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Bad Old Days: City Of Future Haunted By The Past

February 24, 1996

MIAMI (AP) _ A frightful winter sent Northerners south by the thousands and European tourists returned in droves this year as memories of murdered foreigners and cocaine smugglers faded and Miami tourism soared to record levels.

But within a few hours Friday morning, a Dutch tourist was slain just north of Miami and federal agents announced a crackdown on sharply increased smuggling of Colombian cocaine _ grim reminders that America’s Casablanca still lives on the edge.

The bad old days of the ’80s and early ’90s aren’t back, but Miami still struggles to escape its checkered past.

``Here we go again,″ Miami police Chief Donald Warshaw said after hearing news of the killing.

Police still hadn’t made an arrest Saturday in the murder of 39-year-old Dutch tourist Tosca Dieperink, who was ambushed by gunmen when she and her husband, Gerrit-Jan, stopped at a Shell gas station in one of northern Dade County’s struggling neighborhoods.

The murder struck a painful nerve in a city that lives on winter tourism, especially foreign visitors, drawn by Miami’s balmy breezes, palm trees and the lure of attractions like South Beach and the nearby Florida Keys.

The killing of 10 foreign visitors over a 13-month period two years ago sharply set back the state’s $31 billion tourist industry, which had rebounded in 1995. A record 9.4 million visitors came to the Miami area last year, up 7 percent from the previous year. And the ``Blizzard of 96″ promised the start of another banner year.

Along South Beach Friday night, tourists strolled the packed sidewalks in the Art Deco district under a Miami moon as conga mingled with blues from the nightclubs.

William ``Max″ Maxwell, on a street corner playing the blues, worried about the latest bad news.

``This kind of thing hurts everybody,″ the 59-year-old Maxwell said. ``It hurts me bad because it makes people afraid to come here. There’s a sickness in some of these communities, the poverty, the drugs ...″

Maxwell said Miami Beach ``really started to take off two years ago, then they killed that German woman and it started to slide downhill.″

German artist Sascha Seitz, displaying his work at the beach, recalled hearing about the April 1993 murder of Barbara Meller Jensen, beaten and run over by young toughs after getting lost near the interstate.

``Everybody was very scared to come here,″ Seitz recalled, noting Europeans ``take note when something happens to a tourist anywhere.″

County officials held an anxious news conference Friday to offer condolences to the Dieperink family and reassure the world, once again, that Miami wasn’t backsliding.

``When anyone is killed in Dade County, all of us mourn,″ said Metro Dade Commissioner Miguel de la Portilla. ``Today it was a tourist. We have to remember that this is an explosion of violence in our society.″

About 30 international travel writers were visiting Miami for its centennial activities at the time of the murder, which interrupted their tour by the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Some took the news in stride.

Jay Crawford from Radio Fourth in Edinburgh Scotland said: ``It’s like the bombs going off in buses in London. Would that deter Miami tourists from visiting London?″

Miami’s tourism officials were on the defensive anyway, reminding of improvements like the tourist police at Miami International Airport, improved tourist signs and removal of telltale markings on rental cars. The Summit of the Americas and the Super Bowl were held in the area without a hitch in the last couple of years.

``Our programs have worked,″ said Visitors’ Bureau spokesman Mayco Villafana. ``The statistics prove that.″

Tourist robberies in the Miami area have dropped by more than 70 percent since 1992. And the recent resurgence of cocaine smuggling by the low-key Cali cartel hasn’t brought back the violent shootouts between the cocaine cowboys of the 1980s.

When the Dutch visitors were assaulted Friday, they were far off the beaten path for tourists, almost 15 blocks west of Interstate 95 in an economically depressed commercial neighborhood.

At the Shell station in north Dade County Saturday, cashier Gloria Restrepo sat smiling nervously behind bulletproof glass and admitting she suffered a sleepless night.

``I never come out of this booth at night,″ she said.

One of her customers, 34-year-old Sybrena Grant, was angry about the shooting, and the image of Miami it presents to the world.

``People start to think all black people are hoodlums,″ Grant said. ``We’re just trying to survive like everybody else.″

The reaction in the Netherlands didn’t match the breathless coverage in Germany and Great Britain two years ago.

De Telegraaf, the Netherlands’ top-selling daily, carried the murder story on Page 8, including a warning to readers:

``Anyone who doesn’t know their way around this town is in great danger of getting lost in one of the many slums where strangers make easy pickings for criminal gangs.″

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