As the group of Peruvian villagers closed in on her, pelting her with rocks as she huddled under a small cliff, Jennifer Wolfrom heard her brother scream and then a loud crack.
“It was a board hitting him in the face … at that point I had to assume they were dead and I was alone with people surrounding me and throwing rocks at me. This was the first point in time I was like this is how I’m going to die; this is it,” Wolfrom told Metro in her first newspaper interview just days after returning to the United States earlier this month. She currently lives in Wyoming and graduated from Northeastern University in 2005.
The 30-year-old Northeastern alumna traveled to Peru last month to meet up with her brother and sister-in-law for a vacation in the South American country. They were supposed to spend 10 days together doing what the three of them love – seeking out adventures. Instead, their 10-day vacation turned into a nightmare that would be terrifying enough in a horror movie, let alone real life.
Her brother, Joseph, and his wife, Meghan Moore Doherty, were driving a truck camper through Central and South America on an international road trip. The trio met up in Peru and while making their way to the city of Cusco on Dec. 29 they decided to pull over because it was getting dark. Wolfrom said that as the group split two beers between them to celebrate her birthday that evening they were approached by two villagers. They asked if they could park there and the villagers said yes, but soon began blowing whistles and using their cell phones to alert other villagers of trio’s presence.
The villagers demanded to see their documentation, but knowing that they weren’t police Wolfrom said her group tried to leave. That’s when the villagers started throwing stones at them.
The villagers built rock roadblocks to prevent the group from leaving, Wolfrom said. Her brother tried to drive around them, but their truck got stuck. Rocks were being thrown through the windshield. One cut her jaw. They decided to make a run for it. They used cans of bear spray to fend off their attackers. For nearly an hour they ran, Wolfrom said, until they were surrounded by villagers and brought back.
They pleaded for the village leader to let them go, she said.
“At this point we were all bleeding severely from our heads and Joseph´s front teeth were knocked out and his eye blundered shut by a rock,” Wolfrom wrote in an online post about the attack.
Dozens of villagers held them for 11 hours, whipping them with ropes, kicking them and even once shooting at them, Wolfrom said.
Finally, the villagers said they could go if they agreed to sign a paper that said they were in a car crash. National police eventually came and assisted the trio and photographed their injuries, the damaged car and the roadblocks, she said.
The villagers took their possessions, including their documents. Wolfrom wasn’t able to make it home until Jan. 10 after seeing doctors and reporting the incident to the national police.
Wolfrom said she wants to see some people go to jail, mainly the village leader and the people responsible for whipping them. But she also said there were some people in the group of villagers who “contributed to saving our lives. They knew what the village was doing was wrong.”
Her brother had to have multiple root canals and her sister-in-law is having issues with her ear after being hit very hard in the side of her head. The two of them were finally able to leave Peru on Monday after having their car fixed.
Despite the incident, Wolfrom said she would go back to Peru and added that what happened to her and her relatives was not representative of the other people they met.
“It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen,” she said. “A lot of the people that we met were great.”
State Department help
Wolfrom said the trio reached out to the U.S. Consulate in Cusco and that they started getting more help once they and their friends back home started contacting U.S. officials.
A State Department spokesman said the Embassy in Lima provided assistance to the group.
“The U.S. Embassy in Lima is aware of this disturbing account of violence directed toward three U.S. citizens camping in Peru,” said John Echard, a State Department spokesman. “Since learning of the incident, consular officers from the U.S. Embassy in Lima and the U.S. Consular Agency in Cusco have provided assistance in securing medical treatment, and are replacing travel documents and facilitating contact with friends and relatives. We are also in contact with Peruvian authorities involved in the case.”
When asked if the U.S. was pushing for charges against those responsible, Echard referred questions about the case to Peruvian authorities.
Help from home
When Rachel Segien heard what happened to Wolfrom – one of her best friends and her former roommate at Northeastern – she was brought to tears.
Segien, who also graduated Northeastern in 2005, wanted to help and started an online fundraising drive to assist the trio in paying for their medical bills, lodging, cab fare and other expenses. Segien said the online fundraising effort spread and that in just a few days more than 350 people had contributed about $20,000.
“They didn’t have any documentation, any access to money, any phones,” Segien said. “It’s a ridiculously traumatic experience and I think they were very overwhelmed with the process.”
Wolfrom called the outpouring of help “amazing.”
“It’s also hard. You feel kind of guilty accepting that kind of help. I’m not really the type of person that asks for help,” she said. “Jed, Megan and I were just in tears. We couldn’t believe that that many people had heard the story already and that many people were willing to support us financially.”
Wolfrom said she has no idea what made the interaction with the villagers turn violent so quickly.
She could only guess that it “probably was wrong place at the wrong time” or the villagers’ feelings about larger governments that are directed at foreigners.
On the State Department’s Peru travel web page, it warns that Embassy employees are prohibited from nighttime overland travel anywhere outside major urban areas because of the risk of robbery and unsafe road conditions.
It also said that of the 350,000 U.S. citizens that visit Peru each
year, “a small but growing number have been victims of serious crimes.”
NBC’s TODAY show reported on the attack and said the mayor of the area in Peru where the attack happened apologized for the incident and said that the villagers speak a local language, not Spanish. He also said that the villagers could have possibly thought the trio were delinquents.