She woke up on the shower floor crying and naked – choke marks on her neck, scratches on her body.
The 18-year-old au pair vacationing in Jamaica had no idea how she wound up in a bathroom near the pool until hours later: She had been drugged and raped, she said, and the resort did nothing to help her.
Instead, Sandals Resorts paid her American host family $25,000 as a refund for the July trip and had the parents sign a nondisclosure agreement, vowing to never speak of the incident.
But the victim never signed any such agreement. And she’s talking now.
“They know what happened. They know exactly who he was,” the au pair said. “My silence will not be bought. … They let someone get away with it.”
In the wake of a Free Press investigation that found sexual assaults of tourists are a long-standing and unchecked problem in Jamaica, where an estimated one American is raped a month according to State Department statistics, multiple victims have come forward with stories about cover-ups, confidentiality agreements and payoffs by resorts looking to protect their reputations and revenue.
Over the last several years, Jamaican resorts have silenced multiple sexual assault victims, discouraging them from calling the police or pressing charges, downplaying their fears and offering free hotel stays or cash refunds in exchange for a promise not to sue or tell anyone what happened, the Free Press found. Most of the alleged victims that shared their stories with the Free Press requested anonymity.
In some cases, the resorts convinced guests to just go home.
The silenced tourists include:
► The West Virginia family whose 18-year-old au pair told police she was sexually assaulted on July 4 at the Sandals-owned Beaches Negril Resort & Spa, alleging a resort bartender spiked her drink before a guest choked and raped her. She filed a police report and underwent a rape test. Surveillance video identified the attacker, she said, but no one was arrested. The host family was eventually paid and signed an agreement forbidding them from discussing the case.
► A New England family who said their 16-year-old daughter was raped in a bathroom at Beaches Negril resort in 2013, allegedly by a resort entertainer’s friend who had been given a guest pass. “In the end, we did sign something saying we won’t discuss it and they gave us a free week at another resort, which is little consolation for my daughter’s mental health,” the mother told the Free Press. “It would’ve been a nasty fight anyway.”
► An Atlanta mother who said she was sexually assaulted while in the ocean by a Sunscape Splash resort employee during a trip celebrating her 50th birthday in October. She said resort staff at the property, which is owned by AMResorts, manipulated her into not pressing charges, warning her the criminal process would be lengthy and expensive, and convincing her to “go home and forget about it.”
► A Kansas City woman who said she was sexually assaulted during a sailing excursion by a Sandals Ochi Beach Resort employee in October 2017. She stayed in her room for three days, but eventually reported him to the resort, which, she said, rushed her into signing a nondisclosure agreement in exchange for a $4,500 trip. “It was so fast — and they didn’t give me time to think about anything,” she recalled, adding police were never called. “I said, ‘Do I need to make a police report?’ They said, ‘No. You don’t need to do that. We’ll take care of everything.’ “
► A North Carolina couple whose honeymoon was ruined after a Sandals resort dancer named ‘Showtime’ allegedly sexually assaulted the wife on the dance floor, putting his hand up her dress, grabbing her genitalia and then forcing her hand on his private part to show his arousal. Sandals gave them a replacement, seven-night trip “as a goodwill gesture” and a complimentary couples’ massage. In return, the couple signed legal forms releasing Sandals from any liability.
More coverage on Jamaican resorts
Sandals declined comment on specific allegations, but has denied covering up sexual assault claims at any of its resorts or silencing victims with payoffs.
“Our policies are clear — all reported incidents of sexual assault and harassment are fully reported to law enforcement, investigated and, where appropriate, prosecuted by the authorities,” Sandals said in a statement to the Free Press. “This is a core element of our incident response protocol. In no way does Sandals discourage guests or others from reporting allegations of criminal conduct to law enforcement or from cooperating with law enforcement investigations.”
Moreover, the company added: ” … refunds are not offered to guests who report being victims of criminal assault where an active law enforcement investigation or prosecution is underway. Where there is no active criminal investigation or prosecution, on rare occasions, we do offer refunds or similar compensation when our guests feel that we did not meet expectations which may include releases and confidentiality, as is industry practice.”
Sandals stressed that, “No guest is ever forced to sign any document.”
Nevertheless, problems continue to crop up for the resort chain.
This week, a New Jersey couple sued Sandals for $30 million, saying their 2016 wedding in the Bahamas was ruined by a resort butler who allegedly sneaked into the bride’s suite on the eve of her wedding and molested her while she slept. According to the couple’s lawyer, New York attorney John Nicholas Iannuzzi, Sandals discouraged the couple from involving police and offered to refund the $15,000 event, but with a nondisclosure agreement. The couple declined and filed a lawsuit in Manhattan two years later.
“We were not interested in being silenced,” the 32-year-old bride, Ashley Pascarella, told the Free Press. “It was a nominal amount of money compared to what had happened.”
Sandals called the lawsuit “a self-serving, one-sided and incomplete version of an incident reported in 2016.”
“The plaintiffs have unfortunately embarked to influence the case using a choreographed media campaign based on their one-sided narrative,” Sandals said in a statement.
Bigger than Sandals
Jamaica’s biggest source of revenue is tourism, drawing a record 4.3 million visitors in 2017 and raking in more than $3 billion in revenue from U.S. tourists alone that year. Americans are the biggest contributors to Jamaica’s tourism industry as more than 1 million U.S. residents vacation there every year, and the numbers keep going up.
Meanwhile, the travel advisories continue.
In addition to Sandals, several Jamaican resorts also have been accused of failing to properly address sexual assault complaints, including: Grand Bahia Principe of the Spanish-owned Bahia Principe Hotels & Resorts; Breathless Montego Bay Resort & Spa and Sunscape Splash Montego Bay of Philidelphia-based AMResorts; and Hotel Riu Reggae in Montego Bay, part of Riu Hotels & Resorts based in Spain.
While some victims cut deals with the resorts, or rejected their offers, others have said the resorts took no action in responding to sexual assault claims. Their complaints were ignored altogether, some said, despite repeated phone calls and emails to management asking for help.
More coverage on Jamaican resorts
One victim from Minnesota, however, did get results, saying the hotel employee who sexually assaulted her at an unnamed all-inclusive hotel in Montego Bay was fired after she reported the incident. “I called the U.S. Embassy and they took my matter seriously. I had a bit of victim blaming by locals but am glad I reported it nonetheless,” the woman wrote in a Nov. 1 TripAdvisor review. “I recommend caution even inside resorts — and do not ever walk around alone.”
The Minnesota woman’s review echoed repeated warnings issued by the U.S. State Department, which has described sexual assault as a “historic concern” in Jamaica that needs “forceful investigation and follow-up by the hotels and by police and other security officials.”
“Sexual assaults occur frequently,” the State Department warned in a January travel advisory “even at all-inclusive resorts.”
The resorts aren’t doing enough to help the injured obtain justice, victims claim, arguing a change in attitudes about sex crimes and protocol for handling them is long overdue in Jamaica. The resorts have not taken sexual assault seriously, they say, and they have the scars, payoffs, legal forms and unanswered emails to prove it.
“I will not be silenced,” said one victim. “I deserve better.”
‘Were you not warned?’
Soon after returning from Jamaica, the American host mother took to TripAdvisor to vent and warn others about what happened to her au pair at Beaches Negril.
“My 18-year-old daughter was given a drink directly from the bartender at Club Liquid. It was drugged,” the woman wrote, referring to the au pair. “She was then taken to a bathroom by another ‘guest’ and raped. CHOKED. SCRATCHED and RAPED.”
TripAdvisor removed the post, stating the review “was flagged by another user for violating our review guidelines.”
A Sandals payout followed, along with a confidentiality agreement that prohibited the family from discussing the incident and required them to remove all comments about the trip from social media. Specifically, any mentions of the au pair’s ordeal during the Jamaica trip were removed from the host mother’s Twitter feed.
Here, according to the au pair and text messages, emails, statements to the police and public records, is what happened that night at the all-inclusive resort:
It was 11 p.m. when the au pair went to Club Liquid for a drink. She had spent the day with her American host family and their four children at the resort, and ventured out on her own when they all went to bed.
The au pair sat alone at the psychedelic-colored bar and had a few drinks while music played. But within an hour, her world would go dark.
At about midnight, the bar started emptying out and the au pair ordered another drink. The bartender mixed her drink while talking to a man who was sitting nearby. He was the only one left in the bar and he approached the au pair as she finished her drink.
Quickly, everything turned into a blur. She remembers talking, but nothing about the conversation. She doesn’t remember leaving the club. She vaguely remembers being at a beach with a man and winding up in a pool with him, crying on a pool step.
The next thing she remembers is waking up in the shower near the pool at the resort. The water was running. She opened a door and found her clothes and bag on a nearby bench. She got dressed and walked to her room.
“I just remember being in the pool area, but not how I got there,” she said. “I didn’t understand what the hell had just happened. I was so confused. There was nobody around. It was light outside.”
Her cellphone read 6 a.m. when she returned to her room and plugged it into a charger. She put on her pajamas and went to bed.
“I was feeling so ill and so tired,” she said.
When she woke up, her head was spinning. She felt nauseous and discomfort in her vaginal area. She had red marks on her neck.
At about 11:30 a.m., she told her host mother that she wasn’t feeling good and filled her in on the few details she could remember from the night before. The mother summoned a nurse and security. A police officer also showed up and interviewed the au pair, who then went to a hospital with her host mother. She underwent a rape test and had some type of medication prescribed.
“The doctor said something definitely happened,” she said.
After going to the hospital, the au pair went to the police station to give a statement. There, she heard a comment that left her reeling.
“The police woman said to me, ‘Were you not warned about the culture here?’ ” she recalled, noting she was confused.
The police woman elaborated: “These things happen here. … Next time, don’t have so many drinks.”
It has been more than seven months and the au pair, who is back in South Africa, is still trying to get her hospital records, toxicology results and a copy of a surveillance video. It burns her that her host family has been given information about her rape, she said, but she has not been given it.
And it really burns her that Sandals paid her host family off, she said.
“Why are you bribing people to keep quiet?” she said. “I feel like they allowed this to happen because they let someone get away with it. They cover their backs so quickly that they don’t actually help the victim.”
The resort knows who did this, she said, noting there is surveillance video of what unfolded.
The Free Press has learned that resort management has video showing the suspect alone with the au pair at the bar, taking her to a bathroom, spending time in there with her and then him leaving alone.
Management knows the suspect’s name and what room he was staying in; they had a clear view of his face, the au pair said. He was an American tourist who left the next day, according to the au pair.
The au pair said no one seems willing to do anything because the incident involves three countries: The victim is South African; the incident happened in Jamaica; and the suspect is an American.
“I’ve been feeling helpless,” the au pair said, “because no one really cares.”
The woman’s host parents declined comment. So did Sandals, though the company posted a comment on the au pair’s TripAdvisor account last week, stating:
“In this case, local law enforcement conducted an investigation and reviewed the Beaches Resort’s surveillance video footage which was immediately provided. Local law enforcement subsequently issued statements, in which they explained that ‘We have collected statements and reviewed video evidence none of which supports the claim of rape’; ‘The toxicology report has not revealed anything of note and the theory of her being drugged is not sustainable.’ “
Jamaican police said they investigated the incident, but that the prosecutor’s office declined to bring charges. They did not elaborate on the findings in the au pair’s case, or any other sexual assaults involving resorts. In response to numerous questions from the Free Press, they issued a one-page news release that included the following:
“The woman’s employers allegedly noticed marks on her neck and reported the matter to the Negril Police, where the woman told investigators that she had a drink with the man and subsequently woke up and found herself sitting in a shower on the property,” the statement says.
Jamaica’s Centre for the Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse conducted an investigation that included a toxicology analysis, statements to law enforcement and surveillance footage. The file was then submitted to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for a ruling.
“On September 20, 2018, a ruling was received … It stated that no criminal proceedings can commence in this matter,” the statement reads.
Meanwhile, the South African Embassy has intervened, requesting a copy of the medical report. Police said it was provided and the matter has been referred to a tourism liaison officer for follow-up with relevant foreign emissaries and family members.
“It should be noted that items that are submitted into evidence for an ongoing investigation cannot be released as there are strict issues of confidentiality and strong potential for the investigation to be compromised,” the agency stated.
The status of the investigation is not clear.
“Visitor safety and security remain a top priority of the Jamaica Constabulary Force,” the police agency states, adding local law enforcement works with the tourism sector in patrolling tourist attractions and conducting security inspections and certification of resorts, hotels and attractions to ensure they meet regulatory requirements.
‘Go home and forget about it’
Ivy was afraid of the water.
The Georgia mother wasn’t a strong swimmer, but the resort employee who worked the water excursions at the Sunscape Splash resort in Montego Bay assured her that he would help her. So she ventured into Jamaica’s blue-green waters, up to her neck.
It was mid October. She had gone to Jamaica to celebrate her 50th birthday with her daughter. And she was eager to have fun and relax.
In the water that day, she was nervous. The employee kept telling her to relax. Then came the inappropriate touching. She told him to stop, but he wouldn’t. He told her to lay on her stomach. She was scared in the deep water, so she did as he suggested.
That’s when he slid his hand in between her legs and started aggressively fondling her genitals. She protested, but he wouldn’t stop.
Eventually, she managed to escape. She got to her feet and walked out of the water. Outraged and horrified, she reported the incident to security and asked to be moved to another property. The general manager told her she could move, she said, but that it would cost more and that she would have to pay the difference.
Stunned by the response, she then reported the incident to the vacation representative, whose response shocked her even more.
“Do you want to call police, or would you rather go home and forget about it?,” Ivy recalled being told, adding that the representative then encouraged her to “try to have a good time. Don’t let it ruin your vacation. Try to make the best of it.”
Ivy was furious. So was her daughter, who urged her to go to the police. So the resort called for a taxi to take her, her daughter and a security employee to the police station.
They never left the resort, however. While waiting for the taxi, she said the resort’s head of security started warning her about a lengthy and costly legal process, that she would have to pay for all her travel during the criminal process and that the suspect would languish in prison for years if she didn’t return to Jamaica.
“I knew I was never coming back to Jamaica,” she said.
So Ivy changed her mind about pressing charges and returned to the U.S., where she quickly regretted her decision. Two weeks after her trip, she read the Free Press article about Jamaica’s sexual assault problem.
“When I saw your story and realized how prevalent it was – this was a family resort. What if I had been a young girl?” said Ivy, stressing travelers need to be aware of the dangers lurking in the heavily gated resorts.
“That’s like a facade. You feel like you’re safe in there … but you’re not,” she said. “There was no compassion.”
Sunscape Splash did not respond to requests for comment.
On TripAdvisor, where Ivy posted a negative review detailing her experience, Sunscape Splash issued this statement:
“The safety of our guests is always our top priority,” read the statement, which included an email address for Ivy to contact. “Please reach out … for me to better address your specific concerns.”
To date, Ivy said the resort has refused to issue a refund.
The Kansas City woman who also alleged being sexually assaulted in the water has expressed similar frustrations.
Like Ivy, she has regrets. Ivy regrets walking away. She regrets signing the nondisclosure agreement with Sandals – a decision that ate at her when she returned home from her trip.
“I emailed them when I got back, twice. And I never got anyone to respond. That was really frustrating,” she said, stressing that staying quiet was especially hard. “I feel like there’s nothing I can do. I can’t even tell people, warn people.”
This week, after a year of keeping quiet, the woman broke her silence, hoping to spare others from a similar fate.
In an interview with the Free Press, she said that an employee at Sandals Ochi Beach Resort took advantage of her while taking her out on a sailing excursion. It was just the two of them. He kept going farther and farther out into the ocean when, at one point, he looked at her and said, “You have beautiful lips,” she recalled.
She got nervous and uncomfortable. He kept going farther and farther out, past the other boats, so she told him she wanted to go back. As soon as the sailboat turned sideways, she said, he lunged on top of her and put his hands on her genitals.
“I immediately started screaming, ‘Get off of me!’ I was going over. My cellphone and hand fell in the water,” she recalled, adding she considered jumping in the ocean to escape him.
When she started to scream, she said, the man responded, “‘No, no, no. Wait. Wait. It’s fine.”
He took her back. For three days, she stayed in her room, afraid to come out until her butler saw her crying, asked what was wrong and then convinced her to report the incident when she told him what had happened.
Looking back, she said, the resort should have called the police. She should have never signed the confidentiality agreement. But she still has a soft spot for Jamaica, where she has been seven times.
“I love the country,” she said. “I won’t hold the whole country accountable for what one bad person did to me. There are a lot of really good people in that country.”
Tucked in among the thousands of reviews on TripAdvisor are more stories of anger and frustration by travelers who say their sexual assaults in Jamaica were ignored — and even tolerated — by the resorts.
In the spring of 2014, a British mother claimed the management at Beaches Negril failed to call the police about the attempted rape of her 18-year-old daughter during a wedding trip. The suspect was a Sandals employee, but management allegedly told her, “Our hands were tied. Your daughter didn’t want anyone to know.”
The mother demanded accountability.
“I asked Sandals, ‘where are your procedures? This is a criminal act, the police should have been called by you regardless what anybody else wanted,’ ” the mother wrote in a 2014 TripAdvisor review.
After months of phone calls and writing multiple emails to Sandals officials, the woman said Sandals offered her family three nights free accommodation at their resorts, but with a confidentiality clause.
She called Sandals “despicable.”
Though Sandals declined comment on specific allegations, it defended its security systems and procedures and cited examples of enhanced safety measures at its resorts, including: new, state-of-the-art Close Circuit Television Surveillance Systems at all of its resorts, which are monitored 24 hours a day by uniformed security guards at each resort; background checks of all applicants, including a criminal record search and evaluation of the their social/online history; a zero-tolerance policy for fraternization by personnel with guests and for any sexual misconduct by staff, and mandatory sexual harassment training for all staff.
This past spring, a guest at the Breathless Montego Bay Resort & Spa took to TripAdvisor to vent about her experience. She claimed staff members had asked her and her friend if they could shower in their room, and told them that they had been watching them.
“A couple days into our trip, I was sexually assaulted by one of the staff members. So far, the resort has not responded to my attempts to have the staff member fired/charged and to have sexual harassment training for the remainder of the staff,” the woman wrote in the April post.
Three weeks later, the Breathless resort responded: “It is both concerning and alarming to read the details of your experience which is not reflective of the kind of experience we aim to and are known to provide valued guests such as you. I would love the opportunity to assist in further addressing your concerns … and invite you to contact me directly at your earliest opportunity.”
The outcome of that case is not known. Breathless did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2016, a Canadian traveler wrote that an entertainer who worked at the Grand Bahia Principe resort in Jamaica sexually assaulted her during a family trip in 2016. But the resort worker kept his job despite her complaint, she wrote on TripAdvisor, stating the resort “did absolutely nothing about this incident” and did not return her calls after she returned home.
Grand Bahia Principe responded to the allegation on TripAdvisor, stating in 2016: “We’re surprised and concerned by your comments you have reported. We do sincerely apologize for any issues in your vacation and we will be sure to forward your concerns to our management team to investigate this matter.”
Grand Bahia Principe did not return calls seeking comment.
It’s time for change
It has been more than a decade since he says his honeymoon was ruined at a Sandals resort by a dancer named “Showtime,” yet the company’s response still eats at the North Carolina man.
He said he never publicly discussed the troubling honeymoon incident until reading the Oct. 30 Free Press article that detailed multiple sexual assaults in Jamaica, including the 2015 rapes of a Michigan teenage girl and her 21-year-old friend. They said they were raped in a laundry room by resort lifeguards at Beaches Ochos Rios, another Sandals property. The suspects were arrested and charged, but it has been more than 3½ years and the case has yet to go to trial.
The alleged victims’ stories angered the North Carolina man.
He told the Free Press his wife was sexually assaulted on the dance floor by a gyrating disco dancer who grabbed her genitalia under her dress and then shoved her hand on his crotch. The wife bolted from the dance floor – humiliated, grossed out and furious; the husband said he raised hell at the front desk.
But the resort staff was dismissive when he complained about it, he said, adding he spent much of his honeymoon arguing with lawyers and managers, while “Showtime” denied any wrongdoing.
Initially, the resort offered the pair a free couples’ massage and told them to try to relax, he said. Sandals refused to refund the trip. The husband persisted. In the end, Sandals cut a deal with the newlyweds: It offered them a seven-night replacement stay at any Sandals resort in exchange for releasing Sandals “from any and all liability.”
“Let me start by thanking you for choosing Sandals Montego Bay for your honeymoon,” Sandals General Manager Horace Perez wrote in an Oct. 11, 2004, letter to the couple, stating he did “regret the incident that (the wife) reported that put a damper on your stay.”
“While the incident has been denied by the team member, as mutually agreed, we will replace your seven honeymoon nights as a goodwill gesture. … Please note also that we have taken off the spa charge that we offered along with the phone charges incurred in respect of the incident.”
The letter continued … “thanks again for your patience and understanding the matter and I do hope that you will become loyal Sandals returnees.”
A year later, the North Carolina couple took their replacement Sandals trip to St. Lucia. They were treated like royalty, the husband said. But they never patronized Sandals again.
“I thought it was crappy that it’s been going on for this long and they continue to try to push it under the rug and hide it,” said the husband, who hopes more publicity is an “impetus for change.”
“I don’t want this to happen to other people,” he said. “They gave us the paper work. We signed it. It was very corporate-like. … But the rest of our honeymoon sucked.”