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These stories were published Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2002
Jo Stuart
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They're stalking Gringos on airport autopista
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A gang of holdup men on wheels is working the western San José suburbs with impunity, and the repeated robberies are causing some North Americans to carry guns.

The bandits use the old trick of damaging an automobile tire so their victims stop their cars and become vulnerable to the bandits.

The most recent robbery was of a North American honeymoon couple in La Uruca who lost an estimated $5,000 and all their belongings when they stopped to change a tire on their rented vehicle.

About 10 days ago, Bob Sharkey, 63, a long-time North American resident of Costa Rica, faced the same situation. He was pistol-whipped by the bandits, who  took an estimated $4,000.

Sharkey had been at a bank in Mall International near the Juan Santamaría Airport and was headed back to his home in Los Arcos. He took out a substantial amount of money because he was headed to the United States a few days later. 

He noticed that the tire on his four-wheel-drive vehicle had become flat, and he stopped his car on the General Cañas autopista. Two men with guns quickly pulled up and hit Sharkey and took his money.

One of the men who responded to a cellular telephone call for help by Sharkey’s companion was himself targeted a few days later. He had taken to carrying a pistol for which he does not have a permit. He, too, noticed that he had a flat tire on his vehicle, but he continued to drive it  He had just taken a sum of money from the Bank of Costa Rica branch in the Cariari Mall.

The 42-year-old man noticed a red pickup following his car closely. Finally he stopped his vehicle, got out and waved his 9 mm. pistol in the direction of the presumed bandits, who left rapidly.

Another man who aided Sharkey said that repairmen reported that they have one or two cases a day of automobile tires being deliberately damaged by bandits in advance of a holdup try.

Police also said that bandits sometimes spread sharp objects on the road near tourist hotels.

"The Gringos are going into Rambo mode," said this man who said he knows of more and more North Americans who are carrying weapons to protect themselves against what they see as an increase in criminal activity. "Rambo," of course, is the name of the hero in a string of highly violent Sylvester Stalone movies.

The bandits seem to be working the stretch of the General Cañas highway west of San José. The honeymoon couple were just a few feet from the highway when they were robbed.

The criminals seem to target North Americans who have just made a bank run. Presumably the vehicle’s tire is damaged in a parking lot near the bank or mall.

Sharkey’s assailants drove a car and not a truck. So the gang probably has more than one vehicle. The two bandits who robbed Sharkey are described as young men possibly Costa Rican or Colombian with no real distinguishing features.

Those who have lived here for some time advise that persons who experience a flat automobile tire continue to drive on the wheel until they can get to someplace safe.


Have you ever seen a better spot for a picnic?

This is on a creek below a bridge on the InterAmerican Highway about 9 kilometers (5 miles) south of Grecia. The waterfall drowns out any sounds from the highway above.

One could get use to this type of secluded setting.

Locals call the span the 'upsidedown bridge.'

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According to his new lawyer:
Coco's Crouse would be out if he were not foreigner 
By Saray Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

There’s a big anniversary coming up for Roger Crouse. The Canadian bar owner is facing the expiration of his second three-month period of preventative detention in a Liberia prison. That happens Saturday.

Crouse is the Playas del Coco bar owner who shot a man who came to the bar and, said Crouse, threatened him with a knife. 

Generally this would be considered self-defense. But Crouse is being kept in prison because he is a foreigner who has structured his personal holdings so he does not appear to own anything, said his lawyer, Marilyn Jiménez of Liberia.

Crouse, 50, a Canadian, shot and killed Miguel Villegas in his Gaby's Bar the evening of Aug. 19. The man had been in the bar earlier creating a disturbance, and police took him away only to free him and let him return to the bar two hours later.

The lawyer said that the dead man was a well-known delinquent in the Coco area, and that Crouse ran afoul of the man because the bar owner singled Villegas out as someone who should be arrested during a civic association meeting on crime in the Pacific beach community.

Villegas was a dangerous man who had a police record, said the lawyer. Still the family of the dead man has joined in the criminal action as is permitted under Costa Rica law. The family wants 50 million colons as compensation for the death ($145,000), the lawyer said.

Crouse still is in jail, according to the lawyer, because Crouse is a foreigner, and although 

married to a Costa Rican, court officials consider him a flight risk, and the Nicaraguan border is only a short distance away.

Ms. Jiménez said she is trying to negotiate "conditional liberty" (i.e. bail) in the amount of 20 million colons ($58,000). Although Crouse is a businessman, everything he owns, including the bar and some fincas, is in the names of others. The bar, for example, remains in the name of the previous owner, she said.

She said that to get out of jail Crouse either has to attach his name to his real estate and business holdings or put up the money in cash. She spoke with the permission of Crouse, who has been in telephone contact with A.M. Costa Rica over the past six months.

Residents in Coco have said that they also fear the family of the dead man. 

The case is being handled in the court system in Santa Cruz. The lawyer said that the public prosecutor is not seeking the Costa Rica version of a premeditated first-degree murder charge. Instead, the charge is a lesser one of homocidio calificado. Killing in self defense is not a crime in Costa Rica if you can establish the facts.

She said she seeks to open up a line of communication with the public prosecutor, the fiscal Olger León Contreras. Crouse has had at least five lawyers previously, and has complained that he had difficulty communicating with them because he does not speak Spanish well.

The case might last as long as a year more before there actually is a court hearing. Unless he gets bail, Crouse would remain in his cell the whole time even if he is acquitted later.

Harken says Caribbean drilling project is unlikely
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

HOUSTON, Texas — The firm that wants to punch an exploratory oil well off the Caribbean coast near Limón now says the project is unlikely and that it will write off its investment.

The company is Harken Energy Corp., which is based here. The firm said Tuesday that political and regulatory conditions in Costa Rica which have caused ongoing delays in obtaining the necessary permits for drilling the planned Moin offshore well are expected to continue.

The project was awaiting a drilling permit from the Ministerio del Ambiente y Energia and an environmental permit from the Costa Rica environmental agency, SETENA.

"All work, surveys and assessments necessary to request the issuance of the environmental permit were completed by Harken and its partner in this project, and filed in March, 2001," said Harken in a prepared release.

The problem is that the Costa Rican Supreme Court issued an opinion in a suit filed against another oil and gas proposal and the energy ministry on land in the north of the country by certain environmental groups. In its opinion, the Supreme Court found among other issues, that the environmental agency did not have the legal right to grant environmental permits, said Harken. 

Due to the rulings, even though it did not directly involve Harken's project or the Moin well, Harken said it believes it is now probable that the environmental agency, in the wake of that ruling, will not in the near future issue the necessary environmental permit for this project. 

"These significant adverse developments, combined with the previous continual delays in attempts to obtain the Moin permits, have made further exploration of this prospect unlikely," said the firm.

The firm will adjust its year-end 2001 earnings to reflect the decision, basically writing off the company’s current investment of $8.8 million.

"We are very disappointed that these current developments including this court case in Costa Rica, the pending presidential elections wherein the primary candidates have all publicly stated positions against energy exploration in their country and the objections by various environmental groups appear to be creating enough impediments to this Moin well, that we now do not foresee this well being drilled in the near future." said Harken's chairman, Mikel D. Faulkner.

"We intend to continue lobbying and pursuing any legal avenues available for a reasonable resolution to these impediments being raised against the project and for the issuance of the permits necessary to proceed with the project,"  he added.

Harken Energy Corp. is an oil and gas exploration and production company that decided last year to concentrate its resources on exploration and development of its domestic properties in the Gulf Coast regions of Texas and Louisiana. 

However, Global Energy Development Ltd., a subsidiary of Harken is an internationally focused oil and gas exploration and production company with operations and/or acreage holdings in Panama, Peru and Colombia, in addition to Costa Rica.

The projects were seen as a way for Costa Rica to become its own oil supplier instead of importing it.

Stumbo gets Jeb Bush involved in custody battle
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

When you have a problem, you look for someone in government who can help you.

That’s the general rule and very typical of how Costa Ricans get things done. But a U.S. citizen trying to get back his 3 1/2-year-old son from his Costa Rican ex-wife pulled out the big gun.

Ralph Stumbo’s last place of residence was Florida. He was in a fit of frustration with how his case was being considered at the U.S. Embassy here and in the United States. So he dashed off an e-mail to the governor of Florida.

The governor happens to be Jeb Bush, who also has a brother active in U.S. politics.

Stumbo, who relishes the characterization "aggressive and sometimes abrasive," sent off a chronology of his custody battle to Bush. Less than 24-hours later he got a reply from the governor’s assistant who said she would start an investigation, said Stumbo.

Stumbo wants to know why the F.B.I. and Costa Rican police are not working on his case if his wife fled to Costa Rica contrary to judicial order that mandates the son remain in Florida. He got part of the answer Tuesday, he said.

The Collier County, Fla., Sheriff’s Department apparently bungled the paperwork and did not pass

on a judge’s pickup order to proper authorities, Stumbo said he learned. Therefore, federal police officials never were contacted. If an investigation finds the evidence, the case could be considered international child abduction, a federal felony.

The custody battle between Stumbo and his wife, Flor Gaitán Tejada, is complex. They have lived here and in cities in the United States. Their son was born in Texas.

Stumbo was arrested last July in Naples, Fla., on what he said was a groundless complaint of domestic violence. A few days later, Ms. Gaitán took the son back to Costa Rica.  A judge’s order that Stumbo had prohibits this, but Ms. Gaitán said two weeks ago that she never was served with the order and that she was told by a legal aid lawyer in Florida to return to Costa Rica.

Stumbo has been masterful in mounting a public relations campaign to sway public opinion in his favor. But he has been helped because he has touched on a critical issue, Costa Rica family law and the way foreign spouses are treated by the system. 

He formed an organization, the North American Consul for Justice, and said that he has had a handful of U.S. citizens contact him because they had the same problem. Stumbo claims that the U.S. Embassy has been footdragging on his problem and some of the other cases. The Embassy counters that it must work locally within the framework of Costa Rican law.

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