Trouble in Paradise�The Complete Story

7.9.2006

By Out.com Editors

At St. Maarten Medical Center on the outskirts of the Dutch capital, Philipsburg, both Jefferson and Smith underwent CT scans and Smith was placed in intensive care. By this time Smith was counting his fingers and reciting part of the alphabet incessantly. After a few more hours, Swensen says, Smith finally emerged from gibberish but could say only, 'I love you.'

Jefferson, who produces CBS's Election Night coverage and has overseen coverage of crises including the Oklahoma City bombings, called the national desk at CBS News to report the attack and then made phone calls all night to arrange an air ambulance for Smith and himself. Later he noticed a nurse's note on his medical chart: 'Doctor's order: bed rest. Patient ignored.'

He and others also called the police repeatedly, asking them to come to the hospital to take statements. A detective finally arrived almost 12 hours after the attack, just as Smith and Jefferson were about to be taken by ambulance to the airport, where they were to be rushed to Miami in a Learjet.

Jefferson says the detective told him, 'You're leaving. You're not going to be around. Why should I bother taking your report?'

The next day, both Smith and Jefferson had brain surgery. Jefferson's skull fracture was cleaned, and a titanium plate was implanted. Smith also needed a metal plate in his skull, but his brain was too swollen for the operation until almost two months later, after he had returned to New York.

Immediately, the attack on Jefferson and Smith became a minor story in the media and a major one on some gay Web sites.

Smith's personal story'his parents learned that he was gay when Swensen called to tell them he had been attacked'provided a dramatic hook for some reporters. Others imputed geopolitical significance to the attack.

On April 12, Time magazine's Web site ran a story headlined, 'The Most Homophobic Place on Earth?' It focused on antigay atrocities in Jamaica, and argued that 'much of the rest of the Caribbean also has a long history of intense homophobia. Islands like Barbados still criminalize homosexuality, and some seem to be following Jamaica's more violent example''a point illustrated only by Jefferson and Smith's experience in St. Maarten.

Such exaggerations were fueled by a handful of local newspapers. First, a hateful piece in the tiny St. Maarten newspaper Today praised the attack, and mockingly regretted that 'Gay bashing is now a no-no.' The island's largest newspaper, The Daily Herald, condemned the beating but suggested that 'if the culprits felt the need to prove their manhood'they at least could have had the guts to fight them fairly, with their bare hands.' But The Daily Herald's coverage of the attack has been fairly aggressive; a Herald reporter interviewed Smith and Jefferson in the hospital'which is more than can be said for the police.

Regarding the Caribbean more generally, the media's hasty cries of homophobia were inflated. True, eight Caribbean countries still have antisodomy statutes on the books, but only Cuba and Jamaica have a reputation for enforcing those laws. Furthermore, it's difficult to argue that island cultures'excepting Jamaica and Haiti'are overwhelmingly homophobic. Caribbean attitudes toward gay people range as widely as attitudes in the southeastern United States. Yet this isolated incident in St. Maarten almost immediately inspired reckless generalizations about the people of that region and ill-conceived threats from some gay leaders itching for vengeance.

A press release from the Human Rights Campaign quoted a letter from its president, Joe Solmonese, to the Dutch ambassador in Washington, D.C., warning that a slow investigation would 'most certainly give pause to members of our community who are planning any future travels to the area.' (In fact, the Netherlands has no jurisdiction over St. Maarten's law enforcement system; but Solmonese, who says he received no answer to his letter, adds that 'my legislative research staff said that he was the representative of St. Maarten in Washington, D.C.')

Blogger Andy Towle, on Towleroad.com, wrote, 'Based on the negligent response from the authorities on St. Maarten, I think it's time for a boycott.'

The St. Maarten police department's investigation of this attack has been slow and sloppy. It is cause for outrage, for anyone concerned with basic principles of justice.

The crime occurred on the Dutch side of the island, but all of the suspected assailants live on the French side. Because the French do not extradite their nationals, Dutch authorities were initially hamstrung. Two suspects were arrested at a reggae show at Bamboo Bernie's the following week. Two more turned themselves in several weeks later. But the man accused of wielding the tire iron'a 21-year-old nicknamed 'Duracell,' whose identity has been an open secret on the island since the attack'remained at large for more than two months. In a nearly unprecedented agreement, French authorities agreed to cooperate if the 120 pages of documents related to the case were translated into French, which caused more than a month's delay. By the time the documents were sent to the French side in late May, Duracell had reportedly fled to Guadeloupe. Then, to everyone's surprise, on June 12 he surrendered at St. Maarten police headquarters in Philipsburg, accompanied by a lawyer.

But like all involved, Duracell has his own version of the story. 'He says he was not the one who wielded the tire wrench,' chief prosecutor Taco Stein explained. 'Now we will have to interrogate them more because their stories have turned against each other.'

St. Maarten's chief commissioner of police, Derrick Holiday, did not return numerous phone calls from this magazine, nor has he responded to a request from Stein for a report on the police investigation.

Yet police negligence does not appear to stem from antigay bias. According to many on the island, it's just business as usual for the island's police. Locals can tell a never-ending string of stories of armed robberies and assaults that police refuse to investigate. The police officers who were on duty when the attack took place 'are not trained to be detectives' and do not take statements from witnesses at crime scenes, according to Stein.

'I'm not making excuses, but this is reality on a small island. We have a police force which is understaffed,' Stein says. They are also underpaid: 'Most cops make about $1,000 net per month. Many jobs in tourism, security, and casinos pay much better. There's the saying, 'If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.'

'We look rather sophisticated, but we actually are an underdeveloped country,' Stein adds apologetically. 'We want this island to be a place where justice prevails, where it is safe to live. We don't want to be a banana republic.'

Rich Campbell, CEO of Atlantis Events, a gay travel company that has taken eight cruise ships to the island in the past nine years, says, 'St. Maarten has been the most gay-friendly place we've been to in the Caribbean by far.'

RSVP Vacations (owned by PlanetOut, which also owns Out magazine) has taken more than 60 cruise ships to the island, and that company's president, Paul Figlmiller, says, 'It's as safe a place to go as Key West or Provincetown''as long, that is, as you don't find yourself in need of police assistance.

The attack on Jefferson and Smith does raise some important political questions, according to Campbell'but not about homophobia in the Caribbean. 'Sometimes we create our own problems in the media by looking at a situation like this and instantly jumping to the conclusion that there's an underlying reason that these things happen,' he says. 'Some people judge gay men on a notion of who we might be rather than who we actually are. When we start doing that to a Caribbean nation or any other people, we're no better, and that worries me.'

Jefferson, who has fully recovered from his physical injuries, notes that 'there's a lot of misdirected anger' surrounding his attack, 'and I've been saying since day one that I want it to go to the right place.' Though he initially talked about a boycott, he's changed his focus: 'I'd like the people of St. Maarten to stand up and say, 'We deserve better, and it shouldn't take an attack on a bunch of Americans to realize that we deserve better from our police department. Not just because of tourism but for ourselves.'''

Smith still has difficulty speaking, which magnifies his bewilderment at the difference between the experience he sought on St. Maarten and the one he had.

'You don't think that this place, this island'you're there to get away from work, get away from the world that would have dangers and headaches, going to an island, going to the beach, to play a game at a casino, and then all of this happens. To realize that you were really vacationing in a place that has really no apparatus to protect you.

'And the people who are all part of that magical world, they are promising you a good time, but they are not necessarily you or I. They have all of these different'' He stammers, searching for a phrase, and comes up with 'world stories.'

'Well, the cast of the island,' Smith continues, 'they're not what they are billed to be. We go there not to be any different from them as far as respect, and certainly Justin and I'what we did in the bar, to give each other a hug, to then be together as a pair'that becomes something that is very threatening''

His voice, raw with frustration, trails off.

The following week, surgery to implant a titanium plate in his skull is successful. A few days later, he e-mails me to say that he has returned to work, and he jokes, 'I have some great new scar pictures, ha ha.'

Bamboo Bernie's owner, Jimmy Goldman, says, 'No one ever told you that the same protections that you have as a citizen in the U.S. are here on this island. That's your assumption. And it's the assumption of every person who gets off the cruise ships. What happened here in terms of the enforcement is something that we accept, but we don't like it.'

He asks, 'Do you fault a developing island for your false assumptions?'

At the core of this cloud of testimony, however, is a very short story. It has a beginning, middle, and end that explanation cannot touch'and that no 'world story' begins to excuse.

Early in the morning of Thursday, April 6, a young man swinging a tire iron tried to kill two other men.

He smashed their skulls.

The result so far has been a travesty of justice, which by all accounts is the local standard.

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