2 more U.S. deaths reported as Dominican official calls spate of tourist deaths 'exaggerated'

A 41-year-old man from Kansas and a 69-year-old woman from Pennsylvania both died after falling critically ill at Dominican Republic resorts, according to a Fox News report, adding to the spate of U.S. tourist deaths reported across the Caribbean island nation.

The families of Chris Palmer, an Army veteran who died on April 18, 2018, and Barbara Diane Maser-Mitchell, a retired nurse who died on Sept. 17, 2016, came forward to the network to report their deaths.

The State Department confirmed the deaths to Fox News on Thursday.

Dominican authorities said that Palmer had pulmonary edema and that the official cause of death was a heart attack. For Maser-Mitchell, authorities said the official cause of death was a heart attack, the report said.

“As soon as he died, I wondered if he was poisoned, if he was drugged,” Bernadette Hiller, who dated Palmer for about 10 years and saw him the week before he died, told Fox News. “He was healthy as a horse.”

Palmer was staying at the Villa Cocotal Palma resort in Punta Cana, according to Fox News. He was a salesman and scuba diving instructor who loved traveling, his daughter, Meghan Arnold, told the network.

Friends and family said he’d been working at a resort in Mexico and went to the Dominican Republic in hopes of selling timeshares and teaching scuba diving there.

During his stay, Palmer told friends he was feeling ill and had a bad headache, Hiller told Fox News.

Hiller, who remained a close friend, said it was unclear if he had consumed a drink from a hotel bar or the minibar, the network reported. Several of the American tourists who died were said to have consumed a beverage from the minibar before falling ill.

At some point on April 18, Palmer was found dead in his room after aspirating his own vomit, Dominican authorities said, according to the report.

Friends and family told Fox News they were pressured to cremate Palmer's body, echoing a sentiment expressed by relatives of other U.S. tourists who died in the Dominican Republic.

"We are devastated and are seeking answers," Hiller told the network. "This was so sudden and unexpected. This has been a nightmare for his family."

In 2016, Maser-Mitchell died during her stay at the Excellence resort in Punta Cana, where she went to celebrate her birthday with her son and his longtime companion, Fox News said.

On her second day at the resort, Maser-Mitchell said she felt ill after having cocktails and went to her room, which was adjacent to her son's room, her son's companion, Terry Mackey, told the network.

The next day, Maser-Mitchell still felt ill and did not accompany them for breakfast, Mackey told Fox News, who added that Maser-Mitchell drank in moderation, but never more than that.

"In the 15 years I knew her, she never suffered aftereffects," Mackey said to Fox News.

Her family contacted a resort doctor, who asked the retired nurse if she wanted to go to a hospital, according to Mackey. At first Maser-Mitchell declined, but then said she would go. In the ambulance, she went into cardiac arrest.

"I was sitting in the ambulance with her, holding her hand the whole time," Mackey told the network.

When Maser-Mitchell's body arrived in the U.S., it was in such bad shape there was no viewing, Mackey said. Dominican authorities reportedly said that the body had not been preserved properly.

Before going on the trip, Maser-Mitchell had a medical exam and was cleared to go on vacation, Mackey told Fox News, who added that she had been in generally good health.

Mackey said they did not know if Maser-Mitchell had a beverage from her room minibar.

"She was an LPN (licensed practical nurse), she knew the symptoms of a heart attack, she would have known," Mackey told the network. "She didn't present symptoms of a heart attack.“

The resorts did not immediately return a request for comment.

The reported deaths of Palmer and Maser-Mitchell come as officials in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic were investigating the deaths of the American tourists.

The FBI was assisting with the toxicology tests of three of the reported nine other Americans who have died in the Dominican Republic since June 2018. The agency said those results could take up to 30 days.

Maser-Mitchell’s family came forward after learning of the other deaths through recent news reports and seeing similarities, Fox News reported.

U.S. officials have not said the deaths are connected. The State Department said there has not been an uptick in U.S. citizen deaths reported to the department.

“We are closely monitoring ongoing investigations by Dominican authorities into several recent deaths of U.S. citizens in the Dominican Republic,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement this week. “We have no higher priority than the safety and welfare of U.S. citizens abroad.”

“Millions of Americans travel to the Dominican Republic every year,” the statement continued. “While the overwhelming majority travel without incident, we want to assure all Americans that we continue to work actively with the Dominican authorities at the very highest levels to ensure that U.S. citizens are safe and feel safe while in the Dominican Republic.”

On Friday, officials in the Dominican Republic held a news conference in Santo Domingo to reassure travelers that their country is safe and said there were no “mysterious deaths.”

Tourism Minister Francisco Javier Garcia reprimanded the media in Spanish for turning the nine fatalities into “an avalanche of death," Fox News reported.

“The Dominican Republic has seen an exaggerated number of Americans in the Dominican Republic who have died,” Garcia said, according to a translation by Fox News. “And media have taken it as an avalanche of deaths.”

Garcia noted that even the U.S. State Department's figures show there hasn't been an increase in American tourist deaths for reasons other than natural causes, according to the network.

“The Dominican Republic has a history of success with the tourism industry," he said. "We are the top travel destination in the Caribbean. It is the product of the work of the people in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic is a safe country.”

This story was reported from Los Angeles.