A family is demanding answers after a New Jersey man mysteriously died while vacationing in the Dominican Republic, upping the number of U.S. tourists who’ve died on the island in the past year to at least eight.
State Department officials confirmed the death of 55-year-old Joseph Allen, who was vacationing on the island in celebration of a friend’s birthday, his sister told ABC News. He was found dead in his hotel room at Terra Linda in Sousa last Thursday.
Allen’s sister, Jamie Reed, said her brother was “for the most part healthy” and didn’t have any pertinent health issues. However, friends vacationing with him at the time told her that Allen fell ill at the pool and “complained about being hot.”
“He said he was going to his room to take a shower,” Reed said. “When his friends came back, he said he wasn’t feeling 100 percent again, and said he was going to lie down for the night. The next morning his friend said he hadn’t heard from Joe before breakfast, so he knocked on his door and there was no response.”
That’s when the friend called down to the hotel’s front desk to request a wellness check. Afterwards, a maid made the grim discovery.
“They found him on the floor,” Reed told ABC. “He had been there for a while. Rigor mortis had set in, and he was cold.”
Despite the string of recent deaths on the island, the grieving sister said she didn’t think much of her brother’s trip. She said Allen was a frequent tourist to the area and visited multiple times a year.
News of Allen’ death also dealt a major blow to his son, Amir Allen, who was en route to DR to spend Father’s Day with his dad. He would never get the chance.
“To God we belong, to God we return,” said the victim’s brother, Jason Allen. “[But] we want some closure to figure out what is going on and why this is happening. And we don’t want anyone to feel how we’re feeling right now.”
Allen’s family is now working to have his body expedited back to the U.S., though they have received some pushback from the funeral home, which plans to embalm the body after an autopsy is complete.
A preliminary report revealed Allen likely died of cardiac arrest, WNBC reported, and noted prior conditions, including long-term hypertension, hardening of the arteries and other heart issues that may have contributed to his death.
Allen’s family remains skeptical, however, and said they will seek a second opinion.
“I just don’t want them to suppress anything, especially with them embalming the body,” Reed said of the funeral home. “We want answers. We’ve reached out to everybody, including [New Jersey] Senator [Robert] Menendez to try to get some help from anyone.”
Reed’s family is one of many still grappling with the sudden deaths of their loved ones while in the DR. The FBI and U.S. State Department have since stepped in to investigate three of the recent deaths, including those of Maryland couple Nathaniel Holmes and Cynthia Day. Both were found dead in their hotel room at the Bahia Principe resort in Romana on May 30.
Miranda Schaup-Werner, 41 of Pennsylvania suffered an eerily similar fate when she died five days prior after falling ill at the Bahia Principe Bouganville resort.
Autopsies later concluded all three tourists had died of heart attacks, caused by respiratory failure and pulmonary edema, a build-up of fluid in the lungs.
In addition to the deaths, recent reports show that dozens of travelers have also been sickened while visiting the Caribbean nation.
“It’s definitely very strange,” Reynold A. Panettieri Jr., a Rutgers physician who specializes in toxicology and isn’t involved in the investigations, told PEOPLE. “Healthy people don’t just die. And the couple dying at the same time certainly tips us off that something is very wrong.”
Panettieiri stressed that officials’ investigations into the deaths must be thorough, as there are several possibilities to be explored. Many of the deceased tourists were sickened after having a drink from the minibar, leading many to believe they may have been poisoned.
“It is possible for drinks from the minibar to contain a toxin,” Panettieri said. “So if that’s the common denominator, that’s always a possibility.”