Trouble Comes to Paradise
01/12/2004 at 01:00 AM EST
Within minutes of checking in at the Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort & Spa on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, the Gayter family stood by the pool, marveling at their good fortune. That's when Bryan Hornby, director of the club's camp for kids, walked up and introduced himself to Paul Gayter, his wife, Flora Nicholas, and their children Sophie, then 9, and Andrew, 7. Noticing that Nicholas was on crutches from an ankle injury, Hornby assured the parents that he would take care of the kids while they relaxed. "He just oozed charm," says Nicholas, 47. "He seduced the entire family." Later that week, at a movie party where he was the chaperone, Hornby took Sophie under a blanket and molested her.
Those events, which took place in April 2000, are not in dispute. Indeed, after the Gayters learned of the incident and went to authorities, Hornby was quickly arrested and convicted in a Virgin Islands court for unlawful sexual contact with a minor and sentenced to five years in prison. But the case has led to a civil suit, and that's where the controversy comes in: The Gayters are suing Wyndham International, the parent company, for compensatory and punitive damages, and—noting in court papers that most child molesters have multiple victims—are seeking to force Wyndham to help them determine whether Hornby abused other children under his care. Such information could, obviously, bolster their suit; additionally, says Gayter, 46, identifying victims and getting them help "would be our family's finest hour, because we're right to speak up for these other children." Wyndham, based in Dallas, says that it "takes all matters regarding the safety and security of its guests very seriously," but has resisted efforts to notify Sugar Bay guests of Hornby's conviction.
The story of Sophie's molestation didn't come out readily. For two weeks after her family returned home, she agonized over whether to tell anyone. Then one day she picked up a book, Chicken Soup for the Kid's Soul, which included a section about the need for children to tell a grown-up if they have been touched inappropriately. In late April 2000 she told her parents about what had happened. "It felt like I wasn't holding all this on my own shoulders," says Sophie, an A student and star soccer player. "It's that lifting process."
Regarding additional victims, both Wyndham and the Gayters, who own a marketing-and-advertising business in Falls Church, Va., think they have the facts on their side. During the initial criminal investigation into Sophie's case, according to prosecutor Douglas Dick, Wyndham gave police in the Virgin Islands a list of guests whose kids had been supervised by the Zimbabwe-born Hornby, now 26, who was employed at Sugar Bay from November 1999 until his arrest in May 2000. Prosecutor Dick says authorities checked the list but found no evidence of additional incidents, but he declines to say whether the list was complete, how many names were contacted or what the families were told about Hornby and the charges against him.
Last year, as part of the civil suit, Wyndham tried to block a request by the Gayters for the names of 150 families whose kids had had contact with Hornby, so that the former guests could be canvassed about possible molestation. The company argued that the Gayters were simply stirring up trouble and that this would "have a significant and irreparable negative impact on the hotel's bookings and reservations." (A judge later ordered the list given to the Gayters' lawyers but prohibited them from telling families that a molestation had occurred.)
Wyndham's stance left the Gayters seething. "They have made every decision based on money," says Paul Gayter. The family's argument is a simple one: Until all the children who crossed paths with Hornby can be interviewed by specialists, it is impossible to accept any assurances that there are no other victims. It is a point endorsed by more than a few experts. "These crimes occur in secret," says Dan Armagh, head of legal education for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va., which has advised the Gayters. "Pedophiles typically have an average of 74 victims, and these families need to be notified." As the ongoing battle over the list continued, at least two other families, one from Massachusetts and one from Rhode Island, came forward and filed civil suits against Wyndham, charging their daughters had also been abused by Hornby. (According to Virgin Islands attorney general Iver Stridiron, those cases are under "aggressive investigation.")
The Gayters argue that there is a special urgency in their efforts to contact other potential victims. Hornby, who has served more than three years, is now eligible for parole and could soon be released and deported back to Zimbabwe, where he might be beyond the reach of U.S. law. In the meantime the ordeal has taken a substantial toll on the Gayters, especially the kids. Sophie and Andrew, who was also traumatized by his sister's experience, have been in therapy, but are still fearful of going upstairs at night to sleep. "Most of the time the good things outweigh the bad," says Sophie. "But I wish this was over. I just want justice."
Bill Hewitt. Jane Sims Podesta in Virginia and Jeff Truesdell in St. Thomas