Husband says local woman held illegally in Belize

Husband says local woman held illegally in Belize

January 12th, 2011 by Chris Carroll in News

The husband of a Chattanooga woman says police illegally jailed his wife in the Central American country of Belize after authorities cited her for a vehicle collision that wasn't her fault.

"Suzan was there for 18 or 19 hours, with no food or water and no sanitation facilities other than a bucket," said Don Boutz, a retired U.S. Army colonel from Hixson who's been communicating with his wife via e-mail.

Various dispatchers at the police station in Independence, Belize, said their superiors were unavailable for comment Tuesday afternoon.

On Dec. 20, authorities in Belize, located on the Yucatan Peninsula east of Guatemala, arrested 60-year-old Suzan Boutz, a Chattanooga jewelry store owner, but her husband said they had no reason to do so.

After visiting ancient Mayan ruins with two relatives, Suzan Boutz stopped at an intersection to turn left when a motorcycle crashed into the front of her rental car, Don Boutz said.

Locals whisked the motorcycle owner away to a hospital. Eyewitnesses assured Boutz they would vouch for her, saying she was not at fault, but investigators took her into custody "without any information and without an opportunity to engage an attorney," her husband said.

Officers left out key portions of her statement, and they appeared to have only rudimentary skills in written English, Don Boutz said.

On Dec. 23, Suzan Boutz pleaded not guilty at Dangriga Town Magistrate Court to charges related to the accident, according to news accounts, and her passport was taken. Her next hearing is Jan. 27, her husband said, and she will remain in Belize until then.

Don Boutz has attempted to solicit help from the U.S. Embassy in Belize, but "the only thing the embassy would do for her is send a list of attorneys," he said.

"That list doesn't say who's good or who's bad," he said. "It's like somebody went to the telephone book and picked out attorneys."

But an official from the U.S. Department of State who requested anonymity said embassies can only do so much.

"Expectations are often very large -- 'This is an American citizen, you can't do this; let the person out,'" the official said, noting that the remarks were general, not about Boutz's case. "But people need to realize that, when they're in a foreign country, that country's laws apply. So you have to work within that legal system, which is often different and sometimes intimidating compared to ours."

The official added that Boutz took a positive step by hiring an attorney.

"There are local processes that have to be followed," the official said.

Don Boutz has debated traveling to Belize rather than "jangling the cords of power" at home. He said witnesses -- some accusing the motorcyclist of drinking with a police officer before the incident -- were intimidated, with one man being chased from his residence by "a truckload of men."

"When that sort of thing happens, the embassy needs to step up and get serious," Don Boutz said.

He said the family hoped the court system would release his wife after the Jan. 27 court date, but he wasn't completely optimistic.

"It would be foolish not to have an alternate plan," he said. "We want her out."

Contact Chris Carroll at ccarroll@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6610.