Holiday for six gay New Yorkers shattered by vicious assaults
For six gay friends from New York enjoying a Caribbean holiday on the island of St. Maarten, the brutal attacks on two of them in the early morning hours of April 6 were ghastly reminders that homophobic violence can strike even in the toniest of tourist destinations.
But in the assessment of one of the men beaten, Dick Jefferson, a senior producer at “CBS Evening News,” the assaults also reinforce a lesson that first emerged from the disappearance last May of 18-year-old Natalee Holloway in Aruba—that the Dutch colonial regime that controls all or part of both islands is lax, if not negligent in protecting tourists.
The problems the gay men encountered began when they traveled from their villa on the French-controlled part of St. Maarten to Bamboo Bernie’s, a popular nightspot on the island’s Dutch side. Ryan Smith, a 25-year-old producer on CBS’ “48 Hours” who was the other man assaulted, was in the bar with his boyfriend of five months, 23-year-old Justin Swensen. Two of their friends were also in the bar but not with them, and Jefferson, 51, and a sixth man were walking nearby on the beach.
As Smith and Swensen sat side by side, occasionally touching each other affectionately, a group of local men, whom Swensen estimated to be in their late teens or 20s, began to harass the couple. Swensen told Gay City News that he and Smith heard the men use the term “batty boys,” Jamaican slang roughly meaning “faggots.” According to Jefferson, the two young gay men were also informed by staff at Bamboo Bernie’s, in what he termed semi-hostile fashion, that the club was not a gay bar.
Still, when one of the local men began to move a chair in a manner that Swensen recalled as threatening, the club’s bouncers ordered the harassers to leave the bar. About this time, Jefferson checked back in on his friends, and Swensen told him that he and Smith would round up their other two friends so that everyone could meet at their car in the parking lot. Jefferson recalled that the group of hostile locals that he noticed when he popped in included three men and two women.
When Swensen and Smith walked out of the bar and approached their car, a mid-90s model white hatchback sped toward them, and some from the group that moments before had been thrown out of the bar jumped out and began to throw rocks at the two men. At this moment, Jefferson approached, saw a commotion, and shouted, “What the hell is going on?” As the white car resumed its speed and bore down on the men, Swensen, in order to avoid being run over, leapt onto the front of the vehicle and miraculously dogged injury as he jumped off the back and ran toward a security booth at the parking lot’s edge.
Jefferson recalled that as soon as he shouted out, one of the men from the bar approached him with a four-pronged tire iron, striking him. The next thing he remembers is being attended in the hospital and asking how Smith was doing.
After the assault on Jefferson, the attacker turned his rage on Smith, delivering an even more severe blow to his head. Both men suffered crushed skulls, and neither could be fully treated until they were airlifted to a hospital in Miami. Jefferson credits the efforts of the CBS News division in New York in making that happen in about 12 hours as opposed to the day and a half delay medical officials in St. Maarten warned of.
In Miami, Jefferson had a small steel plate, about the size of a half-dollar, inserted into his skull and his wound was stitched up.
Smith’s condition is considerably more serious and uncertain. Immediately after being struck, Smith managed to make his way toward Swensen who was still near what turned out to be an empty security booth.
“Ryan came to me staggering, bleeding head to toe,” Swensen recalled. “He was talking but was not making any sense. From the point I heard him not making sense, I was afraid that he was so sick he would never make it back.”
The attack on Smith broke the membrane protecting his brain, and the swelling that still exists prevents doctors from filling the missing portions of the skull and closing the wound. Swensen said Smith continues to have difficulty articulating complicated thoughts and relies on the same phrases over and over again.
“Every time you talk to him, it’s like playing charades,” he said. “For him, New York, Miami, Sandusky [Ohio, Smith’s hometown], and St. Maarten all are home. He’s very nervous and very scared.”
The nightmare was made even more jangled by the fact that Smith’s parents back in Sandusky were unaware that their son is gay. When Swensen called to tell them that their son had been severely injured, it was also his duty to tell them that Ryan had been gay-bashed.
Smith’s parents, who rushed to Miami to be with their son, have been reluctant to speak to the press, but Ryan’s mother Patricia told ABC News, “It doesn’t matter if I know, if my husband knows. What’s important is that these hate crimes are unjustifiable for any reason.”
Swensen and Jefferson both said that they have hopes that Smith will have a full recovery, but Ryan’s boyfriend acknowledged that even after six months doctors believe that the six-foot, seven victim will still only be about 60 to 70 percent on his way.
Jefferson and Swensen are both sharply critical of the police response to the attacks.
“One of the cops said, ‘I don’t know why I’m even bothering. You guys aren’t going to press charges,’” Jefferson recalled, saying authorities in St. Maarten routinely assume tourists will not pursue justice in criminal matters. “I think they’d like this to go away.”
Swensen said that information from five witnesses who phoned in license plate numbers to the island’s emergency services center was lost. Only on Tuesday, four days after the assaults, were Swensen and three of his travel companions asked by St. Maarten police to fax their statements from Miami.
A special prosecutor has since been appointed, but Jefferson said there is word that the suspects may now be on the French side of the island, which could hamper an aggressive police pursuit.
For Jefferson, the story goes far beyond the issue of anti-gay violence.
“I wasn’t attacked because I am gay,” he told Gay City News. “I was an innocent bystander,” from what his attackers could have known.
St. Maarten officials simply don’t care about protecting their tourists, Jefferson argued. This is a message he intendeds to bring to travel companies engaged in business there.
“It’s a reminder to the American Airlines and Carnival Cruises of the world,” he said. “They need to reevaluate the safety of St. Maarten. Putting my lawyer’s hat on for a moment, I hope to point out to them that there is a foreseeable risk in disembarkment there and that could be a liability for them.”