NASSAU, Bahamas —The former retail shop in the largest regional mall is shuttered, the lavish oceanfront property is all but abandoned and Peter Nygard hasn’t been in the country for more than a year.
But the effects of Nygard’s alleged reign of abuse in the developing island nation live on in the women who say he raped them.
The Free Press has heard the stories of six Bahamian women this week who claim the Winnipeg fashion mogul, whose wealth is estimated at more than $900 million, sexually abused them. Five of the women were minors at the time of the alleged offences.
Nygard, 78, maintains his innocence. The allegations have not been proven in court.
As a class-action lawsuit — filed Feb. 13 by 10 women who claim Nygard drugged, raped and sodomized them — works its way through the U.S. courts, questions linger in the Bahamas about how the alleged sex-trafficking operation was allowed to go on unchecked for so many years.
Last week, Nygard was front-page news in two prominent local daily newspapers.
The issue is becoming politicized, with the governing Free National Movement seizing upon the accusations to claim the former Progressive Liberal Party government was corrupt and paid off by Nygard. The PLP says it’s being smeared by the FNM to distract from its declining popularity.
The FNM swept into power in the 2017 election. Soon after, the government began prosecuting several former officials of the previous PLP government for corruption-related charges. The country’s next election is set for 2022.
Richette Ross, who worked at Nygard Cay — the fashion mogul’s gated estate—from 2009 to 2014, told the Free Press she routinely dropped off cash bribes to police and PLP politicians. In an interview, she also claims Nygard drugged and raped her in February 2014.
"Concerning the allegation that police and politicians were bribed, that’s a categorical, unequivocal denial. There would be no reason to bribe anybody," said Jay Prober, one of Nygard’s attorneys.
Prober previously said Ross is a "malicious opportunist with a vivid imagination" and has "no credibility whatsoever."
When reached for comment, a PLP spokesman directed the Free Press to past comments the party made in response to the allegations; the party denies having been bribed by Nygard.
However, the party and Nygard did have a relationship. In the class-action lawsuit, there are photos of party members at his property. Multiple former employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said high-ranking PLP politicians were frequent guests at his "pamper parties."
Nygard also boasted he "initiated and helped to write the stem cell legislation" the country passed into law under the PLP government — a claim the attorney general denied at the time. Nygard has long been known to have an interest in stem cell research for anti-aging purposes.
He also donated at least $5 million to the PLP in advance of the 2012 election. There are no caps on political donations in the Bahamas.
In addition, documents obtained by local newspaper The Tribune, indicate Nygard sent thousands of dollars per month to a bank account connected to former PLP cabinet minister Shane Gibson. One former employee of Nygard Cay, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Gibson was a common guest at "pamper parties."
Gibson later admitted accepting the funds — which totalled $94,000 from August 2011 to January 2013 — saying they were campaign contributions.
"I don’t know anything about payments like that, but campaign contributions are not illegal and wouldn’t constitute a bribe," Prober said.
But there are also wider cultural issues at play that may have made the Bahamas fertile soil for a sex-trafficking ring such as the one the firm handling the class-action lawsuit has accused Nygard of running.
Sandra Dean-Patterson, a leading women’s advocate and the director of the Bahamas Crisis Centre, said she believes the Bahamas is facing a rape epidemic. She claims official police statistics do not accurately reflect the level of sexual violence taking place in the country.
"I have always said that we are experiencing what you call a silent epidemic of rapes," Dean-Patterson told The Tribune in February 2019.
Official police statistics indicate there were 55 rape cases in 2018, in addition to 113 cases where a youth was sexually abused. The number of rapes being reported to police has been on the decline in recent years and Dean-Patterson speculates this is due to victims not wanting to file reports.
"Concerning the allegation that police and politicians were bribed, that’s a categorical, unequivocal denial. There would be no reason to bribe anybody." – Jay Prober, one of Nygard’s attorneys
According to the 2017 census, there are roughly 395,000 people living in the country.
"I think victims have lost confidence in the criminal justice system to protect them and get justice for them," she said.
Solomon Cash, a spokesman for the Royal Bahamas Police Force, told the Free Press there is an active investigation into five women who say Nygard raped them when they were minors.
"I can say that we are conducting an investigation surrounding alleged sexual misconduct by Mr. Nygard against five underage females. That investigation began late last year, into this year," Cash said.
"I cannot say exactly how many people we’ve spoken to, but I can say we have five allegations. We don’t give timelines on investigations, especially when we’re dealing with investigations of this magnitude."
A 2017 survey commissioned by Transparency International and Citizens for a Better Bahamas found the police is considered the most corrupt institution in the country. The poll interviewed 1,000 Bahamians, with 28 per cent saying most or all police officers were corrupt.
Marital rape is also not illegal in the Bahamas. The issue recently made news when the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Halson Moultire, said he was conflicted on the issue, leaning towards the view — from a religious standpoint — that a husband cannot rape his wife.
The comments came after a report on marital rape was compiled by the Equality and Justice Alliance, which is working to promote progressive legal changes in the country.
“I don’t know anything about payments like that, but campaign contributions are not illegal and wouldn’t constitute a bribe.” – Jay Prober, one of Nygard’s attorneys
"I wouldn’t want a person to be able to abuse the privilege of being in a marital union to infringe on someone’s right to say no," he told the Nassau Guardian, a local newspaper.
"But at the same time, when you compare that with the spiritual aspect of two becoming one and whenever a partner wishes to be accommodated sexually and so on, that the other partner really should comply."
The report identified the Bahamas as one of four countries in the British commonwealth that doesn’t have "adequate legislation criminalizing marital rape and intimate partner sexual violence."
The country also doesn’t have legal abortion. Anyone, including a pregnant woman, who "intentionally and unlawfully causes abortion or miscarriage shall be liable to imprisonment for 10 years."
Many of the local newspapers have long reported on Nygard, his highly publicized feud with his neighbour, American billionaire Louis Bacon, his efforts to establish a stem cell research facility on the island and his various lawsuits.
While there are several active news outlets in the Bahamas, there is no freedom of information legislation on the books, which means many reporters are hamstrung when trying to hold the government, and powerful institutions and people, accountable.
Freedom of information legislation was drafted by the previous government in 2017, but was not enacted.
Alleged corruption in public institutions, retrograde (by Canadian standards) laws on women’s rights, and a press neutered by a lack of legislation enshrining its democratic mandate to hold power to account, helped create a situation where Nygard — according to the firm handling the class-action lawsuit — was able to run a sex-trafficking ring for decades.
However, questions remain in other countries, as well. Greg Gutzler, co-counsel on the class-action lawsuit, says 50 women have approached the firm claiming Nygard raped them.
Gutzler said he believes Nygard’s sexual abuse was an open secret for decades — from Winnipeg to Toronto, from Los Angeles to New York fashion circles and in the Bahamas.
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.
Your support has enabled us to provide free access to stories about COVID-19 because we believe everyone deserves trusted and critical information during the pandemic.
Our readership has contributed additional funding to give Free Press online subscriptions to those that can’t afford one in these extraordinary times — giving new readers the opportunity to see beyond the headlines and connect with other stories about their community.
To those who have made donations, thank you.
To those able to give and share our journalism with others, please Pay it Forward.
The Free Press has shared COVID-19 stories free of charge because we believe everyone deserves access to trusted and critical information during the pandemic.
While we stand by this decision, it has undoubtedly affected our bottom line.
After nearly 150 years of reporting on our city, we don’t want to stop any time soon. With your support, we’ll be able to forge ahead with our journalistic mission.
If you believe in an independent, transparent, and democratic press, please consider subscribing today.
We understand that some readers cannot afford a subscription during these difficult times and invite them to apply for a free digital subscription through our Pay it Forward program.