DYING FOR A SWIM

THE BACKGROUND TO THE E-NOVELLA, DEATH AT THE VOYAGER HOTEL

DEATH AT THE VOYAGER HOTEL

The Voyager Hotel in Accra is located in the busy central Tudu district. It’s a hub of trade and business, and also where hundreds of homeless adults and children sleep along the sidewalks at night.

Tudu Road in Accra

Early on a March morning in 2013, a young American woman called Heather Peterson was found dead in the Voyager Hotel swimming pool. Heather, from Portland, Oregon, had worked as a volunteer teachers’ assistant at an urban school in Accra called High Street Academy, which catered to needy, eight- to fifteen-year-old children, particularly from the nearby neighborhood of Jamestown.

The lighthouse at Jamestown

Deemed an accident, the drowning death was declared an accident due to swimming while intoxicated, as indicated by Heather’s high postmortem blood alcohol levels. But this conclusion raised many questions. Heather had been an expert swimming instructor. How could she have drowned in six feet of water?  Why would she have gotten so drunk when she had indulged in alcohol very little and no one had ever seen her inebriated. What really happened to Heather?

That’s the background to my upcoming e-novellaDeath at the Voyager Hotel. It’s fiction, but the story that triggered it is real. Last year, I stumbled upon the mysterious and haunting case of Phylicia Moore.

Phylicia Moore

In April 2007, Phylicia was an eighteen-year-old honor student at Teaneck High School, NJ, who planned to attend the Columbia School of Journalism. She had saved up for a two-week class trip to Ghana, the purpose of which was to take school supplies to Ghanaian schoolchildren and an AIDS orphanage. The excursion chaperones’  words of reassurance to Phylicia’s parents Lola and Douglas Moore before the trip, “Don’t worry — we’ll take good care of her,” were to prove fateful, because Phylicia would never return home alive. In fact, after arrival in Accra with her schoolmates, she had less than twenty-four hours to live.

The Circumstances                                                                                                                                     The school group checked into the First Choice Lodge, which appears on the Internet to be a decent-enough hotel. Typical of teenagers, the students wasted no time getting to the pool to horse around and have fun. Phylicia was at poolside, and according to one version of the story, around 10:30 p.m. she told the chaperones that she was going to her room to change into her swimsuit. About eleven hours later, she was found dead at the bottom of the pool clad in her bathing costume underneath a tank top and shorts, but without her shoes. What had happened to her during that interval was a mystery that could flummox the very best of detectives in fiction or real life.

Presumably, when Phylicia went to her room to change into her bathing suit, she had intended to return immediately to the pool to join her friends. It was reported that at least some of her schoolmates were up until the wee hours of the morning while the chaperones went to bed. How is it that no one – neither the students nor the chaperones – thought to check up on Phylicia when they realized she hadn’t returned? Even more dumfounding, by at the most 8 o’clock the following morning, how could no one have noticed Phylicia’s absence, and how is it possible she was not found in the pool before about 9:30? Didn’t the students and chaperones have events or excursions planned for the day? Didn’t they go down for breakfast, at which point someone would have asked, “Where’s Phylicia?” Not a single hotel guest or a pool-cleaner or other hotel personnel went by the pool during the course of the morning?  Hotels in Ghana are no different from others all over the world – they start the day early.

The Investigation

The crucial question is what took place between 10:30 that night and eleven hours later. The elephant in the room was expressed in a Youtube video by Douglas Moore, who asserts with the anguish of a father whose daughter has been snatched away: “…Someone put her in that pool and made it look like she drowned.” But an autopsy conducted in Ghana concluded that Phylicia had “accidentally drowned” and that no signs of foul play were present. In the video, the Moores’ attorney, Nancy Lucianna, states that another autopsy done after the Phylicia’s body was returned to the U.S. concluded that she had not been in the water long – certainly not as long as eight to ten hours and perhaps only one or two.

That doesn’t tell us enough, however. Even more important is whether swimming pool water was found in Phylicia’s lungs, an indication of drowning as the immediate cause of death. [Interestingly, the absence of water in the lungs of a drowned person does not always prove that death was not due to drowning (i.e. the body was dumped postmortem) because laryngospasm during submersion may prevent a lot of water entering the lungs.] Toxicology studies done in Ghana and repeated in the U.S. were negative, i.e., no suggestion that Phylicia ingested any significant alcohol or other drug. According to Nancy Lucianna, Ghanaian officials discarded Phylicia’s clothes, “because they didn’t think it was something that was important.” That’s another odd angle to the story.

In an effort aided by Rep. Steve Rothman, D-NJ, Lola and Douglas Moore tried to enlist the assistance of the FBI. Then U.S. Ambassador to Ghana Pamela E. Bridgewater let them know that Ron Nolan, FBI’s legal attache assigned to Lagos, Nigeria, would travel to Ghana to serve as a liaison to a task force formed by Ghanaian authorities to review Moore’s death. That is not the same as a formal FBI investigation. However, Nancy Lucianna said in the video, “we do know that the FBI has followed all the leads in Ghana to the present date, and they are focusing their attention on the Teaneck High School students…” What that meant exactly isn’t clear.

There were also accusations leveled that because Phylicia was black, much less attention was given to her case than to that of blond Natalee Holloway, for example. This has been called the “Missing White Woman Syndrome.”

The conclusions                                                                                                                              

The default assumption in drowning cases is that an accident has occurred. One reason could be that swimming is almost by definition associated with fun and recreation, not homicide or suicide, but as suggested in this ABC feature, 20 percent of supposedly accidental drownings might be homicides missed by law enforcement. Andrea Zafares, lead trainer for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Dive Recovery Team, emphasizes in interviews and written papers that a drowning case may not actually be the accident it may initially seem. This may have been the situation with Phylicia Moore, in that Ghanaian authorities presupposed that she had drowned by accident and did not pursue an exhaustive criminal investigation.

The denouement

Nancy Lucianna has informed me that the Phylicia Moore case has now been solved, but she could not provide me with the details without the Moores’ consent. Obviously, they may wish no further publicity on the matter, which is understandable. In Death at the Voyager Hotel, one woman, Paula Djan, was steadfast in her belief that Heather Peterson did not drown by accident, and she stuck to her guns until the true culprit was found. In the end, perhaps that’s what happened in the Phylicia Moore case. Someone persevered until the truth was uncovered. Whatever did happen to Lola and Douglas Moore’s  daughter, it’s a heart-wrenching story of a promising young woman whose life was abruptly and brutally cut too short and too soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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