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    Local Columns
    Thursday, September 29, 2022

    Rape investigation hangs over a boozy Block Island summer

    Even now, 26 years later, mention of a rape accusation that once consumed Block Island and made headlines around the country, with the town’s top elected official accused with two others of assaulting a young woman on the floor of his bar after an early-morning closing, still opens old wounds on the island.

    The three men eventually were acquitted, after a jury accepted their story that the sex was consensual.

    But in some ways the healing from that terrible event and the waves of emotional torment it caused to wash over the small island community is not over.

    Indeed, the decades-old, after-hours bar rape accusation seems to have hovered this month over the island, with fresh rumors circulating about a Rhode Island State Police investigation into a sexual assault over the busy Fourth of July weekend.

    Police have only grudgingly acknowledged the investigation, which is apparently ongoing, and released no details of the crime. The first public report of the probe came in a statement from the Block Island town manager.

    But of course Block Island is a small place, and the rumor mill has been busy enough that suggestions that there were two sexual assaults that weekend, at a “commercial establishment,” already have made it into print in the island’s weekly newspaper, the Block Island Times.

    “There is enough anecdotal evidence to lend credence to the rumor that there was a second rape or sexual assault at a commercial venue,” the Block Island Times reported earlier this month.

    The sexual assault reports are one of the first topics that come up in conversation, right after the weather, among islanders and visitors these days.

    And it comes at a time when the island, in the middle of its usual summer frenzy, has begun anew to question the culture of excessive drinking that comes with the onslaught of seasonal visitors.

    Certainly the island, going as far back as the development of its resort component in the 19th century, a collection of big rambling, shingled hotels, some of which survive, has always been known as a place to relax and party offshore.

    That distance from the mainland often seems to be taken as a sidestep to mainland rules, and the island long has had a reputation for heavy drinking.

    The fretting over excessive drinking and public drunkenness, though, seems to have reached a new high pitch this summer, with the Town Council last week holding a summit with owners of some of the big bars to talk about the problem.

    There’s no denying a very big problem.

    Police earlier this month conducted an undercover sting and found six of seven bars tested served an undercover, under-aged male. That’s a head-spinning flunk rate.

    Reports of people drunkenly flouting open-container laws, with coolers of open liquor on the beach and on ferries, are rampant.

    A land trust posted a guard at the entrance to its beach on the July Fourth holiday weekend, and between 200 and 300 people with alcohol, including 20 minors, were stopped trying to enter the beach, according to news reports.

    There seems to be consensus that it is worse than ever this year. The idea of a sexual assault in a commercial establishment seems to have magnified the worry exponentially.

    Solutions seem to be elusive. One bar owner made the good point at the alcohol summit that the town needs to crack down and enforce liquor laws.

    That seems obvious.

    Instead of using underage buyers in a “compliance check,” maybe they should be used in a robust enforcement action against liquor licenses.

    Some councilors complained about advertisements on the mainland for island cocktails, but none suggested a way to stop them.

    I believe the island’s newspaper, which long ago stopped printing police logs at the request of police, should reinstate them. A public airing of an alcohol-related arrest, which will inevitably find its way back to the individual’s hometown, is a great deterrent.

    What happens on Block Island doesn’t have to stay there.

    The great share of visitors to the island, many with children and extended families, are there to enjoy the cool summer breezes, the ocean and the magnificent natural scenery and environment.

    It’s a small cabal of business owners who benefit from advertising cocktails on the mainland and filling ferries with partiers who believe they can escape mainland rules and laws offshore.

    It’s up to the island establishment to better balance the two, as another boozy summer unwinds.

    This is the opinion of David Collins.

    d.collins@theday.com

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