By Dan Nolan, The Hamilton Spectator
It was an emotional homecoming for the two Hamilton men held for three weeks in a Dominican Republic jail for a crime their families say they did not commit.
More than two dozen family and friends were on hand to greet Nick Miele, 34, of Stoney Creek and his 18-year-old cousin Ben Costantini when they arrived home at Pearson Airport Tuesday shortly after 7 p.m.
There was weeping, kisses, hugs and cheers for the pair as they emerged into the arrival lounge from the 4½-hour flight from Punta Cana with eight other family members and friends who stayed, or went down, to support them through their ordeal.
Some family and friends wore homemade blue T-shirts that said Free Ben and Nick and one relative, Sue Raynor, waved a homemade sign proclaiming Welcome Home Nick and Ben and families.
"I feel great," said Costantini as he made the rounds greeting his welcoming party, which included his sister Lisa and uncle and aunt, Mike and Josie De Paola. "That's it."
An emotional Maria Costantini, Ben's mother, looked skyward and hollered "We won", and then a few seconds later yelled, "Oh my God, I feel so safe here." She and her husband, Ben Costantini Sr., stayed in Dominican Republic after their son was arrested May 28 in connection with an early-morning fight at a resort that injured a Montreal man.
"It's good to be home," said Miele as he walked with his wife Stacey towards the airport exit and a surprise home-cooked meal made by his aunt Josie.
"It feels wonderful."
The construction worker was looking forward to seeing his dog again and, along with Costantini, going to a McDonald's. Ben Costantini works at an uncle's stall at the Hamilton Farmers' Market and was attending an adult learning centre on the west Mountain to complete his Grade 12.
Josie De Paola, who said she was happy and relieved the men were back in Canada, had a big spread waiting for them at her home, including lots of pasta.
"They haven't had any in three weeks," she said after she had got in her hugs and kisses.
The two men were facing a two-year sentence and $100,000 in damages in connection with the resort fight that injured Nikolai Koutouzob of Montreal. They had been charged with physical aggression and were detained for three months on May 30 under "preventative prison," a provision that gave the state time to search for evidence.
Their families claimed the men were innocent. They said Miele and Costantini and some friends were in a buffet area at the Bahia Principe Esmeralda resort at about 3 a.m. when a fight between two men broke out beside them. The two strangers tumbled into Miele's wife Stacey Vernon and knocked her into the buffet table and onto the ground. The family said Miele went to his wife's rescue and that one of the men ran off. The man soon returned and violently assaulted Koutouzob and then disappeared again into the dark.
Their story was partially supported by Jennifer Schanck of Burlington, who was at the resort with a friend and did not know any of the principals. She saw the man drop-kick another man while Miele and him were "flinging" punches, and heard Vernon cry about being knocked down into the buffet table.
The families were beside themselves and, although the men received consular service from the Canadian government, wanted it to do more. They say the men faced deplorable conditions in prison, though Dominican Republic official noted it is the most modern facility in the system.
Their arrest and detention sparked some public outcry back in Canada, with a Stoney Creek friend garnering more than 5,000 names on a petition to pressure the Canadian government to do more to get the two men home.
Finally, on Monday, charges were dropped in court against the men and they were free to go.
Miele, who was arrested a few hours after he tied the knot with his 31-year-old bride, said the lesson from his experience is that if you travel to the Dominican Republic "don't trust anybody. That's all I can say. Be very careful and do your research because it could happen to anybody."
A close family friend, Nick Scozzaro, said the costs over the last three weeks to get the men out of jail and pay for unseen costs such as airline flights, hotel rooms and lawyers' fees was $45,000. He alleged $25,000 was paid to Dominican authorities before the men were released.
"It's probably one of the toughest ordeals we've had to go through," he said.
Court documents quoted Koutouzob as saying the two men provoked him and when he tried to leave, they became more aggressive. He also alleged they threw two drinks at him before punching him. The allegations were not proved in court.
Hamilton-area MP David Sweet spoke about the case in the House of Commons Tuesday and was "relieved" the men had been freed and consular officials had helped.
"Our citizens have been through an ordeal we certainly hope that no others have to suffer," he said.