Nick Miele has been back home in Stoney Creek, Ont., from the Dominican Republic for almost a week now, and he's still a little shaky.
He struggles to find words to describe what it was like spending three weeks in a Dominican jail after a fight at a resort. And when he does, his cousin Sam DePaola occasionally pats him on the back.
“You OK, buddy?” DePaola asks.
This is the aftermath of a news story that drew international headlines for the Stoney Creek man and his new wife, Stacey Vernon.
They got married at the Bahia Principe Esmeralda resort in Punta Cana on May 27. Around 2 a.m. on May 28, the 34-year-old and his 18-year-old cousin Ben Constantini of Stoney Creek became involved in an altercation at a buffet table at the resort. They were arrested and sentenced to three months in jail, they say without a proper trial or appropriate legal representation. They served three weeks before they found a lawyer who was successful in getting them released.
- Related: Canadians in Dominican wedding fight freed from jail
It was a nightmarish experience, DePaola said.
“I don't think anybody there on vacation is back to normal yet,” he said.
Across the group of 41 wedding guests, “you've got people who are shocked,” said Nick Scozzaro, a close friend who helped work toward Miele and Constantini's release. “You have people who are at different times accepting and dealing with their emotions.
“It hadn't hit me until (Miele) got home, and it's hard for me to get back to my life.”
The wedding was beautiful, Miele said. He and Vernon had saved up for years for a destination wedding, and it was Miele's first trip to a resort.
The altercation began when two men started fighting in the buffet line, Vernon said. They landed on her, and her dress got soiled and stained with the blood of the two fighters, she said.
Fight at a buffet table
Miele and Constantini saw this and jumped in. The injured fighter, who was also Canadian, suffered trauma to the head, bruising and some superficial injuries, shows a medical report filed with the Dominican court.
The identity of the injured man has not been revealed. But in a statement, the man's wife wrote that she “saw some people jump on my husband. [Miele] hit my husband and another person — the other guy was pushing him. He was on the ground. I was telling them to stop hitting him.”
Witnesses say the fourth man — the one initially involved in the fight — fled the scene.
- Related: 2 men jailed in Dominican wedding fight back in Canada
Miele describes being taken into custody and held without charge for about two days. Someone from the Canadian embassy visited him shortly after his arrest and gave him a brochure — “Advice for Canadians Imprisoned Abroad.”
When Miele and Constantini appeared before the court, several members of the wedding party arrived with evidence and testimony they were not permitted to give, Miele said. He estimates the entire appearance where they were sentenced to three months in prison took less than 10 minutes.
Traumatizing jail conditions
The jail conditions were traumatizing, he said. There were 50 or 60 inmates sleeping in a room the size of the average family kitchen, “sleeping on top of each other” for lack of space, he said.
He and Constantini paid for food and water they didn't receive, he said. Speaking no Spanish, the two men were robbed and harassed, threatened with death and held at gunpoint.
The conditions were clearly unsafe, and the Canadian government should have intervened, Scozzaro said.
“When the situation escalated about their safety, their injustice, about not viewing the evidence, they should have advocated for due process and the rule of law,” Scozzaro said.
- Related: Government accused of failing Ontario men jailed in Dominican
Minister of State Diane Ablonczy told CBC Hamilton during the incarceration that the government stood up for well-being and due process “for all the Canadians involved.”
The government raised concerns about the prison conditions, Ablonczy said, and the Dominican government followed its own sovereign laws in the case.
Scozzaro, however, said that didn't happen.
“From what we understand about Dominican due process, it would have served us. We had witnesses from across the globe. We had reports corroborating their stories. But it wasn't about justice. It was about extortion.”
Their community at home in Canada has been supportive, which the couple appreciates, Miele said. Many friends and family have called to ask how they're doing.
- Related: Canadian groom threw punches at Dominican wedding, papers say
Unlike with most newlyweds, when friends call and ask questions, “it takes them a while to get to the wedding,” Vernon said.
Research your destination
Moving forward, the couple wants their experience to serve as an eye-opener for fellow Canadians — research your country of destination when you're traveling and prepare for the worst.
“When people say you're safe on the resort, that's not really true,” Vernon said.
Scozzaro wants the incident to send a message to the government to intervene when the safety of Canadians is compromised in a foreign prison. They have since heard of similar incidents with other Canadian travelers.
During Miele and Constantini's incarceration, more than 3,000 voiced their displeasure in an online petition asking Canadian politicians to step in and help the men.
“The will of the Canadian people is clear,” Scozzaro said. “We don't want to be forgotten or left behind in other countries.”
'I will not let this end'
Miele's aunt, Josie DePaola, said she won't let this drop.
“I will not let this end. I will not,” she said.
“I have emailed every MP I know. I've emailed [the] Minister of Foreign Affairs. I've emailed the prime minister. I want to talk in the legislature. This is enough.”
Miele returns to his construction job on Monday. He's also getting counselling. It'll take a while for life to get back to normal.
“It was like a horror movie,” he said.