Four days after a German tourist who inadvertently drove her rental car into an inner-city Miami neighborhood was assaulted, robbed and killed, the resulting outcry has turned the slaying into an international incident.
In Bonn, the German government issued a list of “precautionary measures” for nationals planning to visit Florida, the first time in memory such a travel advisory has been issued for a U.S. destination.
“We’re very concerned about the situation there, but we don’t want to overreact,” said a Foreign Ministry spokesman. “It’s not as if we want to say that Florida is especially bad or more brutal than anywhere else. It’s clearly no worse than New York.”
Nonetheless, Florida officials scrambled to control whatever damage the worldwide publicity about the attack might cause to the state’s $30-billion tourist industry, especially after recent waves of violence against French Canadian visitors to the Miami area and a rash of rock-throwing incidents last November which had National Guard troops patrolling an interstate highway near Jacksonville.
Barbara Jensen Meller, a 39-year-old physical therapist from Berlin, arrived in Miami Friday with her two young children and her mother. After picking up a red Ford Taurus from Alamo Rent-A-Car, she was heading from Miami International Airport to a Miami Beach hotel when apparently she became lost and pulled off Interstate 95 just north of downtown.
In a technique favored by smash-and-grab robbers, her car was rear-ended, and when Jensen got out to inspect the damage, at least two men attacked her and grabbed her purse. As they fled, they ran over Jensen with their car, crushing her head. Her horrified children and mother looked on.
She was the third German and sixth foreign visitor to be killed in Florida since December.
Gov. Lawton Chiles asked U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, the former chief prosecutor in Miami, if new federal laws against carjacking could also be used to convict criminals who prey on tourists. He also said he would take to a special session of the legislature a request that the telltale word “lease” as well as the Y and Z letters on rental car license plates be banned. To thieves, the special plates are known as “Rob me” tags, Miami police say.
Local, state and federal police agencies were to meet for the second time today on an emergency plan to combat street crime. Lee Condon, an agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said “you can’t look at this family and not feel emotion and heartbreak. It adds to the desire to do something quickly.”
In Dade County, tourism officials said they would expedite safety measures, including installation of directional road signs, many of which were first proposed 18 months ago when smash-and-grab robberies of tourists reached near- epidemic proportions here. After that outbreak, police established a special task force to safeguard visitors while tourism officials printed up “Hospitality Alert Brochures” that advise keeping windows up and doors locked.
But Jensen did not receive the brochure with her car keys. Alamo has offered a reward of up to $100,000 for information leading to the arrest of Jensen’s killers. Police have made no arrests.
Outrage over the killing has escalated daily, both in the United States and abroad. In Germany, the sensationalist newspaper Bild reported the story Monday under the headline: “Miami: Death Trap Under the Palm Trees.” Their version of events had “two gangsters . . . bent over the dying woman. One kicked her in the head with his boots. The other pummeled her body with his fists.”
Jensen’s husband, Christian, who arrived here over the weekend, appeared Tuesday on NBC’s “Today” and said he supported efforts to protect visitors to Miami. “It’s surely a good idea,” he said, “but it’s bad for us that they react so late.”
The day after Jensen’s slaying, the German consul in Miami, Klaus Sommer, said he was so concerned about the safety of his countrymen that he might urge them to avoid the city altogether. The German government did not go so far. But the Foreign Ministry did issue a list of the “most dangerous region(s)” of Miami, including Miami Beach, Liberty City, Overtown and Northwest Miami. Jensen was killed in the area of Liberty City.
Foreign visitors make up a sizable share of Florida tourism, the state’s largest industry, and Germans are a growing segment of the market. In the first 11 months of 1992, more than 403,000 Germans visited Florida, according to the state Commerce Department, and 75% came to Greater Miami. Overall, German visitors to Florida rose by 20% last year over 1991.
The average German tourist in the United States spends $1,150 and stays more than 14 days, according to a national survey.
“It was a heinous crime, and we are going to have some damage,” said Merritt Stierheim, president of the greater Miami Tourist and Convention Bureau.
Travel agents in Germany said it was too soon to tell what effect, if any, the Foreign Ministry’s advisory will have on vacation plans. “The Easter business is going along as usual,” said Ludwig Rapp, manager of the Thomas Cook travel agency in Bonn. Despite a small number of Florida cancellations, Rapp predicted, “We’re not going to see any hysteria. Of course, you’re a little disturbed, no question, and people who read the paper or watch television and see such reports are uneasy.”
Most foreign tourists interviewed by local reporters this week expressed concern over the threat of crime, and knew of Miami’s reputation, but insisted that by exercising caution, they could still enjoy themselves here.
At Miami International Airport Tuesday morning, Lee Cohn and his teen-age son, just arrived from Phoenix, were waiting for the Hertz shuttle bus to take them to their rental car. “I did read about (the attack on Jensen), but that wouldn’t stop me from coming,” said Cohn, who was headed for Islamorada in the Florida Keys and had no plans to stop in Miami.
“But this sort of thing happens everywhere,” he added.
Clary reported from Miami and Jones from Bonn. Researcher Anna Virtue in Miami contributed to this story.