Las Vegan does time as Suriname officials show no interest in justice


Somewhere in the Republic of Suriname, a joker is masquerading as a judge.

In what passes for a police department in Paramaribo, the Dutch-speaking capital of the tiny South American nation, someone is playing detective while Las Vegan Trina Johnson-Finn squats in a jail cell.

Those are the only logical explanations of why Johnson-Finn, an impersonating singer, remains incarcerated after a Feb. 27 concert in which the local crowd was apparently promised an appearance by Grammy-winner Toni Braxton.

But then, this story defies logic on several levels.

On Monday, Johnson-Finn's husband, Raymond Finn, learned that she would not be released from jail prior to her scheduled trial May 7. Since leaving Suriname after serving nine days in jail himself, Finn has worked overtime to generate political and media support for his wife, who by appearances was blindsided by an unscrupulous promoter when she took the stage in front of 1,500 people who apparently thought they were in for a special night of entertainment by Braxton.

The crowd got in a little exercise by rushing the stage. The confused Johnson-Finn, who makes her living as a singing impersonator but had never gone on stage as a faux Braxton, was taken into custody and locked behind bars.

Not that it's impressed the judge or caused the local coppers to break a sweat, Finn says, but the concert's promoter has gone on the lam with concert proceeds estimated at $300,000.

Justice has already had ample opportunity to be done, but it's become increasingly obvious there's no political advantage to be had in Paramaribo by playing fair with a stranger. The country's press is having a field day vilifying the Las Vegas-based singer. The effect, her husband says, has been to terrorize her as she loses weight and suffers from anemia while awaiting her fate. A conviction could net her a three-year sentence.

While it's hard for me to believe Johnson-Finn didn't catch on to the promoter's scam at least a few minutes before taking the stage -- were there no concert promotional displays visible, and did no one address her as "Ms. Braxton?" -- there's signed documentation proving she entered into the concert deal as an impersonator. The language is clear. The paperwork shows she took the job in good faith.

So does the e-mail trail dating to December 2008, when the appearance deal was signed.

Finn also reports that his wife, not surprisingly, had no prior contacts or experience with the Suriname promoter. She was contracted through RNRH Entertainment, a Las Vegas booking agent whose owner has been outspoken in his belief the promoter set up the concert as a scam on the locals. Johnson-Finn was a convenient "stranger" with no political connections or local ties, and her lawyers have informed her that so-called law enforcement officials have failed to interview a single suspect in the scam.

Meanwhile, Finn continues to reach out to Nevada's congressional delegation for help in gaining his wife's release. The problem is simple: Even the most powerful American politicians aren't likely to have much juice in a local court in Suriname.

"I don't believe in cowboy diplomacy, but I do believe in helping my constituents," congresswoman Shelley Berkley says, calling on Johnson-Finn's attorneys to contact her office. "I don't know enough about the facts to comment on them, but if they call and request my help, I will get in touch with the State Department and let them know we have a concern about one of my constituents."

Without some unexpected relief, the singer appears stuck in jail until her day in court.

And that leads us back to the start and whether, given the large amount of what appears to be exculpatory evidence, the legal system in Suriname has any interest in seeing justice done for the pretty stranger. It seems there's more to gain politically for them to throw the book at someone who has no allies beyond a couple of outgunned attorneys.

The frustrated Finn wants to organize a march to attract national media attention. He'd like to put together a celebrity concert fundraiser to generate attorney fees and awareness of his wife's predicament.

After 37 days in a South American jail, the singer's health is suffering. She's lost 15 pounds and suffers from dehydration and anemia, Finn says.

"Mentally, she's doing as much as she can to stay strong," he says. "Today's decision was a crushing blow. I know it will take her days to get over that mentally."

The longer the Suriname charade goes on, the more the Vegas impersonator looks like the real victim.

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith/.

 

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