A Murder That Didn’t Have to Happen
A BRUTAL ASSAULT ON A TOURIST IN FLORIDA
It was up to 6-year-old Alexander Jensen to tell the police, with the help of toy cars, miniature figures and a translator, what happened to his mother. German tourist Barbara Meller Jensen, 39, arrived in Miami 10 days ago with Alexander, his 2-year-old brother and her mother for a holiday in the sun. After picking up a rental car with the telltale “Z” license plate at the airport, Jensen and her family headed toward Miami Beach. She made a deadly wrong turn off Interstate 95, ending up after dark in the inner-city neighborhood of Overtown. After another car bumped hers from behind, Jensen got out, like any law-abiding European, to inspect the damage. At least two assailants jumped out, grabbed Jensen’s purse, beat her and ran her over-as her children and mother looked on helplessly.
Miami is no stranger to crime, but the brutal murder of a young woman in plain sight of her family horrified the city. Worst of all, the killing theoretically shouldn’t have occurred at all. Jensen was the seventh foreigner slain in Florida in the past six months, but authorities were slow to implement long-discussed safety measures. In February, Gov. Lawton Chiles invoked his emergency powers to overturn a state law requiring all rental-car tags to begin with the letter Y or Z. His order merely prohibited issuing new telltale plates, and began the process of replacing the 659,000 problem tags already in circulation–something that was expected to take at least six weeks. And many car-rental companies didn’t bother to comply with a Dade County ordinance banning promotional front tags and bumper stickers.
Last week Miami police charged Anthony Williams, 18, and Leroy Rogers, 23, with Jensen’s killing and questioned a third suspect. Detectives say they arrested the men after they mugged another woman in downtown Miami; she allegedly found Jensen’s address label in her purse after police returned it to her. Jensen’s attackers reportedly were “going Z-ing”-the street term for targeting tourists in cars-when they came upon her. Thugs have figured out that visitors-particularly jet-lagged Europeans who arrive at night-are easy prey. Three days before Jensen’s murder, robbers shot and wounded German vacationer Karl Wilhelm Schmidt and his son after smashing the window of their rental car and grabbing some luggage. “The robbers are shifting from the 7-Elevens to the tourists,” Miami Police Chief Calvin Ross told The Miami Herald. “It’s so lucrative that the gains outweigh the risks.”
The rash of assaults could dent the state’s $28 billion tourist industry. Europeans have long loved Florida-and the feeling is mutual. Miami alone get 1.3 million of them a year. During the high season French and German can be heard nearly as often as English and Spanish along the jammed sidewalks of South Beach. After last week’s murder, however, “we have noticed that there is a significant number of cancellations for Florida flights,” says Peter Freymuth of LTU International Airways, which flies in 1,200 passengers weekly from Dusseldorf. Tourists who make the trip now say they have done so despite frequent warnings in European news outlets.
Miami’s geography poses a particular challenge to arriving Europeans accustomed to international road symbols. There are few signs marking the expressway, which runs through the Overtown ghetto and south of crime-infested Liberty City. In theory, there’s no reason for a tourist to enter either area. But travel-industry executives say foreigners who haven’t yet changed currency sometimes veer off the expressway to avoid a 25-cent toll. Jensen’s husband, Christian, who flew in from Berlin after the killing, said his wife was ill prepared for the drive. “[Car rental agents] just gave her a map, nothing about the streets she should avoid, and nothing about the bumping of cars,” he said.
Jensen’s murder has finally forced public officials and businesses to try to make the city safer. The county rushed “tourist friendly” road signs into production last week. At the Miami airport’s Alamo Rent-A-Car office, where Jensen began her ill-fated journey, workers were busy replacing Y and Z plates with regular tags. And an announcement over the PA system urged renters to read packets with safety hints. (Alamo says safety brochures were given out to customers at the time of Jensen’s death.) A local news station advised motorists to reinforce car windows with Kevlar, a heavy plastic, to withstand thrown spark plugs-the weapon of choice in smash-and-grab robberies. “I don’t think our problems are insurmountable,” says Lars Hummerhielm, a Swedish businessman who has lived in Miami for 18 years. “But it takes murders to wake these deadbeats up.” Clearly, Florida residents welcomed the new concern, but wish it had come sooner.