Death In Paradise: Why Are So Many Tourists Dying In The Dominican Republic?

What is causing people to drop dead in the island paradise? Is it poisoned alcohol, chemicals, violent crime — or all of the above?

June 18, 2019

Photo by: Sunrise over Punta Cana [Joe DeSousa/Wikimedia Commons]

Sunrise over Punta Cana [Joe DeSousa/Wikimedia Commons]

By: Catherine Townsend

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC — On June 13, a 55-year-old man from New Jersey died in the Dominican Republic, making him the ninth American to die under mysterious circumstances in the country since last year.

What is causing people to drop dead in the island paradise? Is it poisoned alcohol, chemicals, violent crime — or all of the above?

The U.S. State Department has confirmed that at least six American tourists have died in the Dominican Republic since the summer of 2018.

Joseph Allen was visiting the island for a friend's birthday when he "complained about being hot at the pool," a friend told ABC. He went to his room to take a shower, and later told his friends that he wasn't feeling well and planned to lie down.

When his friends didn't see him at breakfast the next morning, they asked the front desk to open the door — and found his body on the floor.

Joseph Allen was not staying at a Bahia Principe Resort, which is the chain of resorts where several other Americans have died, according to MSN News. The FBI is currently investigating the deaths of the victims who died at Bahia Principe locations, including the possibility that they may have imbibed tainted liquor from the minibar, according to reports.

The recent investigations into deaths in the DR started after three Americans died at a Bahia Principe resort within a few days of each other in May. Since then, several more families have come forward with stories of similar experiences of becoming ill.

Many of the victims drank from the minibar at the Grand Bahia Principe, and since the deaths, other people who stayed there have come forward to report that they got sick after consuming beverages at the resort.

Awilda Montes told The New York Post that she drank soda from her hotel minibar fridge at the Grand Bahia Principe in 2018. She said that it "tasted like bleach" and made her violently ill, to the point of "spewing blood."

Yvette Monique Sport passed away in 2018 at a Bahia Principe Resort after having a drink from the minibar. Sport's sister Felecia Nieves told reporters that the family was told that Sport had died from a heart attack.

Other victims include Miranda Schaup-Werner, 41, who was celebrating her anniversary with her husband when she was found unresponsive in her Bahia Principe hotel room — and Edward Nathaniel Holmes, 63, and Cynthia Ann Day, 49, an engaged couple who were found dead five days later. Cause of death in their case was listed as respiratory failure and pulmonary edema, according to ABC News.

Robert Bell Wallace, 67, died after drinking from the minibar at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino resort in Punta Cana; and Jerry Curran, an Ohio resident, died in January while visiting Dreams Resort in Punta Cana. After having dinner and drinks, Curran became violently ill, according to his family — and later died at the hospital.

The FBI is investigating the possibility that counterfeit alcohol could have caused some of the deaths, according to The New York Post, and is taking blood samples back to Quantico.

In April, 47 Jimmy Buffet fans became extremely ill during a group trip to the island. They were visiting the Hotel Riu Palace Macao when many members of the group began to experience symptoms including diarrhea, vomiting, dizziness, and headaches.

Dana Flowers, a member of the Central Oklahoma Parrothead Association, told People that everyone in his group who got sick either swam in one particular pool or used the swim-up bar. People has reached out to a representative for Jimmy Buffet and the fan club for comment, but has not received a response.

No matter the causes of death or illness, the official statement from the police in the Dominican Republic is that none of the deaths are connected. Authorities point out th
at not all of the deaths occurred at the same hotel, and many appeared to have different causes.

Other experts believe that at least some of the deaths could be linked to chemicals.

“I’ve been watching these incidences and they’re very odd,” John Trestrail, a forensic and clinical toxicologist who runs the Center for the Study of Criminal Poisoning in New Mexico, told The Daily Beast.

In the article, Trestrail proposed the theory that the poisonings could be due to organophosphate pesticides. He explained that many potentially lethal chemicals, including phosphine from aluminum phosphide, are used for hotel room fumigation. These chemicals, he said, have caused accidental poisonings — especially in developing countries.

Initial autopsy reports from the Dominican Republic showed some of the victims died of pulmonary edema and respiratory failure. This would not prove that chemicals were the cause of their deaths, but it also does not rule out the possibility that they could have been.

It's happened before: The Daily Beast reports that a 2014 investigation by Canadian journalists found that many suspicious deaths of tourists in Thailand hotels between 2009 and 2013 were caused by an aluminum phosphide-based insecticide.

At a news conference, Dominican Tourism Minister Francisco Javier García said 30 million people have visited the Dominican Republic, and called the deaths “isolated incidents.”

Robin Bernstein, the Ambassador of the United States to the Dominican Republic, recently said that the deaths should not be considered anything other than isolated cases. Tourists, she said, “come to visit the beautiful beaches and enjoy the great culture. Unfortunately sometimes those things happen to people.”

Meanwhile, police in the Dominican Republic have asked the FBI for additional toxicological analysis. The investigation continues.

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