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On the night of Thursday, March 16, five University of Minnesota students turned off the light in their Miami Beach hotel room and headed out to grab a bite. Two members of their group, 23-year-old John Lassetter and his girlfriend Catie Bitzan, age 26, stayed behind to take a nap.
Minutes later Lassetter heard a scraping noise in the bathroom. He stood up and walked in to investigate. As he crossed the threshold, he saw an open window framing a very surprised face.
"He took off and I ran out of the room, brandishing a full can of Dr. Pepper because, well, that was all I could find," Lassetter said. "I thought, I'm going to bean this guy in the head and get our stuff back! But he disappeared."
It was the second break-in at the students' rooms at the Miami Beach International Hostel in South Beach's heart at Washington Avenue and Española Way in three days. Though this time the would-be thief had left empty-handed, the first burglary had cost them three laptop computers, clothes, a passport, a digital camera, and four credit cards.
Just another spring break attack on flatlanders? Hardly. Lassetter, a 23-year-old lawyer-to-be, was here with six other Minnesota law school students doing pro bono work for Haitian and Cuban asylum seekers. The group raised about $1200 from students and faculty to pay for a couple of rooms at the hostel. They paid for their own plane tickets and arrived March 12.
The seven students spent their days at Krome Detention Center, taking statements from Haitian detainees seeking to stay in the United States, and in the federal courthouse downtown, arguing on behalf of Cuban immigrants.
Two days after the students' arrival, while the group was out eating and drinking, someone climbed through the window of the ground-floor room where six of them were bunking (the other room was for the lone female of the group). The burglar took the computers, which contained all the work the students had produced in Miami, mostly transcripts of their detainee interviews and legal research, as well as the personal data and class work they'd saved.
Apparently the thief used student Eric Sustad's bag to haul the goods. It included his passport and credit cards. "I've been hosteling all over the world, and this is the first time I've ever left my stuff in my room," said the 30-year-old Sustad, who has traveled extensively in Europe and South America. "I just figured it was my own country, and it seemed safe enough."
So being a law student doesn't make you brilliant. But it might make you the kind of person who begins investigating Florida law. And Sustad and company did just that, alleging the hostel's open windows and unlocked gates constitute a violation of Chapter 509, which governs hotel safety and liability.
Beleaguered hostel manager Cecilia Carruthers, hollow-eyed with fatigue after dealing with spring breakers and über-hip Europeans in town for the Winter Music Clusterfuck, commented, "This is not something that happens often," she insisted. "After it happened, we had people from our staff walking and watching the back alley."
The alley, which provides access to the window the burglar apparently used to enter the room, is supposed to be closed off by locked, wrought-iron gates and fences. But the day after the burglary, Sustad found that a gate was propped open with a piece of cardboard.
He says the hostel staff didn't seem to care much about the burglary or the propped-open gate. "Obviously I don't know who [opened the gate], but it had to be someone who had a key to open the thing in the first place," he said.
To make matters worse, a security camera surveilling the alley was broken. "We're changing the security system," Carruthers claimed. "We're fixing it."
Sustad stayed in the hostel all day Thursday and Friday except for the ill-fated dinner trip Thursday night, which was interrupted by a phone call from Lassetter describing the attempted break-in. Sustad had been guarding what was left of his companions' belongings and applying for the student loan he'll need to buy a new laptop.
A week after the thefts, the hostel agreed to pay the value of the insurance deductible for the stolen computers and to reimburse the students for the total value of the rest of the goods.
The students flew back to Minnesota Saturday, March 18. Sustad said they'll spend their next spring break doing similar advocacy work in Texas.