A newlywed Ontario bride is frantically trying to free her husband and his cousin from a Dominican Republic jail "hellhole"— and she says she's left doing it with next to no help from the Canadian government.
"I was with Nick maybe eight hours before they took him from me," Stacey Vernon, 31, told CBC News in Hamilton. "It's awful. We saved every penny to make this a wonderful experience and now we can't even look at our wedding photos."
Nick Miele, 34, and his 18-year-old cousin Ben Constantini, both of Stoney Creek, Ont., have been behind bars since the early morning hours of May 28 — just hours after Miele and Vernon said "I do" at the Bahia Principe Esmeralda resort in Punta Cana.
Miele is facing months in jail after a fight erupted on his wedding night that his bride says he had no part in.
'I've been very angry because I feel so helpless.' —Stacey Vernon, wife
The trouble started in the 24-hour buffet line around 2:30 a.m., after the reception had wound down. Vernon was in line with one of her friends. "We were talking about the nacho cheese and how they must water it down — and the next thing I knew I was bashed into the buffet table."
A fight had broken out between two men not in the wedding party, and they fell into Vernon while she was waiting in line. She hit her head on the glass above the buffet and had the wind knocked out of her when she hit the floor. But the men didn't stop fighting.
"I had bruises all over the place because I was getting kicked and punched with them on top of me."
Her new husband hauled the men off her and got her to safety, getting some blood on him in the process. One of the men violently assaulted the other, she says, before jumping the resort fence. Resort staff carted off the injured man.
Vernon's wedding party stayed to give statements to the police, and Miele and Constantini were arrested, she says.
"They were treated from this day forward as if they were criminals," she said.
The Dominican Republic Tourist Police did not return repeated requests for comment.
Canadian government 'little to no help,' wife says
The two Canadians had a preliminary trial on May 30, where they were sentenced to three months in jail — a "holding time" while the Dominican authorities carry out their investigation. The family was shocked and called the Canadian government for help, but none has been forthcoming, Vernon said.
"Our embassy and our government have been little to no help," she said. The Canadian Embassy gave them a list of private lawyers in the area they might contact, but added that the "list is provided for convenience and information purposes only" and that they accept "no responsibility for results."
"You might as well get one off the street," Vernon said. "I've been very angry because I feel so helpless."
A representative from Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada told Vernon that the department would help ensure the men get a fair trial. No one from Foreign Affairs showed up at their hearing on May 30.
Barbara Harvey, a spokesperson for Canadian Foreign Affairs, told CBC News that consular officials are in contact with local authorities to "gather additional information" and are in "ongoing contact with the family."
"However, to protect the private and personal information of the individuals concerned, further details on this case cannot be released," Harvey said.
According to the Consular Standards website, the government's ability to "obtain solutions" when problems arise for Canadians abroad often depend on the laws and regulations of other countries.
Vernon accused the government of hiding behind the guise of privacy when that is not a concern of the family. "We have nothing to hide," she said. "They're basically washing their hands of us."
Foreign Affairs cited "privacy concerns" last month as well when asked about the search for Prabhdeep Srawn, the Hamilton man who is still missing in Australia's Snowy Mountains. In that case as well, the family stated they had no privacy concerns, despite what officials said.
'They sharpen tools in front of them'
Vernon said Miele and Constantini have been suffering in deplorable conditions in three different prisons.
"They're sitting in feces — it's just horrendous," she said. "This prison is full of mass murderers and drug peddlers.
"They sharpen tools in front of them on the bars."
The family has to pay for food and toiletries. Vernon said her husband has dropped 20 pounds since being jailed and is suffering mentally. He witnessed a prisoner being stabbed four times in the prison cafeteria and an 18-year old guard accidently shot himself in the foot when playing with his rifle, she said.
"It's a hellhole."
Miele and Constantini are still waiting for their next court date, but the family is hoping their lawyer can have the case thrown out before then. Vernon and members of her family are still in Punta Cana hoping for good news.
She and her husband have yet to spend a night together as husband and wife.
"I haven't even had the chance to change my last name," she said.