigate, arrest, and file charges against people who commit serious crimes, so they can’t just walk to another part of the island and escape the police.
4) We need to take the murders, and the attempted murders, of gay men and women seriously. Just because these attacks happen everywhere, it does not mean it is any less important to prosecute each person who commits these crimes.
Not everyone in a situation like this is able to share is able to speak up. The only reason the St. Maarten government is doing anything about this crime is because Dick Jefferson and I work as journalists. As victims, it’s our job to inform everyone what happened to us; as journalists it is our job to put the issue in context. They may claim they are investigating the crime for us, but we need to question how many of these crimes have been ignored.
photo by Marcie Cohn Band/Miami Herald