Chillingly, it was the second time that authorities had been to the resort that week: Five days earlier, they had found the body of Miranda Schaup-Werner, a 41-year-old psychotherapist from Allentown, Pennsylvania.
She had collapsed after having a drink from the minibar.
Her autopsy gave the same apparent cause of death as Day and Holmes.
In fact, the US State Department confirmed on June 14 that there have been at least six mysterious deaths in Dominican Republic resorts in the past year – four at the Grand Bahia properties, while two additional deaths occurred just down the beach at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana.
And dozens more travellers have reported falling mysteriously ill in the tourist district around Punta Cana, including a group of 47 Oklahoma-based Jimmy Buffett fans who suffered with severe diarrhoea, nausea, dizziness and vomiting while visiting the Hotel Riu Palace Macao, less than a mile from the Hard Rock Hotel.
“It’s definitely very strange,” says Reynold A. Panettieri Jr., a physician at Rutgers University in New Jersey who specialises in toxicology.
“Healthy people don’t just die. And the couple dying at the same time certainly tips us off that something is very wrong.”
As investigators from the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control descended on the island, The Grand Bahia, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and Hotel Riu Palace Macao have all issued statements that affirm the companies’ commitment to guest safety, and both US and Dominican governments assure travellers that there is no cause for alarm.
“We have 2.7 million Americans who come to the country,” Robin Bernstein, the US ambassador to the Dominican Republic, said in a statement.
“This is a very unique event. Unfortunately, sometimes those things happen to people.”
That doesn’t satisfy Dawn McCoy, whose husband David Harrison died at the Hard Rock Hotel last July.
“Something’s going on,” she says. “They died of the same exact thing my husband died from. This is not a coincidence.”
The six confirmed dead had little in common – except for their causes of death.
Yvette Monique Sport was enjoying a romantic getaway with her fiancé in June 2018 at the Grand Bahia Principe, Punta Cana, when she died.
After a full day at the beach, the 51-year-old from Glenside, Pennsylvania made herself a drink, had a shower, and went to sleep.
When her fiancé tried to wake her hours later, she was unresponsive.
“He tried to nudge her and there was no sound and then she was gone,” Sport’s sister, Felecia Nieves told NBC News, insisting that Sport had been in good health.
In April 2019, Robert Bell Wallace, a 67-year-old construction manager from California, became ill almost immediately after drinking a scotch from his room’s minibar at the Hard Rock Hotel.
His family says that they still have not learned the cause of death.
“It is possible for drinks from the minibar to contain a toxin, so if that’s the common denominator, that’s always a possibility,” says Panettieri.
“Those can be tested easily, and traced back to where they came from.”
Others who have fallen ill think there could be something toxic in the air.
Kaylynn Knull and Tom Schwander, a couple from Colorado vacationing at the Grand Bahia Principe last year, have filed a $1.45 million lawsuit against the resort claiming they became violently ill after being exposed to chemicals coming through the air-conditioning vents.
Knull told Denver’s Channel 7 news, “It felt like a chainsaw going through my gut.”
And some victims’ families believe they were rushed to close their loved ones’ cases to avoid investigation into the deaths.
“The funeral home kept trying to get me to cremate my husband,” says McCoy.
“They asked me three or four times before they sent him home.”
While the investigation continues, the questions about what happened – and why– continue to haunt victims’ loved ones. “It’s so tragic, because this was supposed to be such a good trip for them,” says Johnston, Day’s friend.
“She lived such a big life. She wanted each day to be special, and this vacation was part of it. It’s just devastating.”
Is it safe to travel to the Dominican Republic?
Travellers should know the risks and decide for themselves, say experts.
With around six million international tourists travelling to the Dominican Republic a year, the number who have died or taken sick are statistically minimal.
“People do die on vacation,” says Sven Holbom, manager of TravelIn Style agency.
Travellers have to decide based on “his or her own individual risk tolerance”, says Erika Richter, communications director for the American Society of Travel Advisors.
Until the deaths and sicknesses are solved, “it’s hard to give any kind of advice”, says Christian Jannasch, destination manager for Dominican Experts travel agency.
“If someone is worried and feels like they can’t enjoy the holiday, maybe they shouldn’t go.”
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