Epidemic of ‘Smash-and-Grab’ Robberies Terrorize Miami Tourists : Crime: The thieves often target foreigners traveling in rental cars. An attack on a British couple stunned the city and drew attention to the problem.
On the first day of their vacation, John and Rose Hayward flew in from Britain, rented a car at the airport and were promptly lured off the freeway into a crime-ridden northwest Miami neighborhood where they were shot, wounded and robbed.
On the second day of their vacation, they were hospitalized, celebrity victims.
In the last few months, Miami has been suffering from what police call an epidemic of “smash-and-grab” robberies, primarily directed at tourists traveling in easily identified rental cars.
“We’ve always had this type of crime, but until recently, it was confined to some hot spots,” said Miami police spokesman Angelo Bitsis. “In this latest wave, it seems to have spread.”
Indeed, the assault on the Haywards was only the most brutal in a spate of attacks on tourists, many of them foreigners. During the same 24-hour period in which the Haywards were shot, five other carloads of tourists were robbed. Among the victims were visitors from four different countries, including 11 members of the Soviet Union’s 1980 Olympic rowing team. They reportedly lost $2,800.
Last week, police said a German visitor was stripped of $100,000 worth of Rolex watches when thieves on a motorcycle grabbed her purse from her lap as she sat in a rented convertible stopped at a traffic light.
But it was the wanton shooting of Rose Hayward, 59, and her husband, John, a 63-year-old retired firefighter, and the subsequent worldwide publicity that has galvanized Miami’s civic leaders to grapple once again with the image problems that have dogged this city for most of the last decade.
“It’s more an image problem than a factual problem, but it’s a serious image problem,” said Kent Jurney, who heads the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce crime prevention committee. “And we can’t ignore it.”
Almost in spite of its reputation as a world capital of violent crime, drug trading and ethnic conflict, southern Florida remains a major tourist destination for North and South Americans as well as increasing numbers of Europeans and Asians. Some 8 million visitors pass through Miami each year, and most experience nothing more painful than a sunburn.
But the Hayward shooting stunned Miami. As local tourism officials quickly rounded up $10,000 as a reward for information leading to the conviction of the assailants, British Airways offered to fly in the Haywards’ relatives from Oxfordshire. Two of John Hayward’s brothers and two of the couple’s children accepted the offer.
Hotels and restaurant associations contributed money to the Greater Miami Visitors and Convention Bureau for the printing of 500,000 “Hospitality Alert Brochures,” advising visitors to “always be alert and aware of what is going on around you. Keep doors locked and windows up when driving.”
Police, meanwhile, beefed up a special task force, Operation STAR, for Safeguarding Tourists Against Robbery, and within days made two arrests in the Hayward shooting. Police hope that more arrests will end what they call a fad among criminals.
“The word on the street is that it’s a lucrative crime,” Bitsis said. “Tourists have . . . money and cameras, they are less likely to get a description, they are long gone when the case comes to trial. The guys doing this are not stupid; they know all of these things.”
The prime targets of “smash-and-grab” robberies are tourists in rental cars, which are clearly identified by company bumper stickers and license plates that begin with the letter Y. Typically, a rock is used to break out a window, and the thieves reach in to grab handbags or other valuables before the car’s dazed occupants can react.
In recent weeks, the Hertz, Avis and Budget rental car companies have given in to pressure from tourism officials to remove the stickers. But others, including Alamo Rent-A-Car, maintain that attacks on tourists will not be stopped by a measure as simple as that.
“We don’t want to rush into a knee-jerk reaction, remove the stickers and then have police overlook other mitigating factors,” said Liz Clark, a spokeswoman for Alamo, Florida’s largest rental car company. “These are not blind attacks. I know it sounds flip, but it’s not as though tourists are not spottable in unmarked cars. They have a lot of luggage, they dress differently than you or I, they carry maps and cameras.”
Moreover, Clark says, there is evidence that many robbers are staking out rental car lots near the airport, selecting potential victims as they drive out of the lot and then following them.
That is apparently what happened to the Haywards.
On Aug. 29, as they made their way north on Interstate 95, looking for the turn to Orlando, someone in another car shouted that the Haywards’ car was on fire. They pulled off the freeway and, after stopping, were approached by two men who pulled out guns and demanded their money.
When the Haywards refused, she was shot in the chest, he in the shoulder. The bandits fled with the couple’s passports and jewelry.
The Haywards never made it to Orlando and Disney World. They left for home last Tuesday, refusing to comment on their ordeal. They even avoided speaking to London reporters who sneaked into Rose Hayward’s hospital room. According to Jurney, the couple also turned down $90,000 to appear on an American tabloid television program.
But in an open letter to the Haywards, Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen did offer an explanation of what befell them. “As you sat in that rented Dodge, confronted by two young outlaws, you probably wondered: How did these fellows manage to get a gun?” Hiaasen wrote. “Easy, Mr. and Mrs. Hayward, this is Florida, the gun-happiest place in America.
“Any idiot can buy a firearm here because idiots wrote the firearm laws.”
And then Hiaasen added these words of consolation: “Look on the bright side. You get to go home. To civilization.”