Sunday 22 October 2017

Teacher who visited Cuba due to 'low crime rate' strangled in hotel room

Lara Jones chose to visit Cuba because of the country's
Lara Jones chose to visit Cuba because of the country's "low crime rate"

A young British teacher, who chose to visit Cuba because of the country's "low crime rate", was ambushed and murdered by a security guard in her hotel room in an apparently "motiveless" attack.

 Lara Jones, 26, had flown to Fidel Castro's Republic after travel guides said it "was a haven for female travellers'' and had the ''lowest crime rate in the Western Hemisphere'', an inquest heard.

But she was strangled and smothered after the guard crept into her room and sneaked up behind her when she checked in at a convent-turned hostel in Havana old town.

She was found dead the following day by a maid and a hostel worker when she failed to turn up for an organised day trip.

The unnamed killer was arrested 10 days later and was jailed for 22 years after he admitted murder - yet has given no explanation for the killing in March last year. There was nothing missing and no signs of sexual assault.

Details of Ms Jones's death emerged for the first time at an inquest, which was told how she had ''loved life and lived it to the full.''

The brunette, from Preston, Lancashire, had attended the privately run Westholme School for girls in Blackburn before graduating in linguistics at University College London. She then worked as a teacher at EC London English Language School.

She was an accomplished skier and experienced traveller and in 2011 had spent several months in South America teaching English to local students.

Ms Jones spoke Spanish and Portuguese and had travelled extensively through Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Chile and was said to have felt "a great affinity" for the people she met on these trips.

She left the UK again on January 4 last year to travel to Mexico and on March 12 flew to Havana for a sight seeing trip ahead of returning home on March 18.

In a statement read to the Preston hearing, her mother Carolyn Jones, 58, who runs a car dealership with Ms Jones' father Graham, 64, said: "Lara was an experienced and careful traveller.

''She would always send me details of her location and destination. She would make contact with home daily either by phone, Skype or email.

''I always knew where she was and where she was going. Lara spoke excellent Spanish and was always sensitive to the social norms of the countries she visited always dressing in accordance with them.

''She was also aware that is some locations where there is poverty, that foreign travellers are often assumed to have money by virtue of the fact they are able to afford to travel and as such are often seen as easy targets.

''She was mindful not to draw undue attention to herself and never carried expensive equipment or large sums of money with her when she was out in public.''

Miss Jones booked for three nights into the Santa Clara Hostel which was owned by the Cuban government's Ministry of Culture and had 24 hour security.

She had hoped to stay in a dormitory accommodation for safety reasons but was given her own room as there were no other guests. At 11pm on March she was packing her bags for a forthcoming trip to the coast the following morning when she was attacked.

A statement read to the inquest from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on behalf of the Republic of Cuba said: ''On March 15, two workers found the body of Lara Jones on the floor.

''The body was found between two beds in room number 6 where she had been staying. The room showed no signs of disturbance.

''Her belongings were found gathered in a small suitcase and rucksack and the cause of death was asphyxia. One of the workers said she went into the room as Lara was due to leave the halls.

''The worker had asked a maid to access the room with her. She knocked on the door and entered using a key and found the victim and informed the relevant authorities.

"On 25/03/12 the defendant was arrested and admitted committing the crime. It is unlikely she could have screamed without being heard and the absence of defence injuries indicate she had been taken by surprise."

Recording a verdict of unlawful killing, deputy coroner of Preston Mr Simon Jones told Mrs Jones and her family: ''I'm now at a loss as to what to say. There's nothing I can say that can offer you any comfort to you. I recognise that this is the most awful thing that can happen to anybody. Please accept my sympathies."

In a statement given after the inquest the Jones family said: "Lara loved life and lived it to the full with unfaltering positivity and seemingly boundless energy.

''She was cherished and loved by her family. The loyalty and support Lara showed to her friends left them and her family bewildered and confused by her sudden death.

''The unfathomable unfairness that Lara was given only 26 years of life is no way mitigated by the knowledge that the defendant must spend the next 22 years of his behind bars. Lara was not a vindictive person.

''Lara did everything possible to secure her own personal safety. She had researched the country on the UK government website and in the travel guides which had advised variously that 'Cuba has the lowest crime rate in the Western Hemisphere, no crime, a haven for female travellers', and she had researched her accommodation as being 'good location, friendly staff and security guards'.

''She did everything right and she was in what should have been the safest place. What happened to Lara was totally random, unforeseeable and neither she nor anyone else could have done anything to prevent it.

"As a daughter and youngest sister we all cherish Lara. Our family is incomplete without her."

Since her death her family have set up Lara's Foundation and are building a Lara's Foundation School and Community Centre, in Ndala, North Tanzania.

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