For the second time in six months, the brutal murder of a German tourist within minutes of arriving here has touched off an international furor and renewed fears among Florida officials that the state’s $30-billion-a-year tourist industry will suffer.
In a hastily arranged press conference in Miami Wednesday afternoon, Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles deplored what he called “this senseless act of violence” and vowed: “We will bring this killer to justice.”
In Germany, the shooting death early Wednesday of Uwe-Wilhelm Rakebrand, 33, of Adendorf, has caused a sensation. He is the fourth German and eighth foreign visitor to South Florida to be killed since last October.
“Once again Florida: German tourist chased and murdered,” read the headline in Wednesday’s edition of the national newspaper Bild.
Late Wednesday night, Miami police announced the arrest of a suspect in the slaying. The vehicle that police believe was used in the attack, a yellow Ryder rental van, was impounded.
“We got the bad guys’ car, one of the bad guys and the bad guy’s gun,” said Miami police Sgt. Gerald Green in announcing the arrest of 19-year-old Ricondall Wiggins. Green said more suspects were being sought.
Wiggins, who allegedly was driving the van, was charged with first-degree murder and attempted robbery. Asked if the suspect was part of a gang, Green replied: “They’re not a gang--they’re hunters.”
In Bonn, the German Foreign Ministry reissued a travel advisory urging its citizens to avoid picking up rental cars at Miami International Airport. Instead, the government recommended that visitors to the city have rental cars delivered to their hotels.
Rakebrand, an agricultural engineer, and his 27-year-old wife, Kathrin, had flown into Miami, picked up a rental car--an unmarked red Toyota Corolla--and were headed east on a major freeway to a Miami Beach hotel just after midnight when they were bumped from behind by two men in a van, Miami police said.
At the time, Kathrin Rakebrand was reading aloud from a safety pamphlet that rental car agencies have been handing out since the April slaying of another German tourist, Barbara Meller Jensen, 39, who was beaten, robbed and run over. After her rental car was rammed from behind by would-be thieves, she had gotten out of the car to inspect the damage.
The brochure advises tourists not to stop if bumped from behind. Kathrin Rakebrand told her husband, who was driving, not to stop. Their car was then bumped again, police said. When the Rakebrands continued, the men in the van pulled alongside and a shot was fired that stuck Rakebrand in the back.
As the van sped off, the rental car crossed the freeway median and wound up in the westbound lanes, where it was struck by another vehicle, police said. Kathrin Rakebrand, a bookseller who is three months pregnant, was not injured, police said.
According to the German press, the Rakebrands had been married less than a year and had arrived in Miami on a delayed honeymoon.
“She’s of course in shock,” said Walter Weinberger, deputy German consul in Miami.
“It seems like they did everything right and the husband was still killed,” said Miami police Sgt. Diego Ochoa, who investigated the Jensen slaying. Two men have been arrested and charged with first-degree murder and strong-armed robbery in that case. “It’s just something we have to face,” Ochoa added. “It’s reality in the city of Miami.”
Thomas Seim, an editor with Westdeutsche Allgemeine, another major German newspaper, said that he expects publicity over the Rakebrand killing to make some Germans think twice about vacationing in Florida. “These tourists acted precisely as they were advised, but it didn’t help them,” he said. “So what can you do?”
“This event fills me . . . with anger,” said German Consul Klaus Sommer, who spent much of Wednesday morning with Rakebrand’s widow and appeared with Chiles at the midday press conference. While lauding “significant and considerable improvement” in security for tourists since the Jensen slaying, Sommer said that “this senseless, brutal, not-describable crime takes place . . . and a shadow falls over greater Miami, this community.”
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said: “Obviously, it’s tragic. It’s something that the President is very concerned about.”
The murder of Jensen, a teacher of physical therapy who--with her mother and two small children--got lost after leaving the airport, led to the creation of a statewide tourism task force on crime. Among the task force’s recommendations were that easy-to-follow directional signs to Miami Beach be posted and that rental agency bumper stickers and license plates bearing the letters Y and X--which identified rented cars--be done away with in the Miami area.
Those steps have been taken. Signs emblazoned with a green palm tree point the way to Miami Beach, the German couple’s rental car bore no rental agency stickers and its license plate number did not contain a Y or X.
But many thieves who prey on tourists are known to stake out the rental agencies around the airport and simply follow likely victims, police said.
“Unfortunately, law enforcement is not omnipresent,” Miami Police Chief Calvin Ross said.
While deploring the murder, Merrett R. Stierheim, president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, said: “We hope that the German public understands that crime in greater Miami has decreased in the last three years and we have initiated many new programs to safeguard the safety of our visitors. These random acts of violence are the work of a small number of criminals that law enforcement is working to control.”
The visitors bureau has offered an $11,000 reward for information leading to the apprehension and conviction of the assailants, Stierheim said. He added: “Miami is a caring community and this tragic and senseless act is not a reflection of the people of Miami.”
Despite the Jensen killing and several other highly publicized assaults on tourists in Florida, Germans continue to flock to the state in record numbers. According to figures from the Florida Commerce Department’s Division of Tourism, 453,559 Germans came to Florida in 1992, an 18% increase over 1991.
In the first four months of this year, 186,255 Germans visited the Sunshine State, an increase of 32% over the same period in 1992. The number of German visitors to Florida is second only to Britons among European tourists.
Among all overseas visitors to the United States, Miami ranks fourth in popularity as a vacation spot behind New York, Los Angeles and Orlando, according to the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration.
At the press conference, Chiles said: “Let’s face it. We live in a very violent society. It doesn’t get this kind of coverage when one of our citizens is shot, but that happens every night.”
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue in Miami and special correspondent Markus Gunther in Los Angeles contributed to this story.