Trapped in Paradise

My name is Sherman Hughes, a US educator and anthropologist from Lynchburg, VA. I’m a graduate of the University of Richmond and studied a masters of International Relations for 2 years in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I’ve also lived in Ecuador, Peru and traveled internationally to many countries throughout Latin America. Over the last 7 years I’ve worked in education in Washington, DC. This includes 2 years as a university professor at George Washington University and Trinity University. For the last 5 academic years I worked at Paul Public Charter School as a teacher, World Languages Department Chair, administrative intern and study abroad coordinator. On the 30th of September, I resigned from my job as a teacher with Paul PCS. I relocated to the Dominican Republic on the 14th of October to pursue study abroad programming for American students and teachers, as well as to work on a documentary “the other side of paradise”. This anthropological work allowed me to interview and experience the life of the impoverished communities outside of the tourist resorts.

After initiating my projects in the coastal beach town of Boca Chica, I decided to concentrate my efforts in the northern region of Puerto Plata in the small town of Cabarete. I rented a condo in the secure area of Cabarete called “ProCab”. I chose this area due to it’s high-level of security and proximity to local “barrios”. In order to enter my condo you have to pass street security at the entrance of ProCab, pass an electronic card to enter my building, pass an armed guard on the premises and have a key. The name of the complex ironically is Paradise Condos.

As I have traveled to the Dominican Republic various times over the last 4 years, I’m fully aware of the perils of working here: drug trafficking, police corruption, juvenile delinquency to prostitution. This is one reason I didn’t chose to stay in the local communities and found a secure dwelling. In order to penetrate and gain the respect of the local communities I solicited the assistance of a 24 year old Dominican whom I previously met and interacted with on prior visits.

The morning of the 6th of December I complained to the maintenance staff about problems with my electricity. They promptly agreed to have someone come fix the issue that afternoon. I left the apartment around 2:30pm to go work at my local writing spot, Vela Vela, located on the beach. Around 6pm I finished my daily work and decided to return home. I encountered my assistant on the beach and he decided to return with me. We arrived around 6:30pm. As I entered ProCab, everything seemed normal up to the armed security guard sitting in front of my condo. As I entered the condo, we were greeted with thick, black smoke. Something was definitely on fire but I wasn’t able to see any fire. The smoke was so thick we were not able to enter completely without passing out. We immediately ran out seeking help from the security guard. He called the managers of the property who arrived within 15mins. In the mean time, we were still unable to enter the condo. I was mostly concerned that my valuable property was in danger of being burned.

After the property management came, we were able to enter, find the origin of the fire (located in my bedroom) and put out the flames with an extinguisher. In the mean time I wanted to call the police and fire department but the property managers insisted that we would “find a solution”. I called the police anyways. After the initial walk through I noticed that my bag with my laptop, Ipad and US money were missing. When the police and fire department arrived, they initially stated it was an electrical failure. However, after we were unable to locate my valuables they concluded it was a provoked fire. Immediately my assistant was detained and taken to the local police station for questioning. The police insisted that he had prior record of stealing in the community. Later I was taken to the police station for questioning where I reunited with my assistant who was in handcuffs. After I was interrogated I was told to return the next morning. When I arrived the next morning I found my assistant still in handcuffs, shaken up and appeared to have been beaten by the police. I learned that the management company had already made a formal report (denuncio) about the fire. I asked if I could file a “denuncio” about my stolen and damaged items. I was told to return that afternoon at 5pm. When I returned I was informed that I could not file a “denuncio” for the robbery because they did not have a computer to do it. They were informally letting me know that in order to do so I would have to pay them. I refused. Subsequently, I was later informed that I would be indicted as well as my assistant as perpetrators of the fire. According to the law in the Dominican Republic that is an automatic 30 years in jail…more than drug trafficking and murder.

Everyday I went back to the police station in Cabarete to get a formal denouncement of my items stolen and burnt. I was told I had to pay for the “cello” or official police stamp. Again, I refused to pay. They later told me I had to travel to a city of Puerto Plata 30mins away. I went there and they informed me I had to make the report in Cabarete. 5 days later I was able to get a formal report for the robbery from the police. I had to pay for the police to go to a local internet café to type and print.

In the mean time, the property management company would not return my calls nor offer me another condo (I prepaid in advance). I had to stay in the smoke-filled, charred apartment. Immediately I knew I needed legal representation and found a reputable lawyer in town. I showed the report to my lawyer and he suggested we return to the Palace of Justice in Puerto Plata to move things faster. When we arrived they informed my lawyer that there was a warrant for my arrest. I was immediately arrested and stayed in jail for two days. No book nor movie prepared me for what I experienced on the inside. I had idea what to expect and for how long I would be there. The property management company advocated that I stay in jail for 6 months or pay $10,000. With the help of friends in Santo Domingo and my lawyer, I was able to pay $800 bail and leave jail. I was informed that I am restricted from leaving the country for 6 months pending the investigation. If convicted of collaboration of setting the fire I will get 30 years in jail. In the mean time, my assistant was released and relinquished of responsible. It’s obvious that they are coming solely after me because I’m an American who they believe has a lot of money. I’ve contacted both the US embassy in Santo Domingo and the consulate in Puerto Plata. They assigned me a resource officer who has yet to return my calls.

On a positive note, my bag with my laptop and Ipad were later found. Now I’m left with two options: 1) negotiate with the property management company for the damages or 2) fight the case in the Dominican court of law. The first option would immediately allow me to get out of the system and return home. The second option would take 6 months plus before I can put this “nightmare” behind me. Though I would love to free myself of the accusations and return back to my family and friends, a part of me wants to fight for truth and justice. Unfortunately, I don’t know if that exists here. Overall, I feel I was unfairly targeted because I’m a US citizen.

I’m asking for your financial assistance for my legal defense, as well as any advice and commentary on this matter.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story.

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8 thoughts on “Trapped in Paradise

  1. On justice: “I don’t know if that exists here.” – It probably doesn’t. From what you’ve described, your safest bet would be to get out of there as quickly as possible. You’ve already determined that the system is corrupt. The risk is just too great to fight over principle and justice. How much money is the apartment manager asking for? Can it be negotiated? Are you certain that the charges would be dropped entirely if you pay even that amount? How much are 30 years of your life worth?

    Please understand that I’m not offering this to attack you. In fact, I have lived abroad myself and traveled extensively in foreign countries and I have seen similar situations play out. Even if you are the victim, you are going to always be the “evil American”.

    Truly, it sounds like what has happened to you is horrific. Why take any chances here? Are you prepared to even spend one week in a Dominican prison where you will be continuously singled out as the foreigner?

    It is wholly possible that you could duke it out with the police and the legal system and potentially come out a free man. But what sort of toll will that process take on you as well?

  2. I’m a UR grad, and diplomat serving abroad. I hope that you have contacted the American Citizens Services department in the consulate there. They can often cut through the corruption when needed and provide you with solid advice.

  3. After watching many episodes of locked up abroad there is no justice for “rich Americans”. Get out. foreign jails are horrendous and you become the guards entertainment.

  4. Hi Sherman, we went to school together from Paul Munro up through EC Glass. I will make a donation shortly, but I would encourage you and your readers to contact your representatives in Congress. Though it may seem hopeless, your representatives can help encourage the state department to move in getting you released. I have linked to the representatives for Lynchburg below.

    Representative Bob Goodlatte: http://goodlatte.house.gov/contacts/new
    Senator Tim Kaine http://www.kaine.senate.gov/contact
    Senator Mark Warner: http://www.warner.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact

  5. You say the bag with your ipad and laptop was found. Where? How? That strikes me as a very strange detail. I’ve lived overseas for decades and my advice is to cut your losses and forget about finding “justice.” How you define that word, and how it’s defined locally are two very different things. Don’t forget all the people in American prisons who are innocent of any crime other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Find the cheapest, closest exit and take it. That’s what I’d do.

  6. Dude, got to Haiti and fly home from there. Its not to hard to get in, they are more worried about people coming into the DR. No point in fighting a loosing battle.

  7. You could have and should have entered Haití by crossing the Masacre river by foot, rather than cross at the border. From there get to Port Au Prince and fly back to the U.S.
    It all could have ended just that quick and easy. No passport because they took it? Go to the U.S. embassy in Haiti and report it lost. They’d have given you another and off to the U.S. you go.

  8. Damn! I lived in Sosua for 3 years and never dreamed this could happen. I had no issues at all especially after spending months living amongst the locals. Im truly sad to hear this, especially in Cabarete.
    What is the update?

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