The story of an American apparently killed after reportedly being shot by “lake pirates” on Falcon Lake along the Texas-Mexico border is being questioned by the Mexican authorities charged with investigating the incident, even as his widow is making media appearances to tell her terrifying tale. This morning, Tiffany Hartley responded to doubts about her story on national television.
Hartley says she and her husband David Hartley were taking photographs last Thursday and jet skiing on the Mexican side of Falcon Lake, a 60-mile-long, man-made lake which straddles the Texas-Mexico border about 90 miles northwest of McAllen, TX, where the couple lives. Hartley says they were chased by people on three boats who fired at them and shot her husband in the head. KRGV reports that a witness “told deputies he saw the Mexican boats chasing her into US waters.” David’s body and jet ski have not been found. David was reportedly wearing a life vest at the time of the shooting. Hartley says she managed to escape on her own jet ski.
Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez has told media that, though there are no suspects, he believes pirates linked to drug cartels are responsible. According to The Denver Post, Gonzalez “thinks the Hartleys were attacked by young boys called zetitas, who work for the Zeta drug cartel, which is involved in a drug war on the border with another Mexican gang, the Gulf Coast Cartel.” (According to the Post, the couple met while attending Thompson Valley High School in Loveland, Colorado.) Gonzalez is a vocal proponent of beefed up security along the U.S. border and has publicly warned that a dirty bomb being smuggled across the border isn’t a matter of if, but when.
In May, after receiving three reports of recent robberies and attempted robberies on the lake, the Texas Department of Public Safety issued a statement “urging caution on Falcon Lake” and saying “The robbers are believed to be members of a drug trafficking organization or members of an enforcer group linked to a drug trafficking organization who are heavily armed and using AK-47s or AR-15 rifles to threaten their victims.” On Friday, DPS issued a statement urging U.S. boaters to stay on the U.S. side of the lake.
TPM has so far been unable to reach Sheriff Gonzalez, whose office is leading the investigation on the U.S. side. The sheriff’s office told TPM yesterday that the police report for the incident is still being reviewed and is not ready for release. U.S. Border Patrol tells TPM that the investigation has been stymied because the incident occurred on the Mexican side of the lake, out of U.S. jurisdiction.
The State Dept. told TPM that the Mexican military and their police are undertaking their search for David Hartley.
“We have offered our assistance with the search efforts,” State Dept. spokesperson Megan Mattson told TPM. “Hopefully they’ll accept that, and we’ll get right out.”
Texas Department of Public Safety Public Information Officer Tela Mange told TPM that the “Sheriff’s Office and state authorities have been communicating with the Mexican authorities.”
The FBI, which is assisting in the investigation, referred questions to the Sheriff’s Office.
U.S. Border Patrol spokesman Narcizo Ramos told TPM yesterday that Mexican authorities “are in contact, they are aware of the area and the situation.” He added that “they’re going to need some boats.”
When asked if Border Patrol considers pirating a problem on Falcon Lake, Ramos responded: “Alien smuggling and drug smuggling and terrorism is our concern on Falcon Lake.” He also said that “this alleged crime that happened in Mexico, is part of the drug violence.”
The Monitor newspaper reports that Mexican authorities began their search for David on Saturday. The Tamaulipas State Police commander charged with leading the search, Rolando Armando Flores Villegas, told the Monitor no evidence of the incident has yet been found.
In a statement also obtained by CBS News, Marco Antonio Guerrero Carrizales, district attorney for the Miguel Aleman Province in Mexico, said: “We are not sure. We are not certain that the incident happened the way they are telling us.” The Monitor reports that “Guerrero said his office has not received any formal report from [Hartley] — a necessary step to launch a formal investigation — but looked into the matter amid pressure from state and U.S. authorities.”
On The Early Show this morning, Hartley appeared with David’s parents and sister. She responded to the Mexican authorities’ statements.
“I can understand why they would be asking the questions. But they haven’t been looking, either, as far as we know,” she said. “We understand the possibility that, the people who did this probably have him. And that’s why, maybe, they can’t find him.”
“We need to get on the Mexican side to search for David,” David Hartley’s mother said, her voice breaking. “There’s been no searching on that side of the lake. I mean, we’re pleading to the Mexican president, to Governor Perry, to President Obama, to Hillary, help us bring our son, Tiffany’s husband, home. It’s like, we need to get over and hunt for him. If nobody’s hunting, how can he be found?”
Tiffany said that prior to last Thursday she had heard about “the pirates, and them robbing fisherman over there, but we hadn’t heard anything for several months.” She said they’d had “no concerns” going over to the Mexican side of the lake, and that she and David had previously lived in Reynosa, Mexico with “no fear.”
The group also appeared on Today, and Tiffany described the incident in more detail. She said that the couple realized they were in danger “once we started seeing that the three boats were coming towards us, and then they started chasing us and then we just started hearing the gunfire.”
“When I looked back after I had seen some bullets hit the water next to me, I looked back to check on David and I saw him fly over the jet ski, he had been hit,” she said. “I quickly turned around and went to him, and jumped off my jet ski, and I had to turn him over because he was face down in the water, and [I] turned him over and he was shot in the head. And that’s when a boat came up, one of the boats came up to me, and had a gun pointed at me, trying to decide what to do with me. And then they left. And that’s when I tried saving David and getting him on to my jet ski. But I just — I couldn’t get him up. And I just kept hearing God tell me, ‘You have to go, you have to go.’ So I had to leave him, so I could get to safety.”
David’s father said his friends were planning a rally on Friday in Denver at the Mexican consulate, to try to spur action. The family pleaded for help to recover David’s body. Tiffany then responded again to the questions about her story.
“I believe in my heart, that they went back and took him. And they’re hiding our jet ski, they’re hiding him. And we just plead that we get him back” she said, later adding: “But they’re not doing what they need to do to get in that water and find him.”
On Fox and Friends, Hartley appeared alone. Host Gretchen Carlson asked Hartley to speak to the Mexican authorities statements. “Let me ask you this, Tiffany,” Carlson said. “The Mexican authorities are claiming now that maybe this incident didn’t even happen. How would you respond to them?”
“I can’t imagine that,” she said. “Because I loved him so much. He was my rock, he was everything to me. And I loved him, and there’s no way I would do anything like that. I can understand, since they say they can’t find the body — but they’re not looking, they’re not looking for him. And that’s what’s frustrating, because we can’t go over there to do it.”
“We just want his body back, that’s all we want,” she said.
Calls to the Mexican Consulate in Laredo, Texas were not immediately returned.
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com