JOURNEY’S END Rivard found Philip True’s body. Photograph by the San Antonio Express-News.
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
When a San Antonio Express-News reporter was killed in Mexico, the paper’s editor took the matter into his own hands-literally.
IT WAS A PLEASANT, MILD DECEMBER DAY IN SAN ANTONIO almost three years ago when Bob Rivard’s life changed. At the time, he was taking a golf lesson with the general manager and the publisher of the San Antonio Express-News, the newspaper he edits. Rivard had heard two days before that his paper’s Mexico City bureau chief, Philip True, was missing in the mountains of west central Mexico. He had dispatched one of his reporters to find him. But he couldn’t get True out of his mind. Now he made a more difficult decision: Against the advice of his associates, he would go to Mexico and find Philip True himself.
True had been on vacation, taking a solo one-hundred-mile hike through remote territory populated by 20,000 Huichol Indians. True knew the Huichols were perhaps the least assimilated and most undisturbed of all the indigenous peoples in Mexico. He wanted badly to write about them. But he had been rebuffed by his editors, so he decided to learn more on his own time.
He had been gone for thirteen days-longer than the trip was to have lasted-and had failed to check in with his wife from the fourth village on his route, one that she knew had a pay phone. He had never failed to check in before. His wife, Martha, in Mexico City and pregnant with the couple’s first child, telephoned the Express-News, reaching Susana Hayward, a reporter who had recently covered Mexico City for the Associated Press. Rivard then sent Hayward to Guadalajara to join Martha’s brother-in-law Manuel Obaya and True’s best friend, Fred Chase, in their search for True. In a rented plane and using the detailed map True had given to his wife, they combed an isolated area straddling the border between the states of Nayarit and Jalisco. They landed in several villages, including Almotita, where the Indians were openly hostile. Yes, they’d seen True, one villager said. His legs had been bleeding because dogs had attacked him. Something about the story didn’t seem right.
By then, Rivard was in Mexico City, determined to help Hayward and the others track down True. As it happened, he was uniquely qualified to do so. He was a veteran correspondent with both a taste for exotic adventure and the ability to speak Spanish fluently. His coverage of the guerrilla wars in El Salvador and Guatemala and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua for the Dallas Times Herald and Newsweek in the eighties was considered first-rate. Eventually he became Newsweek’s chief of correspondents. His south-of-the-border credentials were so good that in 1999, after two years as the editor of the Express-News, he was offered the job of editor of the Miami Herald, the most important English-language newspaper in Latin America. He declined, persuaded to stay in San Antonio by promises made by the Hearst Corporation (which owns the Express-News) to increase his salary and let him hire more reporters to write longer, more literary pieces.
Rivard began leveraging every personal and professional contact he and the paper had in Mexico, working his way up the chain of command to Fernando Lerdo de Tejeda, President Ernesto Zedillo’s minister of social communications. The Cabinet officer asked Rivard what he wanted.
“I want you to treat this like Senator Kennedy’s son is missing,” Rivard said. “We want that same kind of resource allocation.”
Perhaps True had been hurt, making it difficult to walk, Rivard theorized. Or, even though True was an experienced hiker, he could have gotten lost in the unfamiliar terrain. Lerdo de Tejeda then spoke with the minister of defense, and by the end of the next day, Rivard was flying into Guadalajara to meet the army general in command of the region. A massive public information campaign was launched. Hundreds of leaflets offering a 10,000-peso reward were distributed to the villages. The Huichols’ radio network, broadcasting in both Huichol and Spanish, made announcements every hour. “I don’t think there was a Huichol on earth who didn’t know we were looking for a foreigner named Philip True,” Rivard says.
Then came a break: A Huichol hunter named Margarito Diaz walked two days to tell the search party that he had found a body between two villages. The general’s helicopter, containing Rivard, Chase, and Diaz, took fifteen minutes to fly near the spot, which was in a steep ravine. The body was no longer there, but there was clotted blood in the dirt. Rivard then followed a trail of feathers from True’s sleeping bag to the bottom of the canyon. “A dog ran up to a sandbank and started to dig and sniff,” says Rivard. “You could smell death. Fred and I got down on our hands and knees and started to dig in the sand.” They found Philip True’s body stuffed in his sleeping bag, his bandanna knotted tightly around his neck. The gruesome discovery provided some closure for True’s family and friends, but having found True, they now sought justice.
Shortly after True’s body was found, two Huichol Indians, Juan Chivarra de la Grin and his brother-in-law Miguel Hern‡ndez de la Cruz, were charged with his murder. The last entry in True’s diary spoke of an unpleasant encounter with an Indian named Juan who had threatened to take him to jail and had asked True to follow him to his village, where True evidently spent the night. True’s binoculars, camera, and backpack with his personal papers were found in Chivarra’s home. The suspects quickly confessed to the killing, providing the police with details that only True’s attackers could have known. Their reasons were vague: at various times they said True had taken photographs of sacred sites, insulted Chivarra by calling him a veterinarian, and barged into Chivarra’s abode and beat him up while drunk, then raped his wife.
After the two were apprehended, Rivard-who is convinced of their guilt-tried to speed the murder trial through Mexico’s balky judicial system. In February of this year, he met personally with President Vicente Fox and with officials from Fox’s new administration, just as he had met with the State Department, three judges who have presided over the case, and four prosecutors. He enlisted journalistic organizations in the United States and Mexico to speak out on True’s behalf.
But he was up against more than just bureaucratic intransigence. Two months earlier an American expatriate from Atlanta named Miguel Gatins had taken an interest in the case. Gatins, who lives in Guadalajara, felt that Chivarra and Hern‡ndez were unable to defend themselves because of their status as poor, indigenous people. He financed a legal team that rolled out a parade of expert witnesses who said that the Indians had been tortured into confessing. They also presented findings of a third autopsy, which concluded that Philip True had not been strangled (though by then the corpse was so disfigured from previous autopsies that there was no neck on the cadaver to examine) but instead had accidentally fallen to his death while staggering around drunk. On the strength of this new evidence, the accused were released by a county judge in Jalisco in early August.
When Rivard heard the news, he returned to Mexico, meeting with Martha True and securing the support of Jeff Davidow, the United States ambassador to Mexico. Davidow said, “The evidence strongly indicates foul play”-pointed words coming from a diplomat. Rivard met with Fox’s top legal adviser, who, Rivard says, shared his disbelief. (“To this day, the court has not notified Philip’s widow or this newspaper about the acquittal,” Rivard says.)
He held a press conference to remind the Mexican press, including those papers siding with the Indians against the gringos, that True’s plight was also theirs. “The Mexican press was having a field day,” he says. “Drunk American hiker dies. We win. America loses.’ We tried to point out this was not a soccer game, with a winner and a loser. Philip’s not getting special treatment. There are many journalists in Mexico who’ve died. It’s in their interest to seek the truth.”
Gatins, meanwhile, has hailed the Indians’ release as a “great victory for justice.” The Huichols, he said, had been treated like “the classic scapegoats: Indians with no connections, no money, up against the power of the press and American institutions.” Bob Rivard sees it differently. “This man, like some other people here, [has] an attitude that ‘They’re Indians; they can’t possibly be guilty of homicide.’ That’s a quite romantic view. We’ve always been emotionally prepared that the Huichols would not pay for their actions. But we weren’t prepared for the judge’s finding that True’s death was accidental.”
The case is still alive. Prosecutors have filed a final appeal of the acquittal before a panel of three state judges. The Express-News has continued its coverage. In one story, the paper profiled Gatins, who spent $30,000 to finance the legal team that freed the Indians. In another, it wrote about the suspects, Chivarra and Hern‡ndez, both of whom now deny killing True. Back in San Antonio, Rivard, whose newspaper is seeing to it that Martha True and her son are financially taken care of, is trying to concentrate on his main job. “We’d like to get the Philip True case behind us and focus on the newspaper,” he admits. But he’d like a better legacy than the official Mexican version-a drunk gringo stumbling around, beating up Indians, raping their wives, falling off a mountain. You get the sense Bob Rivard sees himself in Philip True, before he crossed over into management. “It meant a lot to me because he was a writer willing to go to the mountains to get his story, use his vacation time to do the work so he could sell it to us,” he says. “How many reporters have hammered away at their editors and weren’t able to get them to see their genius? You ask again and again, and if you still believe in it, you just go do it. Which is what he was doing. What I’m doing is what any editor should do. The staff should expect their editor to be passionate. If not the editor, then who?”
[San Antonio Express-News] [Texas Monthly]
Two Towns Still Terrific
Union Station and other transportation hubs in the nation’s capital reflect heightened precautions for passengers.
Two Towns Still Terrific
San Antonio Express-News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July 28, 2002
A family’s summer trip to Washington and New York finds unexpected enrichment in the poignant aftermath of 9-11.
Common sense inspired our family’s summer vacation plan to go to New York and Washington, D.C. We’d thought about Europe, but our 12-year-old had never been to the nation’s capital and the 16-year-old was contemplating New York University. Four Rapid Rewards freebies on Southwest sealed the deal. We’d be doing our patriotic duty spending our money where it’s needed most, I’d joked, but 9-11 really wasn’t a motive. Or so I thought.
Since security has tightened around all airports, we arrived at San Antonio International a full two hours before departure on a Sunday morning. With long check in lines at curbside and the ticket counter and a thorough security check, we made it to the gate with fewer than 30 minutes to spare. We drove to D.C. in our rental car from Baltimore-Washington, got lost, and entered the district through Alexandria, navigating to our West End hotel, the Park Hyatt.
We walked back into Georgetown, then strolled toward the White House. Barricades a block away and a significant police presence were the first signs of stepped-up vigilance. Still, we were able to walk to the gate separating the White House from Lafayette Park. Along with us were a handful of tourists from Sweden and Japan, and we visited briefly with an anti-nuclear protestor who’d been at this very spot along with his partner for 30 years.
We woke up the next morning to a Code Red Day with which Tom Ridge had nothing to do. It was a bad-air day, so bad that schools in Virginia cancelled classes, but still nice enough to allow us to walk four blocks to the Metro, where I finally felt like a tourist. I thought I understood the directions to buying tickets from an automatic machine and using them in the turnstile, but a man in uniform materialized to show me what I’d done wrong.
Jane Wooldrigde/Miami Herald
The boys picked up on it quick enough to get us on the right train to the Smithsonian. The Air & Space Museum was as great as I remembered it, once we cleared the security check of personal items at the entrance. The free admission made me proud to be an American, though I quickly learned how expensive “free” can be after the family watched a 20-minute show on the universe in the planetarium ($7 each) and the boys rode in a flight simulator ($12 each).
Kris snuck out to the Corcoran Art Museum, where we caught up to eat lunch. Then we all detoured to the Smithsonian’s “castle” head quarters, drawn by the ground-floor photo exhibit on the World Trade Center disaster, which kept us riveted.
By the museum’s 5:30 closing time, we were exhausted. Thankfully, the kids mastered the Metro ticket system well enough to get us to the hotel without assistance. The local and national TV news was buzzing with stories about Jose Padilla, the accused “dirty bomber,” along with graphic explanations of how many people would have been killed on the Washington Mall if a dirty bomb had exploded there. Evidently, a mock drill had been conducted several days before, so we were treated to video portrayals of bloody victims crawling around the same grassy lawn we’d just walked across. We shrugged.
We found our way to Adams Morgan, a loose, hip, multicultural neighborhood, unlike the government part of the district where we were staying, and ate Ethiopian, something hard to find in South Texas, enjoying the rich curried stews and the communal style of eating, but not the spongy bread that’s used like a spoon, in the tradition of tortillas or tostadas.
New York, still familiar
The five hour drive to the Big Apple the next day pretty much boiled down to paying tolls every 10 or 15 miles and stopping twice at rest areas on the New Jersey turnpike, the cleanest restrooms I’ve seen on a major highway in the country. One even had a Dickey’s Barbecue franchise from Dallas, though not many customers.
Finally, we spotted the New York skyline through the haze. All eyes focused on the south end of Manhattan Island, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center used to be. Not seeing them was like a missing tooth, or an amputated limb, but the skyline was still plenty stunning.
We descended into the Holland Tunnel to get to Manhattan. Despite the hundreds of other vehicles doing the same, my wife and I later admitted to one another we couldn’t help thinking of terrorists during the five-minute drive underneath the Hudson River. I felt a sense of relief leaving the tunnel, no matter how congested the Lower Manhattan rush hour traffic we drove into.
| IF YOU GO
Getting there: Southwest has one daily nonstop to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, about an hour drive from D.C., with shuttles and metro connections. We booked a Nissan Altima through Hotwire.com for a week at BWI for $270, including tax and additional driver fee.
Lodging: We booked a room for four at the Park Hyatt, 24th and M Street N.W., (202) 789-1234, through Expedia.com at a $149-plus tax rate. However, our room only had one bed. ‘Happens all the time with Expedia,’ the concierge explained. ‘You should always reconfirm with the hotel when booking online.’ The hotel graciously upgraded us to a junior suite, which runs $175 a night.
Dining: Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant 2434 18th St. N.W. (202) 462-4100. A communal meal for four, with drinks, was $60.
In New York: TKTS has half-price tickets to Broadway shows on sale at Duffy Square, the island at 47th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue. The booth is open from 3 to 8 p.m. for evening performances, and 9 am. to 2 p.m. for Wednesday and Saturday matinees and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays. Cash and traveler’s checks only.
More information: Good general tourist information can be found online on www.nytourist.com and the visitor’s guide at washingtonpost.com.
It’s the same New York, I learned over the next four days, reconnecting with some of Kris’ and my old haunts. But it’s a new New York, too. I’d already seen the effects of Mayor Giuliani’s clean-up campaign over the past 10 years, but this time people really were nicer, happy to give directions to lost, clueless, out-of-towners, and more than once, after hearing me speak, asking where I was from.
The kids loved Times Square, especially the new Toys R Us at 44th and Broadway – the biggest toy store in the world, effectively haven stolen the thunder from the storied FAO Schwartz.
While hanging out at Virgin Records Superstore, right across from where MTV stages “TRL,” the 16-year-old noticed someone giving away tickets, and we managed to hustle seats for my wife and him, passing Jake off for 18, the minimum age to be in the audience. Since I’d already been before, I hung out with Andy
We saw “The Graduate” on Broadway, taking advantage of the TKTS half-price booth in the middle of Times Square, and witnessed the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy in a small venue in Chelsea. We spotted the Naked Cowboy, a local character in a cowboy hat, white underwear, boots, and guitar, entertaining tourists in the middle of traffic in the heart of Broadway. I contemplated taking advantage of the street hustler holding a sign that advertised, “Pick up lines, $1,’ and the kids bought bootleg Oakley sunglasses from an African man clutching a black trash bag on Fifth Avenue, right in front of Tiffany’s jewelers, two for $15.
We ate the best 75-cent hot dogs in the world at Gray’s Papaya on Broadway, “Nobody, but nobody serves a better frankfurter” and scarfed some mighty fine thin-crust pizza at John’s on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village. We had very inexpensive, very authentic Chinese at the Wo Hop in Chinatown, and not so inexpensive Italian at Due Amici in Little Italy the night after mobster John Gotti died. My friend Joe Angio, editor of Time Out New York, a weekly guide to the city, later advised Little Italy is really just one big restaurant serving the same red sauce and pasta and that you have to go elsewhere for the good Italian.
We shopped at Canal Jeans, where I bought a Billie Holiday T-shirt for $2.50, heard and saw some wild stuff at the Museum of Broadcasting, and at the boys’ request, went to the world’s largest Pokeman store near Rockefeller Center. We went back to Times Square just to bask in all the lights.
At Andy’s suggestion, we went to the World Trade Center site, a quick subway ride downtown. We had to ask where to get off: at Chambers, on the E or the 1 or 2 train, or City Hall, on the N or R trains, since the World Trade Center stops listed on subway map no longer exists.
Sad feelings, good things
People directed us to the overlook at Broadway and Liberty Street. The site had officially been cleaned up 10 days earlier, but the crowds hadn’t stopped. We walked up the catwalk, adjacent to an 18th-century church cemetery. The ramp’s plywood walls were decorated with memorial posters, tributes, and messages from all over the world. From the overlook, 20 feet above the street, we viewed a vast, empty swath, with only a scattering of heavy equipment and workers milling about to interrupt the flat, abstract landscape.
No one said much. Kris and Andy took pictures. Mostly, we just looked. The same sad feeling that haunted me at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and the Day’s Inn in Corpus Christi came over me again: something very bad happened here, something fueled by hate.
We walked along the southern perimeter of the site to the World Financial Center, just west of the WTC. Around back, where the plaza faced the Hudson River, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty beyond, the composer Randy Newman was playing for free, just him and his piano. He was singing about his birthplace New Orleans and riding the train across Texas, reprising his song from the film, “Toy Story,” but making no note whatsoever about the place where he was playing. It was a good thing. It meant life goes on, even at ground zero.
A writer friend who lives in Tribeca, less than a mile from the twin towers, allowed how the absence of the Twin Towers has brought the ornate Woolworth Tower, once the tallest building in the world, back into prominence, as well as other architecturally significant buildings that were dwarfed when the World Trade Center went up in the ’70s.
I saw what he meant on our last day, when we hopped the Staten Island Ferry, the best free ride in the Big Apple, past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. On the way back from Staten, a crowd gathered at the front of the ferry to look at the skyline, many of them taking photographs, including a family of four from South Texas.
[visit the San Antonio Express-News]