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Concern for Florida Tourist Safety

January 19, 1999

MIAMI (AP) _ Two robberies that left a Canadian man dead and a prominent Latin American businesswoman in critical condition have sparked concern for tourist safety in south Florida.

The attacks have rekindled memories of tourist killings that plagued the state in the early 1990s and have led to worries about the area’s image during the Jan. 31 Super Bowl at nearby Pro Player Stadium.

``We’re at the height of the tourist season, with Super Bowl coming,″ Miami-Dade County Manager Merrett Stierheim said. ``Without question, this is a sensitive time for us. ... We’re concerned. We’ve been down this road before.″

Benoit Lessard, 69, a retired truck driver from Quebec, was shot through the heart early Sunday by a gunman who may have followed him home from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to an area populated by Canadian snowbirds and retirees.

He was ambushed one day after wealthy Panamanian Lynn Motta was robbed and repeatedly shot at a shopping mall.

Hours after Lessard was killed, his wife and daughter packed and left Miami-Dade County for good.

Stierheim stressed that Miami-Dade County’s crime rate has drastically improved since 1993, when three German tourists were killed in robberies. ``This is not the Miami we saw in 1993,″ he said. ``But it depends on what the media does, especially the tabloids. The last time they blew things up. They would be doing a tremendous disservice if they did that again.″

The state’s tourism industry took two years to recover from the effects of 10 tourist-related slayings in 1992 and 1993. Of those killings, six were committed in the Miami area.

In response, the Miami-Dade County created a tourism police patrol at Miami International Airport and nearby car rental agencies, where much of the crime was occurring. They put up new highway signs and created maps to help keep tourists from getting lost and venturing into dangerous areas.

Tourist robberies investigated by the Miami-Dade police department have dropped significantly since then, falling 86 percent from 1992 to 1997.

Miami-Dade police were still searching for suspects in both attacks. They are investigating the possibility that both Lessard and Motta were targeted and stalked.

Motta, shot several times, remained in critical condition Tuesday at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Surveillance video from inside the mall may show the suspect tailing Motta while she shopped, police said. She was shot in the mall’s garage.

``The subject tried to take her purse and she refused to let go,″ said Miami-Dade police spokesman detective Rudy Espinosa.

Tourism officials in Miami-Dade and Broward counties said the shootings weren’t tourism related, arguing that both victims were picked randomly.

``This doesn’t fit the profile of a tourist target,″ said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. ``If somebody had followed (Lessard) to a hotel and done this, it would be a different story.″

``We survey our visitors every month and crime hardly registers on the radar screen,″ said William Talbert, acting president and chief executive officer of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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