What to Know
- At least nine Americans have died in the Dominican Republic within the past year and a half, according to NBC News
- Two tourists died this month alone -- one was a woman from Staten Island, the other a man from Avenel, New Jersey
- The FBI is assisting Dominican authorities with toxicology reports in at least three of the recent cases, authorities have said
A 53-year-old Staten Island woman who died at a Dominican Republic resort where she had gone to celebrate her birthday earlier this month had a heart attack, according to a forensic report provided by the hotel where she stayed.
Leyla Cox died June 10 at Excellence Punta Cana a day after her birthday; the forensics report indicated her death was natural, though advised it be confirmed via autopsy. Cox's family in New York has been waiting for blood samples to conduct their own testing; as of Monday, two weeks after she died, they told News 4 they had yet to receive the samples.
Excellence Punta Cana released a statement along with a copy of the forensic report saying it was "deeply saddened by the recent incidents in the Dominican Republic" and that it has "always taken extensive measures" for guest safety.
"In light of the recent news and to avoid speculation, we would like to confirm that a guest recently passed away inside her hotel room," the hotel said, adding it was offering its full cooperation to both Dominican and U.S. investigators.
Cox is one of at least nine Americans to die while vacationing at resorts in the Dominican Republic since August 2018. In some cases, they died at the same resorts. Though the causes of death for some of the tourists remain unclear, authorities are looking into whether unregulated alcohol may have been a factor. At least one hotel, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, has opted to remove alcohol from its minibars amid those ongoing questions.
Last week, the Ministry of Tourism in the Dominican Republic held a news conference to say that there was no uptick in "mysterious" deaths of Americans vacationing on the pristine Caribbean island. That statement has echoed a consistent statement the U.S. Department of State has provided for weeks.
Ministry of Tourism official Francisco Javier Garcia Fernandez said that in the last three years, there has been a reduction of 55 percent in the number of deaths of Americans in the Dominican Republic, including a 28 percent decrease from 2016 to 2018.
"The reports that some media outlets have categorized as an 'avalanche' of deaths of Americans is not reality," he said.
Fernandez said that it is important to stress that the deaths are not "mysterious," citing that Dominican authorities have been transparent with the autopsy findings and presented them to the families of the deceased.
"There is nothing to hide," he said.
Despite this assurance, some family members of the deceased and American politicians have questioned the transparency of the investigation.
New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone sent a letter to the U.S. Department of State last week asking it reevaluate its travel advisory for the Dominican Republic in the wake of the recent deaths, which included a man from his district.
Pallone, a Democrat who represents the Garden State's 6th District, called for a reassessment of the Dominican Republic's travel advisory — currently a Level 2 on a 1 to 4 scale. A 55-year-old man from his district, Avenel's Joseph Allen, was the most recent U.S. tourist to die on vacation; he passed during his stay at the Terra Linda in Sosua. A preliminary autopsy report indicated cardiac arrest as a possible cause of death. It also cited prior conditions, including long-term hypertension, hardening of the arteries and other heart issues.
Calling the deaths of Allen and other Americans "highly suspicious," Pallone wrote in the letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and FBI Director Christopher Wray: "Mr. Allen's shocking and unexpected death shares similar circumstances to the other deaths reported in the Dominican Republic. I ask that you immediately take steps to update the bereaved families and ensure they are given all information on the cause of their loved one's death as the investigation continues. I also urge you to expedite a reassessment of the Travel Advisory for the Dominican Republic to make sure American travelers have a full understanding of travel risks."
The U.S. Department of State regularly updates its travel advisories for individual countries on a Level 1 to 4 scale, 4 being the most dangerous, on the basis of potential threats to international travelers. It last updated its one for the Dominican Republic on April 15. The country has a Level 2 rating, meaning exercise increased caution -- in this case, due to violent crime like armed robbery, homicide and sexual assault.
In a statement to NBC New York on Thursday, a State Department spokesperson said all congressional correspondence is carefully reviewed before an appropriate response is provided. The spokesperson said the agency was closely monitoring ongoing investigations by Dominican authorities into "several recent deaths" and offered its "sincerest condolences to the families for their losses."
"We have no higher priority than the safety and welfare of U.S. citizens abroad. Millions of Americans travel to the Dominican Republic every year," the statement continued. "While the overwhelming majority travel without incident, we want to assure all Americans that we continue to work actively with the Dominican authorities at the very highest levels to ensure that U.S. citizens are safe and feel safe while in the Dominican Republic."
The State Department previously said — and reiterated Thursday — that the recent deaths do not reflect an uptick, saying in a statement Tuesday, "Speaking generally, over 2.7 million U.S. citizens visit the Dominican Republic each year, and we have not seen an uptick in the number of U.S. citizen deaths reported to the Department."