CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands -- A not-so-funny thing happened to eight American travel writers invited to sunny St. Thomas by the Virgin Islands government: they got mugged.
The writers, invited to St. Thomas' recent Carnival, were riding in an open bus that got caught in the daily traffic jam along Charlotte Amalie's waterfront avenue. Suddenly, two dozen black youths swarmed over the bus, grabbing watches, chains and cash and roughing up some of the writers.
'It was very frightening,' said a shaken Laury Philipson of Diverson Magazine.
The attack occurred in front of the island legislature, where the street lights had been out for weeks and were still out weeks later.
It struck a raw nerve in the territorial government, spotlighting the inability of local officials to dampen a crime wave that threatens the economy and tarnishes the Caribbean tourist resort's motto, 'American Paradise.'
The Virgin Islands outrank other Caribbean islands and even the mainland United States in murder and rape cases, according to a study released in May at the sixth annual conference of the Caribbean Studies Association.
Notre Dame Prof. Jerome McElroy and Klaus Albuquerque of the College of Charleston, S.C., said that in the period from 1969 to 1978 the U.S. Virgin Islands had the region's highest murder and manslaughter rate, with 19.4 incidents per 100,000 people. Jamaica, second on the list, had 13.8 and the mailand United States was sixth ranked with 8.8.
The Virgin Islands also led in rapes, with 45 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, almost twice as many as the mainland United States, second with 24.4.
Crime not only worries local residents, it scares away tourists who form the backbone of the economies of the three U.S. Virgin Islands.
In St. Thomas, the number of robberies doubled in the first four months of 1981 to 133. Police reported more than 7,000 felony arrests in 1980 for that island, St. Croix and St. John which have a combined population of 100,000.
With such statistics, it's little wonder that a recent Lou Harris poll of St. Thomas residents showed 85 percent believe crime is 'a very serious problem.' Twenty-one percent said they had been victims of crime in the past 12 months.
Virgin Islands crime has racial connotations.
Last year, after the murders on St. Croix of a jeweler and his wife, dozens of white residents sent telegrams to the attorney general and other federal officials charging that Gov. Juan Luis was indifferent to 'the systematic terrorizing of the white coummunity' by blacks.
Many white residents believe that since they have on the average more money they are the logical targets of break-ins and robberies, which can become violent.
Blacks constitute 80 percent of the island' population.
'Even if the crimes themselves start out as burglaries or robberies, the senseless killing, raping and humiliation of mostly white victims reeks with racial overtones,' commented St. Thomas Sen. Lloyd Williams, who is black.
There is, for example, the case of the wife of a Danish business executive recently assigned to St. Thomas who was attacked in her home by a gang of black youths, the youngest about 12.
One of 12-year-olds kicked the woman, then four months pregnant, in the stomach repeatedly and so severely she was hospitalized.
She and her husband had already been burglarized twice before and decided to call it quits, packing up and leaving St. Thomas.
Rabbi Stanley T. Relkin, a leader of the island's Jewish community, fled St. Thomas in May after a young man broke into his home, tortured him and vowed to murder him if he did not pay $20,000 extortion.
In neither case have police made arrests.
'Most of the crime is being committed by youths,' said Public Safety Commissioner Otis Felix, who took office as Richard Callwood, the first policeman killed in the line of duty in St. Thomas, was dying in a hospital bed last December.
Police said 78 percent of all those arrested for felony are under 24 years of age, while 54 percent of the island's people are in that age bracket.
The Virgin Islands' population has tripled since 1960, making it difficult to find cheap housing and making it harder for young people to find work, two problems that may have exacerbated the crime problem.
Population has been swollen by immigrants from other West Indian islands who are imported to do work menial work the local islanders shun and raise their families in large housing projects the tenants dub 'instant ghettoes.'
Though no one is quite sure just how crime can be cut, no one doubts the problem jeopardizes the future of the Virgin Islands.
Crime, the Virgin Islands Daily News recently warned in an editorial, 'is driving good people from our lovely islands.'