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Crime Is Magnified In Tourist Paradise

January 28, 1996

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands (AP) _ It’s advertised as ``America’s Paradise,″ and paradise shouldn’t have crime. When violence hits a place known for tranquil beaches and tropical sunsets, tourists get scared _ and so do local business people.

Tourism is the economic lifeblood of these Caribbean islands. So the shooting of three American tourists Wednesday has residents and merchants worried that prospective travelers will change their minds about coming to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

``When the media begins talking about crime here, the tourists get alarmed and go to other islands,″ said cab driver Franklin Conner, who, like 85 percent of workers here, depends on tourism to make money.

The two masked gunmen were waiting in a parking lot Wednesday night when the car filled with tourists arrived. Marie Sardella, a florist from Walpole, Mass., and Walter Schenk, 58, a construction company owner from Philadelphia, were shot in the head. William Garrity, 52, an Atlantic City restaurateur, was shot in the abdomen.

The three were in critical condition Sunday. Sardella and Schenk underwent neurosurgery in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Garrity was in intensive care at St. Thomas Hospital.

Local investigators working with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco have ``solid leads and witnesses″ and expect to make arrests soon, said Police Chief Ramon Davila. He said no motive had been established, and the victims’ wallets were untouched.

Crime happens infrequently here, by mainland standards. What magnifies the problem is its unexpectedness. Tourists who always hear about crime at home most likely don’t want to hear about it _ or confront it _ on vacation.

``One killing is one too many,″ said the police chief. Davila insists crime in general is decreasing in the Virgin Islands, yet residents criticize his department for having few arrests and few successful prosecutions.

The U.S. territory has a population of 101,809 and a tourism industry that lures 1.9 million people each year. For 1995, police reported 22 killings, 14 fewer than the previous year. Only one of the 1995 victims was a tourist: a Washington D.C. woman whose throat was slashed in a November robbery. Two suspects were arrested.

Business people fear that media attention, rather than the actual shootings, will harm their billion-dollar tourism industry, already struggling to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Marilyn last fall.

Many hotels still are shut. Miles of downed cables and trees litter the roadsides. Wrecked homes scar the hillsides.

Island hotels reported few cancellations following Wednesday’s shootings. Over the weekend, thousands of tourists from four cruise ships strolled downtown.

To reassure residents and tourists, the police have started patrolling the downtown shopping district on bicycles. Instructors from the Baltimore Police Department were expected to begin training foot patrol officers on Tuesday.

Still, jewelry store employee Terrence Smith said these days, he closes the shop before sundown.

And some residents are just as wary.

``I don’t go out at night anymore,″ said a 25-year-old resident, Patty Walcott. ``And I know many others who simply stay home at night. It’s too much risk.″

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