Tourists easy prey on mean Miami streets: Patrick Cockburn reports on a wave of killings rattling Florida sun-seekers

DARK RED stains on the road mark where Barbara Meller Jensen died, run over by robbers who rammed her car and mugged her after she lost her way between Miami airport and her hotel. She was the sixth foreigner to be killed in Florida since December, prompting fears that her brutal murder will force many of the expected 42 million tourists to drop the Sunshine State from their holiday plans.

The image of glitz and danger amid the palm trees, generated by the massively popular television series Miami Vice, has proved a powerful draw for European and US visitors alike. Some might say the hoteliers and estate agents who have long benefited from these associations can scarcely complain now when an act of violence, so in keeping with Miami's reputation, is publicised across the world.

The reasons why Mrs Jensen, 39, died were simple enough. She had flown in from Germany with her two children and hired a car from the Alamo rental agency. She did not realise that the letter 'Z' on her number plate indicated she was driving a rental car, and Miami criminals prefer to rob out-of-town visitors because they carry more money. 'The robbers are shifting from 7-Eleven stores to tourists,' says the city's police chief Calvin Ross. 'It's so lucrative that the gains outweigh the risks.'

Retracing Mrs Jensen's last moments is easy, too. She wanted to take the road from the airport to Miami Beach where she was booked at the luxurious Fontainbleau Hilton. But as she drove east across the city, where night had just fallen, she appears to have got into the wrong lane which took her on to the main road going north.

Struggling to find her way, Mrs Jensen entered a black working-class district called Edison. By day this does not look particularly menacing: neat one-storey houses and a bulky redbrick building housing Edison Park High School. As Betty Cooper, a grandmother, says, 'This neighbourhood is not very dangerous,' though others admit the police do not like to visit it at night.

As she drove beside the school, Mrs Jensen was rammed from behind by a dark blue Cadillac. The police say the car was driven by Anthony Williams, 18, and Leroy 'Plump' Rogers, 23, both of whom had a string of convictions. Bumping a target car is a traditional ploy by Miami criminals: an unwary driver will stop and get out to assess the damage, and they can grab their victim. Although it was a dark spot under a pedestrian overpass, Mrs Jensen got out of her car. Police refuse to say exactly what happened next but, according to the affidavit against Rogers, 'the victim who had her purse forcibly taken from her attempted to get the purse back from the offenders and was run over and killed by the offenders when they fled'.

The crime occurred on 2 April but made only limited impact: the local media was preoccupied by the start of the baseball season and the fortunes of the local team, the Marlins. But, as the New York Times, Washington Post and the German press covered the killing, police and politicians came under intense pressure to act. The road from the airport was re-signposted and public- spirited locals went to the airport to guide tourists to their hotels.

The alleged killers were only caught as the result of a bizarre accident. Seventeen hours after Mrs Jensen was attacked another woman had her purse snatched, outside a YWCA shelter in central Miami. A witness phoned the police. They stopped a blue Cadillac and arrested four men, including Williams and Rogers, who were jailed pending trial.

Then on Wednesday, the victim of the second robbery phoned the police, who had returned her handbag, to say she had found a label in it with the name of Jensen and a Berlin address. The police had scooped up everything in the back of the Cadillac thinking it belonged to victim number two: only now did they realise that the same car must have been used in both attacks. 'It was just dumb luck,' says Michael Brand, a prosecutor in Dade County, which includes Miami. Rogers and Williams confessed to the robbery of Mrs Jensen. Rogers - ironically, a relative of the police chief, Calvin Ross - had a long criminal record, ranging from cocaine possession to kidnapping; Williams had a conviction for armed robbery.

Whether or not tourists are seen as a particularly easy mark, the number of robberies in Dade County of visitors is certainly up, by 125 per cent from 1,165 in 1989 to 2,616 last year; the number of murders, out of a population of 2 million, was 331 of whom 187 were black - a high figure, but not as high as cities like Washington or Baltimore.

The end of the week brought a wave of hand-wringing by politicians and journalists. But as Hal Boedeker, the Miami Herald television critic, wrote, there was one moment more compelling than any discussion of Florida's tourism, Miami's image or the crime figures. This was an interview with the widower Christian Jensen who, asked about his children, said the two-year-old does not know what happened but the six-year-old hopes his mother is in hospital. He said: 'I'm very much afraid of that moment he will see there's no remaining chance for her.'

(Photograph omitted)

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