The (Last) Vacation of a Lifetime: Why Are So Many Tourists Dying at Dominican Republic Resorts?

By Dana Kennedy
Getty

About 2,000 miles away from the Dominican Republic, in a little town in New Mexico, one of the world’s authorities on criminal poisoning is following the mysterious deaths and illnesses of Americans on that Caribbean island—and he, like others, is alarmed.

Six apparently healthy, middle-aged tourists from the United States have abruptly dropped dead in hotel rooms on their dream vacations in the D.R. since June 2018. Others have fallen seriously ill—all from what could be deadly pesticides.

More people are coming forward to say their loved ones died in the D.R. under strange circumstances in the past year, including real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran, who said on Wednesday her otherwise healthy brother passed away at a resort there in April, supposedly of a heart attack.

Confusing the issue are a recent series of apparently random acts of violence in the D.R. that aren’t connected to the hotel room deaths.

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Mexico, Jamaica and the Seychelles have made headlines in recent years after tourists said they were assaulted and/or robbed, often after being drugged with tainted alcohol. But the Dominican Republic, almost overnight, has gone them one better with chilling accounts that could be out of a Stephen King novel or an Agatha Christie mystery.

“I’ve been watching these incidences and they’re very odd,” says John Trestrail, a forensic and clinical toxicologist who headed a major hospital poison center for 32 years, was an FBI consultant, and now runs the Center for the Study of Criminal Poisoning in Los Lunos, New Mexico. Among the many cases about which he has been consulted in the past: the poisoning of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother at the Kuala Lumpur airport in 2017.

Speaking of the Dominican Republic incidents, Trestrail told The Daily Beast, “The tough part is trying to figure it out from so far away. What’s most troubling are the people who die together at the same time from the same symptoms. You first think carbon monoxide poisoning, but this doesn’t fit that. I keep hearing that the victims’ lungs were filled with fluids. So I think, OK, how about organophosphate pesticides?

Organophosphates and phosphine from aluminum phosphide are lethal chemicals used for, among other things, hotel room fumigation. They’re not always regulated in developing countries and accidental poisonings involving humans are thought to be a serious, although underreported problem, especially on the Indian subcontinent. They’ve been mentioned only rarely in connection with suspicious deaths of tourists and others around the world in recent years, but it is troubling that there is little transparency, awareness or accountability about their use.

The U.S. has controlled pesticides more stringently than many other countries for decades. But last spring Dow Chemical, which contributed $1 million to President Donald Trump’s inauguration festivities, asked the government to dismiss a study indicating that three organophosphates used in the U.S. were harmful to every endangered species studied. Obama-era regulators were poised to issue new limits on how organophosphate pesticides could be used. But that’s on hold now that Trump has asked for a two-year delay to review the study and determine whether to set new limits or not.

Organophosphates were first developed before World War II and later developed by the Nazis for use as possible chemical weapons.  They come in a variety of insecticides, herbicides, nerve agents (like VX) and flame retardants.  Weevil-Cide, which contains aluminum phosphide, was believed the cause of an apparent accidental poisoning that left four children dead in Amarillo, Texas, in 2017.

Initial autopsy reports from the Dominican Republic showed some of the victims died of pulmonary edema and respiratory failure, which apparently rules out carbon monoxide poisoning or the presence of methanol in any alcohol they drank—but could indicate these pesticides.

A 2014 film made in Saudi Arabia in cooperation with the country’s International Medical Center called simply Phosphine, with English subtitles, has racked up more than 5 million views on YouTube. The producers wanted to make the Saudi public aware that the pesticide is often distributed illegally and in places where you would not expect it.

A 2014 investigation by Canadian journalists found that there were at least a dozen suspicious deaths of tourists in Thailand hotels between 2009 and 2013 and the majority, if not all of them, were caused by aluminum phosphide, an insecticide that can kill you within a couple of hours if you’re in a room that was recently fumigated or next to one.

“Using organophosphates or phosphine to kill bedbugs, like some commercial exterminators do, is like using a Sherman tank to kill an ant,” says Cynthia Aaron, medical director of the Michigan Regional Poison Control Center at Children’s Hospital of Michigan and a former longtime colleague of Trestrail.

“The hotels deny, deny, deny. Maybe they know what’s really going on, maybe they don’t. Remember your autopsy is only as good as what you’re looking for, particularly in toxicology.”

Dominican police, politicians and hotel operators are taking a stance familiar to those who have fallen victim to crimes in resorts in developing countries around the world. The cops and hotels say they are investigating the deaths and have asked the FBI for additional toxicological analysis. But they’re also downplaying the incidents and in some cases blaming the media for sensationalizing what they say are just an unfortunate series of coincidences.

Dominican Tourism Minister Francisco Javier García said at a news conference last week that 30 million people have visited the Dominican Republic and these deaths are “regrettable” but “isolated incidents.”

“The hotels and everyone involved seems to be backpedaling something fierce,” says Trestrail. “This is just going to backfire, on everyone. If they want to preserve their image, they need to step up immediately and get to the bottom of this. Guests have a right to know. If nothing else, guests have the right to ask if their rooms have been fumigated recently and get a truthful answer.”

Miranda Schaup-Warner, 41, from Pennsylvania, fell ill and died two hours after checking into the Grand Bahia Principe luxury resort on the Dominican Republic’s south coast with her husband on May 25. A Maryland couple, Cynthia Ann Day, 49 and Nathaniel Edward Holmes, 63, were found dead in their hotel room in an adjacent hotel five days later.

After the initial autopsies that showed fluid in the lungs and respiratory failure, Dominican police later said Schaup-Warner died of a heart attack. The cause of death for Day and Holmes, pending further toxicological investigation, remains pulmonary edema and respiratory failure.

The death of Day and Holmes together is reminiscent of the widely-publicized deaths of the otherwise healthy, thirtysomething Korkki sisters, both bankers from the Midwest who were found unresponsive in their beds at the Maia Luxury Resort and Spa in the Seychelles in September 2016. The initial cause of death for both was said to be acute pulmonary edema. Seychelles officials later said they determined that the women died of acute pulmonary and cerebral edema from a drug combination of codeine, morphine, and alcohol, but controversy has always surrounded the case.

Last week, after hearing about the cases in the Dominican Republic, a Colorado couple said they experienced such terrifying and debilitating symptoms—drooling, sweating, eyes watering, when they stayed at the same resort in June 2018 that they booked an immediate flight home.

Kaylynn Krull said she suffered from cramping so bad that “it felt like a chainsaw going through my gut.” A doctor examined her and her boyfriend, Tom Schwander, and diagnosed them with organophosphate poisoning. The couple sued the resort for $1 million when they said it refused to tell them what kind of chemicals might have been used in their room or even offer them a refund.

Pesticide poisoning is the the most rational theory for some of the recent deaths and illnesses.

But it doesn’t account for the recent case of a Brooklyn woman who said she took a can of 7-Up from the minibar after her arrival at the Bahia Principe in October 2018 and drank something resembling bleach that made her spew blood.

“I was cautious when I took a gulp of it,” said Montes. “I immediately felt it burn me, burn my mouth, burn my tongue. My mouth was on fire,” she told CBS New York. “When I spit it out in bathroom sink it was blood. I was just irrigating my mouth.”

Nor do pesticides necessarily explain the death of 67-year-old Robert Wallace in April whose niece said he got sick right after drinking a bottle of scotch from the minibar at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in the D.R. and died three days later.

The family of Yvette Monique Sport, 51, of Glenside, Pennsylvania, says Sport died suddenly at the Bahia Principe in June 2018 after just arriving at the hotel. She took a drink from the minibar inside her hotel room, went to sleep and never woke up, her sister Felecia Nieves told the media. Her death was listed as a heart attack.

"She was 51 years of age, relatively healthy, no reason for her to go on vacation and die so suddenly," Nieves said after hearing about the recent deaths. Nieves said the family asked for a toxicology report a year ago but still has received nothing. “It makes me question at this point is this cause of death even true,” Nieves said.

Dawn McCoy is also questioning the death of her husband, David Harrison, in July 2018 at a Dominican resort. McCoy said her husband complained of not feeling well and woke up one morning with difficulty breathing and died shortly thereafter. Dominican officials gave his cause of death as pulmonary edema and referenced a heart attack as well.

“When it came up that they died from the same exact thing as my husband I thought ‘No, no, there’s no way two people could die of the same exact thing,’” McCoy told Fox News in Philadelphia.

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More confusingly, there have been recent incidents of seemingly random and apparently unrelated violence on the D.R. that don’t seem to have anything to do with tainted cocktails or pesticides.

Former Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who now lives in Boston, was shot in the back Sunday at a bar in his native Santo Domingo. A Delaware woman said she was severely beaten by an attacker wearing a hotel uniform who dragged her down to the basement of a Punta Cana resort and left her for dead in January.

A New York couple who went missing after they left in their rental car on March 27 to drive from their hotel to catch an early morning flight back to the U.S. later were said by police to have died in a very shady-sounding car crash. The car somehow wound up in the Caribbean and was just recently recovered.

The body of Portia Ravenelle, 51, was found near the alleged crash scene without identification and she died in a local hospital April 4 without regaining consciousness. The body of her boyfriend, Orlando Moore, 41, washed ashore on March 31, 13 miles from the alleged crash site. No witnesses have come forth to explain how the car crashed into the sea and yet Ravenelle was found badly injured on the roadside.

One thing is certain: Whatever has caused the many tourist deaths in the D.R. over the last year, whether the victims have been fumigated, liquidated, or died coincidentally of natural causes, the accumulation of mortal incidents is poisoning the Dominican Republic’s reputation.

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