An American prosecutor gunned down on the tiny island of Yap had been so afraid for her safety she reportedly slept with a machete under her bed.
Those who knew Rachelle Bergeron, 33, described her as a tireless advocate against human trafficking who had become the “target” of dangerous enemies before she died, according to The New York Post.
Bergeron was gunned down outside her home on the tropical Pacific island of Yap last week after returning home from a run with her dog, who she often took along for protection. However, both Bergeron and her dog were killed by the gunfire.
Bergeron—who had worked as a human rights lawyer in New York and India before accepting a position as the assistant attorney general on Yap in 2015—had long been an advocate against human trafficking and had been trying to end the child-sex trade in Yap, one of four islands that make up the Federated States of Micronesia.
On the island, girls as young as 12 were forced into sex work servicing seamen on ships in the small island’s harbors, the paper reports. Bergeron had allegedly not only taken aim at those involved in the sex trade industry but had also spoken out against government officials for their failure to take action on human rights issues.
Her friend Amos Collins told ABC News he believed Bergeron had the “most dangerous job” on the island.
“I think we’re all in the same boat together, that we want this person to be caught and brought to justice,” he said.
Constantine Yowbalaw, the director of civic affairs for the Yap State government, described his former coworker as a fearless crusader for what she believed in.
“She was a very straightforward proponent of especially marginalized groups, so very, a very big advocate of human rights and she’s been fighting for individuals and communities for a long time here in Yap,” he told KUAM News.
Her death, he said, has been a tremendous shock to a community, especially because firearms are outlawed on the small island.
"It's a small community. Something like this doesn't usually happen," he said.
Life on the island had been a vast contrast to the United States, where Bergeron had grown up.
Many on the island adhered to a strict set of ancient rules that often found women charged with tasks such as cooking and gardening while many of the men worked as fisherman. Women were also often the subject of criticism and speculation if they went to a man’s home unaccompanied, The Post reports.
While serving as the assistant attorney general, Bergeron had been vocal about her disapproval of how the island had treated 34 Nepalese and Indian immigrants who had landed on the island as a debate about what to do with the men broke out among federal immigration authorities.
The men were detained for a year and half and kept in difficult conditions—forced to live in makeshift lean-tos with only meager food rations from the government. They had no running water or toilets and were kept in isolation, unable to communicate with others.
Bergeron told the “Cook Islands News” in August 2016 that she didn’t believe the situation had been “handled very well.”
“So there were no sorts of checks and balances to ensure whether or not the men were provided with adequate food, what their shelter situation was like, if they needed access to medical care,” she said at the time.
She also publicly criticized the national government for detaining the men illegally and not providing them with legal counsel, The Post reports.
Bergeron had also been involved in a state-wide effort to end sex trafficking—including a case against two men that was taken all the way to the country’s Supreme Court earlier this year.
The case involved two men: William Chunn, a local taxi driver hired to recruit minor girls and transport them to have sex with sailors and Joseph Parisi, a man with citizenship in both the U.S. and Italy who was accused for paying for sex with the minor girls.
Parisi is on the run after he violated conditions of his bail, the news outlet reports.
Those who knew Bergeron, who was promoted to serve as acting attorney general on the island earlier this year, believe the nature of her work may have made her a target for some in the area.
“She was a target,” Collins said. “She had to deal with a lot of the worst things.”
Bergeron even slept with a machete under her pillow as the nature of her work made her fear for her safety, according to The Post.
But despite the dangers surrounding her work, Bergeron had also created a happy life for herself on the island, which is about 500 miles southwest of Guam. When she died, she was about to celebrate her one-year wedding anniversary with her pilot husband, Simon Hammerling.
Hammerling had been at home baking brownies with a local girl the couple was helping to care for when the shots rang out the evening of Oct. 14.
"I just kind of fell by her, not really thinking about anything else," Hammerling told ABC News of finding his wife outside. "She was just crouched over and breathing really heavy."
Hammerling and Collins, who arrived a short time later, transported Bergeron to a local hospital, but she succumbed to her injuries.
The FBI is assisting in the investigation into who may have killed the 33-year-old. No arrests have been made yet in the shooting.
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