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Slain student's mom seeks new laws for studies abroad

By Tim RogersContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / December 11, 2003



GOLFITO, COSTA RICA

The most painful chapter in Jeanette Stauffer's life has just ended.

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On May 13, 2001, Mrs. Stauffer's daughter, Shannon Martin, a student at the University of Kansas, was brutally stabbed to death in this economically depressed port town near the Panamanian border. Ms. Martin's body was found in the early morning along an abandoned airstrip access road. She was just 200 yards from the bar she had been dancing at and 30 yards from her host family's home.

It was a life-altering tragedy. But determined to turn her despair into action, Stauffer set out on what became a 2-1/2 year odyssey in search of justice and healing - and better laws on safety for students abroad. She made phone calls, wrote letters, and met with lawyers and government officials. She traveled to Costa Rica 10 times - sometimes accompanied by her husband, Brad - to meet with investigators and make impassioned pleas on TV begging witnesses to come forward.

Distanced by several thousand miles, an unfamiliar language and culture, and an unknown justice system, Stauffer fought extraordinary odds to bring her daughter's killers to trial.

It was a painful saga - and one that reveals just how hard it can be, and how few resources there are, for Americans seeking justice for the death of a loved one overseas.

It was on Mother's Day 2001, just hours after her daughter phoned to send her love and express how excited she was to be back with her Costa Rican friends and host family, that Stauffer received the phone call from the US Embassy in Costa Rica. "My heart dropped," Stauffer says. An official told her Shannon had been murdered.

To cope with her grief, Stauffer plunged into discovering what had happened. She learned everything she could about the night of the crime, the KU study abroad program, and the town of Golfito and its residents. She pored over Shannon's diary entries from Costa Rica, looking for clues and taking copious notes. She read her daughter's e-mails from 2000-01, compiling lists of questions she thought would help investigators.

Stauffer communicated regularly with the Costa Rican Embassy in Washington, the US Embassy in Costa Rica, contacted state congressional leaders, e-mailed Shannon's friends and former study-abroad students for information, tried to correspond with Costa Rican investigators, and pleaded with KU for assistance.

But she was often stonewalled by authorities in both Costa Rica and the US.

Concerned the investigation was being fumbled, Stauffer eventually became an official party to the proceedings earlier this year and hired a private Costa Rican attorney to conduct an independent investigation.

Her family then hired Kansas Bureau of Investigation's "cold case" expert Larry Thomas and an interpreter to fly to Costa Rica to assist in the belated probe.

It was a crucial move - and one which yielded key evidence. Last week, 30 months after the horrific crime, two Costa Ricans with a history of heavy drug abuse were found guilty of "simple homicide" and sentenced to 15 years in prison. A third suspect was acquitted by the three-judge tribunal due to lack of evidence. No clear motive was ever established.

Safety issues for Americans overseas

A record total of 160,920 US students studied overseas in 2001-2002, an increase of 4.4 percent from the previous year, according to Open Doors 2003, the annual report by the Institute of International Education.

But despite the heightened importance of international safety issues for Americans following Sept. 11, no government or private statistics exist for crimes committed against Americans traveling, residing, or studying abroad. The State Department reports 6,000 Americans die overseas each year, though the numbers do not differentiate between violent deaths and deaths from natural causes.

Gary Rhodes, executive director of the University of Southern California's Safety Abroad First-Educational Travel Information (SAFETI) Clearinghouse Project, says legislation that requires US universities to provide safety information and report on crimes committed on US campuses does not apply clearly for overseas programs. SAFETI last year published the first Student Study Abroad Safety Handbook, and is currently compiling safety guidelines for 15 countries, including Costa Rica, to be published early next year.

Now that the trial is over, Stauffer plans to lobby Congress for legislation to regulate study-abroad programs better.

She is also dedicating her efforts to honoring her daughter's love for Costa Rica by creating the Shannon Lucile Martin English Language Center, which is scheduled to open in Golfito on Feb. 1. It is a step, she says, that may help bring healing to a community torn by drugs and crime, while helping Golfito be more competitive in Costa Rica's bustling tourism industry.The center, complete with donated computers and textbooks, already has a long list of students signed up for free English classes.

San Diego psychologist Ken Druck, who has helped thousands of families who have lost a child with his Jenna Druck Foundation - created to honor his 21-year-old daughter killed in a bus accident in India while traveling abroad on the Semester at Sea program - says Stauffer's ability to convert personal agony into compassionate social action is not often seen in grieving parents.

Stauffer doesn't consider herself extraordinary. And she is not satisfied with the sentences meted out to her daughter's killers; her Costa Rican lawyer will appeal for a stiffer penalty.

Her search for justice has left her $100,000 in debt, and she lost her full-time job as director of communications for the Kansas secretary of state. She may also lose the family house.

Still, she draws strength and focus from her love for her daughter, she says.

"Shannon cannot push forward her ideals, her goals, her dreams. What else can I do than find ways for Shannon's spirit to continue to light the path for others?" she asks.

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