Skip to main content

Belize mob torches Americans' animal sanctuary, but their will endures

By Arthur Brice, CNN
Click to play
Villagers destroy crocodile sanctuary
  • A psychic told Maya villagers the Americans were connected to the disappearance of 2 children
  • The 36-acre sanctuary protected two species of endangered crocodiles
  • No arrests have been made in the arson, national police said Tuesday
  • Americans Cherie and Vince Rose vow to stay in Belize and start all over

(CNN) -- An American couple in Belize struggled Tuesday to figure out their future, their dreams literally up in smoke after a mob of indigenous Mayans burned down their animal sanctuary in the belief the foreigners fed two missing children to crocodiles on their property.

Cherie and Vince Rose moved to the tiny Central American nation in 2004 to form a 36-acre sanctuary for two species of endangered crocodiles found in Belize -- the American and Morelet's crocodiles.

Bit by bit, their hope turned into reality. They built a two-story octagonal house that rested on stilts and reached 30 feet into the air. They constructed two smaller cottages to house researchers and students. They dug out two acres of canals for the crocodiles. They acquired two boats.

They called the place the American Crocodile Education Sanctuary.

Most of it vanished Sunday morning, when a throng of angry villagers from a settlement about 10 miles away torched the buildings on their property. A local psychic had told the villagers that the Americans had fed the two missing children to the 17 crocodiles at the sanctuary, police say.

The Roses were rescuing three crocodiles on a distant island at the time, so were not home to ward off the attack -- or possibly suffer a gruesome fate.

"It was like something out of a Frankenstein movie," Cherie Rose said Tuesday. "If we'd been home, they would have killed us. They said they were going to chop us up and feed us to the crocodiles."

It was like something out of a Frankenstein movie
--Cherie Rose

National police confirm that the indigenous Maya villagers were acting on the advice of a psychic who said the Roses had something to do with the August 7 disappearance of 11-year-old Benjamin Rash and his 9-year-old sister Onelia.

"They have their own superstitions," Deputy Police Commissioner James Magdaleno said about the Maya, who make up about 10 percent of Belize's population. "Because of their beliefs, they decided to take the law into their own hands."

No arrests have been made, the deputy commissioner told CNN.

"We don't know who burned the house," he said. "That is still under investigation."

Police also questioned Vince Rose about the missing children, but no connection was established, Magdaleno said Tuesday.

For the Roses, the drama unfolded in excruciating slow motion from far away.

They traveled August 29 to rescue some crocodiles on Ambergris Caye, a Caribbean Sea island off the northeastern coast of Belize. Their sanctuary in Punta Gorda is on the Caribbean coast in southeastern Belize, more than five hours away by land and airplane.

On Friday, September 3, the couple received phone calls from friends saying that truckloads of people from the village of San Marcos were on their way to the sanctuary to burn it down. The Roses sent their caretaker to the compound, but everyone was gone by the time he got there. The area around the two cottages had been trashed, though.

The Roses got more calls from friends Saturday, again telling them that villagers with shotguns and machetes were on their way to the sanctuary. The caretaker was afraid to go there, Cherie Rose said, so they called police that night. The police said they couldn't go on the property because the Roses' two mixed-breed dogs were barking and would not allow them to enter, Cherie Rose recounted.

"By 9 a.m. Sunday, we were receiving frantic calls and texts," Cherie Rose said.

By the time police got there, it was too late.

"They told us, 'Oh, we're sorry. Your place is burning to the ground as we speak,' " Cherie Rose said.

Life has been numbingly painful since.

"We're in shock," she said. "We're totally devastated."

Vince Rose still found it difficult to talk about the sanctuary Tuesday, having to stop several times during a phone interview to compose himself.

"They lost everything," Deputy Commissioner Magdaleno said Tuesday.

Well, maybe not quite everything. Their two dogs -- Rio and Maya -- survived.

So did their spirit. They don't know quite how, but they vow to stay in Belize and start all over.

"We love what we do, and the adventure is just incredible," said Cherie Rose, who is 44 and said she has a biology degree from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. "We do more in one day than some people do in a lifetime.

"We are going to stay in Belize. We are going to fight this. I'm not abandoning those crocodiles down there."

Her 48-year-old husband agrees.

"What we created was absolutely beautiful," Vince Rose said. "No, I'm not going. We're not letting them run us out of this country."