Is Tainted Alcohol to Blame for Deaths and Sickness in the Dominican Republic? A Doctor Weighs In

Steve Helling

In the past year, according to the U.S. State Department, at least eight American tourists have died after falling ill at Dominican Republic resorts — and dozens more have gotten sick.

The FBI and CDC have confirmed it is investigating the deaths of at least six of the tourists who have died since the summer of 2018. Some of them passed away in what appear to be bizarre — and similar — circumstances. The agencies are not yet releasing further details about the investigations.

“It’s definitely very strange,” Reynold A. Panettieri Jr., a physician at Rutgers University who specializes in toxicology, tells PEOPLE. “Healthy people don’t just die. And the couple dying at the same time certainly tips us off that something is very wrong.”

Three of the victims — Robert Wallace, Miranda Schaup-Werner and Monique Sport — had a drink from their hotel minibar before falling ill, leading many people to believe that tainted alcohol could be the culprit. Panettieri says that’s a plausible theory.

Grand Bahia Principe Hotel Resort | Shutterstock

“It is possible for drinks from the minibar to contain a toxin,” he tells PEOPLE, “so if that’s the common denominator, that’s always a possibility.”

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Hard Rock Resort and Casino Punta Cana | Shutterstock

The New York Post reports investigators in the Dominican Republic are investigating whether counterfeit alcohol has played a role in some deaths.

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The report says authorities are investigating who supplied the alcohol the victims drank before they died, and if the drinks had any toxic chemicals in them. A source told the Post the FBI is assisting and will take blood samples from the victims back to its research center in Quantico, Virginia.

RELATED: Mysterious Dominican Republic Tourist Deaths: The Victims So Far

Currently, the CDC and the FBI are investigating four deaths at various Grand Bahia Principe properties: Nathaniel Edward Holmes, 63, and Cynthia Ann Day, 49, were found dead in their hotel room May 30 at the Bahia Principle La Romana. Five days earlier, Miranda Schaup-Werner, 41, collapsed shortly after mixing a drink from the minibar in the Luxury Bahia Principe Bouganville in La Romana. Last year, Pennsylvania native Yvette Monique Sport, 51, collapsed at the Bahia Príncipe resort in Punta Cana.

Additionally, authorities are investigating the deaths of two Americans at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Punta Cana. David Harrison, 45, died in July 2018. Robert Bell Wallace, 67, died last April.

“This will be a long investigation,” Panettieri tells PEOPLE. “But they’ll figure it out.”