Strangers in Paradise

updated 04/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On a warm Friday evening early this month, Barbara Meller-Jensen, a visitor from Germany and the mother of two small children, was brutally murdered in a "bump-and-run" robbery only five miles from Miami International Airport. The seventh tourist killed in Florida in the last seven months, Jensen was seen, across the country and around the world, as the latest casualty of a frightening Florida trend: young criminals stalking tourists who drive clearly marked rental cars. As the German government warned travelers to the state to be careful and German tabloids screamed "Deathtrap Under the Palms," Florida officials scrambled to quell the panic and implement new measures to protect visitors—as well as the state's $29 billion-a-year tourist industry. Meanwhile, Meller-Jensen's death left her family shattered. Here is her story and those of two other tourists who wandered into tragedy.

Murdered for an empty purse

On April 2, physical therapist Barbara Meller-Jensen, 39, arrived in Miami for what was supposed to be two weeks of sun, sand and sightseeing. With her mother and two children in tow, the Berlin resident—whose husband, Christian, was at home working on his thesis—boarded a courtesy bus to pick up a rental car. At just past 8:30 p.m. Meller-Jensen steered a red Ford Taurus out of the Alamo lot and headed for Miami Beach, where she had reservations at a Days Inn. But she never got to see the city's stunning art-deco neighborhoods, its wide beaches or its bustling sidewalk cafes.

Instead, Meller-Jensen strayed off Interstate 95 at N.W. 62nd Street. Perhaps she was tired after nine hours of traveling, or perhaps she simply misread the confusing highway signs that so often steer tourists wrong. In any case, she had entered another world—one in which the tropical nights hold no magic, only poverty and danger. In Dade County, the interstate cuts a narrow swath through some of America's bleakest urban terrain—neighborhoods like Liberty City and Overtown. Meller-Jensen was on a relatively quiet, dark street near an elementary school when her car was hit from behind. When she got out to check the damage, the two men in the other car demanded her purse. Then, as her mother, Annemarie Meller, 71, and her children, Alexander, 6, and Daria, 2, watched in horror, the men grabbed her purse and beat her with their fists. When she fell to the ground, the thieves ran back to their car. As they drove away, their tires rolled over Meller-Jensen's head.

"They got absolutely nothing," says Miami police sergeant Diego Oehoa. "They stole an empty purse. The victim's wallet, with all her valuables, fell out during the scuffle." Behind them, Barbara Meller-Jensen lay on the dark street in a huge, spreading pool of blood. A police officer on routine patrol arrived within seconds and Meller-Jensen was rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead from a "crushing head injury."

On April 4, Meller-Jensen's husband, Christian, arrived in Miami and appealed (or information about the crime. Earlier, little Alexander had helped police re-create the incident. "The little boy is extremely intelligent," says Oehoa. "He was able to tell us a lot." On Thursday, April 8, Leroy Rogers, 23, and Anthony Williams, 18, were charged with killing Meller-Jensen. The two had been arrested for a purse-snatching committed 17 hours after the murder. When the purse was returned, its owner found an address label inside with Meller-Jensen's name on it. Her discovery led police to Williams and Rogers.

"I hope that the death of my wife, the mother of my children, was not useless," said Meller-Jensen's husband, "so that the city of Miami should take better care in the future to inform tourists." The high-profile crime has led officials to improve road signs, switch rental-car license plates to remove the telltale Y or Z and have safety information available at the airport. A police unit has been assigned to redirect motorists who stray from the freeway inside Miami city limits, where police estimate that 25 drivers a month are attacked in their cars. For Jensen, the hardest part is explaining the tragedy to his children. "I am very proud of my little boy, that he has helped the police," he said. "But I'm very afraid because Alexander still hopes that his mother is living."

The man who did not come to dinner

Once a year, Venezuelan diplomat Jesus Alberto Delgado, 47, would travel from Paris to visit his friends Osvaldo and Sonia Garcia in Miami. This year Delgado—and the Garcias—were invited to a dinner in the diplomat's honor. So on Tuesday, Jan. 26, the three climbed into the car Delgado had rented for his stay. Though Osvaldo, a 32-year resident of Miami, knew that rental cars were often a target for thieves, he figured that with three people inside, there wouldn't be any problem. Just to make sure, he would drive.

As they pulled up to the house in the tony neighborhood south of downtown where they were to have dinner, another car pulled up behind them. "Two people got out," says Garcia, "and I thought they must be dinner guests too." But then the other car pulled away, and Garcia eased the Budget rental to the curb. While he got out to open the door for his wife, Delgado climbed out of the backseat. That's when Garcia spotted trouble. The car he thought had pulled away was now on the other side of the street. "I knew what was happening," Garcia says, "and my only thought was to buzz the gate so they could let us in."

As he ran to the gate with Sonia, one of the men from the other car approached. "He had a gun pointed at me, and he said, 'Give me everything.' I started screaming, 'Leave us alone! We don't have any money!' " At that point the gale opened, and Garcia pushed his wife toward the door of the house. As he turned to check on Delgado, he saw that the gunman's companion had ripped the diplomat's wallet from his pants pocket. Then, as Garcia watched, the thug look a two-handed firing stance and shot Delgado in the head. "They had no regard for anything, the way they killed this man," he says in disbelief. "They got in the car and drove away. I ran to my friend. He was hit in the head near the right eye, and I remember I asked for a towel to put in his wound. I held him in my arms until the paramedics came."

A short while later, at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Delgado was pronounced dead of severe brain trauma. "There's a lot of evil loose in this city," says Garcia. "These people shot this man after they had his wallet. We'll never be the same." No one has been arrested for the murder.

A bullet for the postman

Back home in Chelmsford, England, they called him the whistling postman. And while Keith Thompson, 42, was always cheerful when he was delivering the mail, he was especially buoyant when he and his fiancée, Ann Sole, 34, arrived in Orlando last Oct. 6 for a three-week holiday.

It was late in the evening by the time the couple and their friends Alan and Catherine Robinson-Thorley pulled into a $40-a-night Comfort Inn. As the visitors were unloading their luggage from a rental car, two men approached. "They started walking towards us, and I thought they were making for a parked car," said Sole, a computer operator. Then one of the men pulled out a gun and ordered the couple to hand over their money. Trying not to provoke them, Sole avoided eye contact. "I spoke as calmly as I could and said, 'There is no problem here. I will get it for you.' " But Thompson refused to hand over his wallet. "Keith's natural reaction was to say, 'No way,' " Sole recalled. "Then I looked up, and the man opened fire. It was all over so quickly, and the men ran away." As Thompson lay dying, Sole held her boyfriend's head in her lap and struggled in vain to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Soon after, he was pronounced dead at Orlando Regional Medical Center. The men who killed him have not been found. Sole, who was to have married Thompson sometime this year, is back in England. "Now," she said, "I have to put my life back together."

CRAIG HOROWITZ
CINDY DAMPER in Miami with bureau reports

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