Over the past couple of days there have been several developments in the alleged Falcon Lake piracy attack and murder. First, Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez says that he has a witness who corroborates Tiffany Hartley’s story. That witness, whose identity is being concealed out of safety concerns, claims that when Hartley came off the lake on her jet ski, she was being chased by men in a boat and that she was sobbing and frantic. This eyewitness account of seeing the boat giving chase is key. If the witness saw the chase, Hartley is at least telling the truth about that aspect of the incident. Fox has also reported that the Hartleys were briefly stopped by police on their way to the lake, because they were driving a truck with Mexican plates but their jet ski trailer had Texas plates. The couple did live in Reynosa, Mexico, until a few months ago, but the violence there led them to move back across the border to McAllen, TX. So their license plate situation doesn’t suggest much, in my opinion. They were let go after the brief stop and went on their way.
Sheriff Gonzalez also says that he has retrieved blood evidence from Tiffany Hartley’s life vest. Put that evidence together with the witness corroborating her story of the chase, and her story overall looks more solid.
Zapata County’s sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez has told CBS News he has blood evidence from the lifevest of Tiffany Hartley, the wife of David Hartley, that supports her account of a pirate attack on a lake that straddles the Texas-Mexico border.
Those who already doubt Hartley may see this as evidence that she murdered David. The blood could have gotten onto her vest whether she shot him or he was close to her when pirates shot him. Its presence on her vest is not dispositive either way, but does point to violence having occurred. Sheriff Gonzalez is treating Hartley’s story as truth, and has throughout the week since it happened.
On Fox News Channel Thursday, another victim of Falcon Lake piracy came forward and said that Hartley’s story fits what happened to him on the lake a few months ago. He’s Dr. Richard Drake, and he was fishing on Falcon Lake when pirates ambushed him. Here’s his interview with Megyn Kelly. Again, he wasn’t on the Mexican side of the lake. He was out in the center, on the Texas side of the border, when he was ambushed.
There are several important aspects to Drake’s story. One, like Tiffany Hartley, for whatever reason the pirates allowed Drake to escape with his life. Two, while he says that there are questions about Hartley’s story that still need to be answered (and he’s right about that), he says that her story rings true to him based on his own experience. Three, he wasn’t in Mexican waters when this occurred.
I spoke by phone yesterday with a man who lives and works around Falcon Lake. He seemed to be concerned about a couple of things. One, he’s understandably concerned about rumors getting out of hand, and the Hartley case is putting a lot of negative attention on the lake and can lead to a lot of rumor mongering that has the potential to ruin their livelihoods while having their remote area overrun with press. People who live in the area are also obviously concerned about safety. With that in mind, take a look at the Flash Fishing Report blog published by Falcon Lake Tackle. Its author has many of the same questions that others are asking about Hartley’s story, but is advising fishermen to stay away from the Mexican side of the lake. But he adds that he will continue to fish the Mexican side of the lake, because that’s where the best fishing is.
I have always tried to make your trips to Falcon enjoyable, safe and productive. And if you recall I was the first one to issue a warning about potential dangers back in April when there were a few substantiated incidents in the Salado. And for now I am telling you to stay out of the Salado. Because I just don’t know what the dangers are.
The next things I’m going to say about this, I want to say carefully so I’m not misunderstood. There are a number of competing interests at play on Falcon Lake, and the Hartley case touches on all of them. Border security types like myself see in it confirmation that Mexico is spiraling out of control and that American lives and businesses along the border are increasingly at stake. Local authorities on the U.S. side may see it as both confirmation of their worst fears being realized, and that without help from higher levels of government, it’s only going to get worse. Mexican authorities have every reason to downplay any border security concerns: It damages Mexico’s reputation and can lead to questions about their own willingness to crack down on the cartels. Local business interests may see the piracy cases and this case in particular as a threat to their safety and to their livelihoods. If fishermen and vacationers believe that Falcon Lake is too dangerous, they will take their business elsewhere. Texas has thousands of great fishing holes, and only one of those is alleged to come with a real threat of drug gangs operating as pirates on it. In the video above, Dr. Drake confirms that fear when he says that he hasn’t been back to the lake since pirates ambushed him. So all of that said, it’s wise for everyone to tread carefully here. Some of those questions being raised about Hartley’s story aren’t unreasonable but may be motivated by folks wanting to protect their livelihoods, and these same folks live around the lake and know that for every real case of violence or piracy that has occurred, there have been rumors of many more that are just that — rumors. And those rumors can do a great deal of damage to a real Texas recreational jewel.
I think it’s important for folks outside Texas to try to understand why people would continue to go out onto Falcon Lake even though there have been warnings about safety there since April and May 2010. Falcon Lake is a huge lake, stretching about 25 miles north to south along the Rio Grande. The dam creating the lake was dedicated in 1953 and the lake has been in use for fishing and recreation in the decades since, without any unusual incidents. The lake itself is a symbol of friendly relations between the U.S. and Mexico. Falcon Lake is in a fairly remote area, too, so it’s still wild, and from everything I’ve heard, the fishing there is phenomenal and the history is fascinating. On the Mexican side, the Hartleys were visiting and photographing Old Guererro, a Mexican mission and town that was flooded when the lake was created. So that site, nicknamed the “Atlantis of the Southwest,” is unique, and for history buffs like David Hartley, nearly irresistible. People from both sides of the border have visited it and fished and played on the lake safely for decades. It’s only in the past week that Old Guererro may have turned into something out of a Spaghetti Western. And if up to now the worst thing that’s happened on the lake is a few petty thefts over the course of half a year, it’s not unreasonable to think that you could get over to the old town on your jet ski, snap a few pics, and get back without incident. I’m not saying that that’s wise — I wouldn’t go to Old Guererro myself now without some kind of U.S. firepower, and I’m a big history buff who can’t get enough of Texas’ old Spanish missions — but it’s not unreasonable or crazy to think that you could visit the town and get back safely. If Tiffany Hartley’s story holds up, her husband is the first American to come to any harm visiting Old Guererro.
But now everything has changed. Reportedly, even the Mexican authorities searching for David Hartley’s body had to call off the search on Wednesday due to threat of ambush from the pirates. That fear of ambush isn’t unreasonable: The Zetas are composed of former Mexican special forces and they outgun any Mexican officials who would be searching for Hartley.
Their search has resumed, but in my opinion it’s very unlikely that they will find anything. The pirates had every reason to take all evidence of their crime and they apparently had the opportunity to do that. Short of a serious assault on the pirates in their hideouts, the situation will probably get worse. Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, is calling for the Coast Guard to start operating full time on the lake. That makes sense from a safety point of view, but that action could harm the fishery so the local business interests may be torn between the safety concerns and their concern for protecting the lake itself. Neither concern is unreasonable.
I think the U.S. and Mexican authorities should look into mounting joint operations to clear out the pirates. I don’t see that happening as long as Obama is in the White House, though. Safety and business are both far down his list of priorities.