U.S. teenager shot, killed in Costa Rica by hotel security guard

June 2, 2011

A 34-year-old hotel security guard at La Cangreja Lodge in La Fortuna, San Carlos, in north-central Costa Rica, shot and killed a high school student from Kansas early Thursday. Justin Johnston, 16, a student from McLouth High School, in McLouth, Kansas, in the U.S, died soon after he was shot.

According to the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), two students left their rooms in the hotel late at night. When they returned, they passed close to an adjoining property with a barbed-wire fence to avoid being noticed. A dog barked, startling the students and alerting a hotel guard to their presence, the daily La Nación reported.

Police said the guard fired a warning shot into the air, frightening the teenagers, who began running towards the hotel. Thinking he was being attacked, the guard, identified as Jorge Guevara, shot and fatally wounded Johnston, La Nación reported, citing the OIJ.

Police reported that the guard’s weapon, a .22-caliber pistol, was not registered. Firearms are regulated by the Ministry of Public Security. Possession of unregistered firearms can result in criminal charges and jail time.

Guevara’s attorney, Marcela Rodríguez, who was contacted by Guevara’s family shortly after the incident, would not comment at press time because she didn’t have complete details of the shooting.

No other students were injured. McLouth school district is arranging emergency counseling for students at the Kansas high school.

During a press conference late Thursday afternoon, McLouth superintendent Steve Splichal said remaining students and staff will return home early. Their original return date was next Wednesday.

Johnston was on a nine-day Spanish Club trip with 11 other students and two district sponsors. School district officials worked with EF Educational Tours to set up the trip.

In a statement released by EF Educational Tours Thursday afternoon, the company said that while the death of Johnston is tragic, the incident appears to be an isolated occurrence and should not indicate broader safety concerns in Costa Rica.

The company offers four travel packages to Costa Rica, all of which include visits to La Fortuna waterfall and Arenal volcano. According to the company’s website, an EF tour director is required to make sure students return to their rooms on a nightly basis. The website says the curfew time is generally set around 11:30 p.m.

The U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica released a brief statement on the shooting, saying that the embassy is in contact with the family and that embassy personnel have gone to La Fortuna to meet with local authorities and the U.S. residents involved in the incident. The embassy would not comment further due to U.S. federal privacy law that prohibits divulging citizens’ information to the press.

In the last 10 years four other students from the state of Kansas died while in Costa Rica. In 2006 three students and a high school Spanish teacher drowned at Palo Seco Beach, on the central Pacific coast, after swimming into strong currents (TT, June 23, 2006). In 2001, University of Kansas student Shannon Martin was stabbed in the pacific port town of Golfito (TT, May 21, 2003).

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