It was supposed to be an eight-day getaway, a chance for three South Florida brothers to reconnect with family living in the Dominican Republic amid coronavirus lockdowns and quarantine.
But four days in, the trip in late July 2020 turned into the year-long vacation from hell. Now the three brothers hope that a hearing on July 5 may finally lead to their ticket back home.
The Nalus brothers — three Haitian emigres who live in Delray Beach— have lost jobs and maybe even a college scholarship. Florida drivers’ licenses have been suspended and cars repossessed.
Even worse, the U.S. immigration status of two of the brothers hangs in the balance after all were arrested last Aug. 2 and detained in the Dominican Republic with scant support from the U.S. government.
There seems to have been little official public push to help the South Florida brothers, despite the fact that one is a U.S. citizen. The other two brothers are permanent residents of the United States. Still, their case may be a test of the United States’ willingness to implement a new law, the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, designed to force greater U.S. government intervention on behalf of U.S. nationals being wrongly detained abroad.
Named in honor of the a former FBI agent from Coral Springs, the landmark Levinson Act act became law in December. It established 11 determinations to be used in deciding whether a detention overseas is wrongful, at which time a U.S. government response is supposed to be triggered. More than five weeks after the Nalus family made the request of the Biden administration, however, no determination has yet been made.
The Nalus brothers allege they were set up with a four-pound package of marijuana planted in their white Hyundai Tucson rental car.
Dominican prosecutors have not moved on their case and they’ve been stuck in limbo. Three times, scheduled court hearings didn’t happen, they say, after the Dominican prosecutor failed to show up in court. The men are out of jail but can’t leave the country.
“We’ve lost everything: jobs, cars, everything,” said Lonelson Nalus, who said the group included his two brothers from Florida, and an older brother and a friend who live in the Dominican Republic. “It’s really hard being [in] a country that we came to for the first time, for eight days, and we don’t speak the language.”
For the Nalus family, lives and livelihoods have been put on hold, and in many ways upended.
Lonelson, 25, faces turning 26 on the island the country shares with his native Haiti, awaiting an outcome. His brother John Nalus, 21, was supposed to attend Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama, on a soccer scholarship. But he may miss out for a second straight year.
Lovinsky Nalus, 27, had his car repossessed after their dad couldn’t continue making the payments. He has also been unable to see his 10-year-old daughter in Delray Beach.
Meanwhile, a fourth brother, Djhonson, 33, had temporarily moved to the Dominican Republic to escape the violence in Haiti. He was waiting there until returning to Haiti for a U.S. embassy interview for permission to travel to the U.S. That interview was scheduled for August 2020, and because of the arrest, he was unable to make his appointment and the status of his application is now unknown.
Advocates for the brothers provided cell phone video footage to the Miami Herald and the McClatchy Washington Bureau that appears to show a brown package allegedly containing marijuana being planted under their rental car as they await a tow truck. The young men protest in English and Haitian Creole.
What the videos don’t show, say the men, is what happened once they were taken into custody.
“They asked if we had money,” said Lonelson, adding that all had guns put to their head, and police took a suitcase with clothes and $500 they had inside the vehicle. “When we went to court, the judge just said we have three months to come back to court. We said, ‘What?’ That’s when I called the embassy and circulated the video.”
Public records show that the three young men have no criminal history in the U.S. They were working, playing club soccer and in the case of the youngest, John, preparing to head off to college when they purchased discounted air fares and went on vacation on July 29, 2020.
“We’ve never been in that situation before, dealing with the police, getting arrested. We were crying,” Lonelson said in a cell phone interview from Boca Chica, located near the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo.
The brothers worried about how the news would hit their hard-working father, Calice Nalus, 57, who sacrificed a law career in Haiti to work as a landscaper in Palm Beach County so they could build a new life after Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010.
“He knows we don’t do stuff like that,” Lonelson said.
Before their problems, the boys contributed to the family’s finances, paying bills and sending money to their mother in Haiti. They must now rely on their father to help with their $200 monthly rent in Santo Domingo, legal bills and food expenses.
“Sometimes, he can’t,” Nalus said.
A father’s struggles
The elder Nalus estimates that he has spent about $40,000— money that he has had to borrow — to pay for lawyers and support his sons.
“If they had died, I would have needed to bury them,” he said, emphasizing he is the only financial support for his children other than some money from a GoFundme page. “Their mother isn’t here. She’s in Haiti. I am mother, father. I am everything for them.”
The situation has been difficult on everyone, said Calice, who also cares for a 16-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter at his home in Delray Beach and has Lovinsky’s 10-year-old daughter in the house too. The younger children ask when the young men will return, a question Calice quietly poses for himself.
“My children are innocent and they were imprisoned. They do not know why they are detained,” he insisted, hoping U.S. authorities will finally intervene on their behalf.
That his sons are Haitian likely played an important factor, Calice believes, because of long-standing “anti-Haitianismo” sentiment in the Dominican Republic.
“If the children were not Haitian, I don’t think they would do this because they have evidence in their hands,” he said. “We have visible proof in our hands for everyone to see.”
Calice first heard about his sons’ arrest after someone saw a photo posted on social media, claiming that they had been taken into custody after crossing the border from Haiti with cocaine.
Soon, he received a video showing the boys sitting on the ground in handcuffs. He was angry, wondering how it all happened. He looked for anyone who could help in the Dominican Republic.
When he finally located the young men, he wired $5,000 to a lawyer, hoping it would quickly get them back to Florida. Then he sent another $5,000.
“This situation hits me hard to this day. There are times I can’t sleep because I am thinking about this,” he said. “I never thought something like this could have happened to them.”
Calice thought the boys’ video, showing the package being placed under their car by another man who randomly showed up at the scene with three other individuals, would be enough to exonerate them.
“You don’t need to be on the scene to understand what occurred,” he said. “The video clearly shows you where the people came with the package in their hands, and where they bent down and placed it under the car and where they took it again and placed it on the dash and they took it to over where the tow truck was, opened the door and and then they pulled a gun on the young men.”
Where’s the help?
Three prior scheduled hearings for the brothers— on Jan. 14, March 8 and then again on May 3 — were canceled when prosecutors didn’t show up. A fourth try is scheduled for July 5, and their new lawyer, their second, is confident prosecutors will finally appear as required.
“We are doing everything possible,” said Yonatan Familia Peralta, their lawyer, cautioning that the July 5th court date deals only with authenticating their cell videos and returning their passports, an order issued by a judge but ignored by prosecutors.
Only after an inquiry by the Herald and the McClatchy Washington Bureau did Dominican Attorney General Miriam Germán Brito on Tuesday suddenly move on the case, though it was only an inquiry to the prosecutor’s office about the return of the men’s passports and cell phones, according to a letter the Herald obtained.
The wheels of justice grind slowly in the Dominican Republic, which depends heavily on tourism and which prior to the global coronavirus pandemic welcomed a record 604,977 foreign tourists in just the first two months of 2019.
But unlike other incidents of Americans held for petty crimes where the U.S. embassy staff got involved, nobody rode in to the rescue even though the former U.S. ambassador, Robin Bernstein, had asked embassy staff to inform her of arrests of Floridians.
In an interview, Bernstein said she was never made aware of the brothers’ situation. Bernstein only learned about it after reading about it earlier this year while back home in Florida. She later contacted a friend of the boys to offer her assistance.
Although the State Department said its embassy in Santo Domingo was first informed of Lonelson Nalus’ arrest on Aug. 13, 2020, the brothers’ plight got no attention when Secretary of State Michael Pompeo visited on Aug. 16 to attend the inauguration of new Dominican President Luis Abinader.
“I am worried about the boys’ due process,” said Bernstein, who left her post this past January. “They should have had at least a hearing.”
The trio’s arrest in August happened as the U.S was being locked down because of waves of coronavirus deaths, and the Dominican Republic was preparing to welcome a new incoming administration and prosecutors after holding presidential elections.
“Unfortunately, I think that when the arrests took place things were in transit,” Bernstein said.
She said that if the young men cannot get a hearing in the Dominican Republic then the U.S. should request that they be sent home.
“A year is too long not to have a hearing. The fact that the prosecutor failed to show up is grounds even for dismissal,” said Bernstein.
In its 2020 Human Rights report, the State Department noted that arbitrary arrest and detention were problems in the Dominican Republic.
The Nalus brothers’ cause has been taken up by the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation after a family friend reached out on their behalf. The foundation, named after a journalist kidnapped in Syria and later slain, advocates for the release of U.S. citizens, dual nationals and permanent residents kidnapped or unlawfully detained in foreign countries.
The group has reached out to the State Department about the Nalus brothers and is still waiting on a determination, said Cynthia Loertscher, its director of research.
“We remain concerned because the Nalus brothers were accused of a crime they didn’t commit and there is evidence to support their innocence,” she said.
A State Department official told the Herald and the McClatchy Washington Bureau that they are aware that Lonelson Nalus was released from detention on Sept. 16, 2020, but is currently subject to exit restrictions in Santo Domingo on charges of drug trafficking. The official made no mention of the green-card holding brothers, saying the current U.S. “applies to U.S. citizens whom the Department has determined are being held ‘unlawfully or wrongfully.’ ”
“We remain in contact with Mr. Nalus and his representatives,” the official said, adding that the embassy is providing “all appropriate consular services.”
The State Department added that in a foreign country, U.S. citizens are subject to that country’s laws, even if they differ from those in the United States.
“Consular officers provide a list of local lawyers, but cannot provide legal advice or effect the release of arrested U.S. citizens. We cannot represent U.S. citizens in foreign courts,“ the official said.
However, that is in stark contrast another case two years ago when five armed Americans and two Serbians, at least one of whom was a green card holder, were arrested in neighboring Haiti with a cache of automatic rifles and pistols and the U.S. embassy and State Department intervened to help secure their release and return to the U.S.
Also, the State Department’s insistence that the Levinson Act only applies to U.S. citizens is not consistent with its recent advocacy on behalf of human rights activist Paul Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen and U.S. permanent resident, who claims he was abducted in August 2020 by the Rwandan government to stand trial on terrorism charges. Ruesabagina was a hotel manager in Rwanda in 1994 during the country’s genocide and has been credited with saving hundreds of ethnic Tutsis. His heroism inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda.”
Earlier this year, Rusesabagina’s family acknowledged that they were among the kin of Americans held hostage or wrongly detained abroad who were invited on a call with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. During the call Blinken mentioned the Levinson Act and “reaffirmed that the United States is committed to seeking the release of their loved ones,” a State Department spokesman told journalists on Feb. 2.
‘Your average American tourists’
Loertscher, the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation director, called the Nalus brothers “your average American tourists,” and said the foundation believes the trio is being “unlawfully and wrongfully detained” under criteria for the Levinson Act.
Levinson disappeared in Iran in 2007 and is presumed dead. Three new entities were created in the executive branch under the act, including a special State Department envoy for hostage matters.
The Nalus brothers’ detention appears to meet several criteria for a Levinson Act designation. These include a lack of due process rendering detention arbitrary, violations of a country’s own laws and credible information about innocence and support from independent non-governmental organizations who advocate on their behalf.
A State Department spokesperson confirmed that no Levinson Act determination has been yet made about the men.
Nearly a year into the saga, the boys and their dad hope next week’s hearing offers the hope of a process that finally leads to their return home and getting their lives back.
“The kids don’t smoke, they don’t gamble, they don’t drink rum, it’s only soccer that they participate in, along with their jobs and schooling,” Calice, their father, said. “They’ve never been in anything like this. There are people who don’t trust their kids. I trust mine.”
McClatchy Washington Bureau Senior National Security and White House Correspondent Michael Wilner contributed to this report.