Mexico was supposed to be their “happy place,” where Orange County lawyer Elliot Blair and his wife, Kim Williams, went to celebrate their love on their one-year anniversary. Now his death and her pursuit of answers — and, perhaps, justice — are at the center of an international controversy.
Their romantic getaway evolved into a standoff with Mexican officials when Blair’s broken body was found Jan. 14 below a third-story walkway at the upscale Las Rocas Resort and Spa in Rosarito Beach. Officials in Baja California say Blair died in a drunken fall from an open ledge, while Williams insists he was murdered.
Rosarito police had shaken down the couple for $160 during a traffic stop just a couple hours before Blair’s death, Williams said, and official autopsy photos show scrapes on his legs, as if he had been dragged. Additionally, Blair, 33, had 40 fractures on the back of his skull, which is troubling because he was found face down.
A celebration of life for Blair was held Saturday, Feb. 11, at Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove as the controversy about his death persists. His mother, Stella Blair, remembered Blair as a kindhearted soul with a mischievous sense of humor who “touched the lives of so many people.”
Blair’s fate – and his family’s ordeal with Mexican officials – raises hard questions about who can and will intervene on behalf of American citizens who experience an accident – or worse, a death – when they travel to a foreign land.
Baja is a popular vacation spot, but what are Californians’ rights there? What’s the role of the U.S. government when something bad happens to its citizens across the border? And what recourse do Americans have if, as in this case, they feel wronged or victimized?
“This (law enforcement investigation) is important not only because of the Blair family, it’s important because as Americans continue to travel to Baja and move to Mexico to retire, we want to make sure we have a process to ensure their safety,” said Rep. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana.
Correa, upon learning the new details in the case, said Thursday that he plans to present Williams’ concerns to the U.S. State Department and the U.S. consulate in Tijuana.
“I want to make sure this information is fully considered in the investigation,” Correa said. “My job is to make sure this horrific tragedy is fully investigated. If it were my family member, I’d expect the same.”
Correa was referring to the family’s statements about the nature of Blair’s wounds and that Rosarito police extorted the couple — both Orange County public defenders — and knew where they were staying. The family is not accusing Rosarito police of being involved in his death, but wants the shakedown, or “mordida,” investigated.
Blair’s family and attorneys have shared several other troubling allegations about his death. The family has said that Mexican authorities tried to pressure them to cremate his body and then went ahead and embalmed it, making an independent blood alcohol test more difficult, if not impossible. The Mexican toxicology screen measured Blair’s blood alcohol level at 0.10, more than California’s limit of 0.08 for driving.
Officials with the Mexican Attorney General’s Office, which conducted the investigation, have been slow to respond to the Southern California News Group regarding the various allegations. Authorities have not, for example, even responded to whether the case remains open or is now closed since it was deemed an “unfortunate accident.”
State Department mostly hands off
For its part, the U.S. State Department wrote in an email Thursday that it “does not investigate crimes or potential crimes against U.S. citizens abroad.”
“When a U.S. citizen dies overseas, local authorities are responsible for determining the cause of death and for any possible investigation,” a State Department official wrote.
State Department officials also do not provide legal advice, represent Americans in court, serve as official interpreter or translator or pay citizens’ legal and medical expenses.
The State Department can help crime victims and their families, an official wrote in an email, by notifying the next of kin, providing information on local burials or how to return a body to the United States and assisting with other services, such as providing a list of local lawyers who speak English.
Private attorneys weigh in
Alberto Achutegui Lopez, a Rosarito criminal attorney whose clients include American tourists, said U.S. citizens — or any foreigner — have the same rights as Mexican nationals.
“There’s no distinction in our Constitution whether one is a foreigner or Mexican,” he said.
Unlike in the U.S., where the police typically investigate a case, Mexican police are the first to respond to a case but they don’t investigate. That’s up to investigators with the local prosecutor’s office.
If a victim or victim’s family is unhappy with the investigation’s conclusion, they can challenge that before a judge within 10 working days after the case is closed.
The judge’s decision can’t be appealed in state court.
“That’s where the matter ends,” Achutegui Lopez said.
But there’s another constitutional process known as “amparo,” in which the judge’s decision — not the prosecutor’s — can yet be appealed in federal court, although it is uncommon.
David Lopez, a San Antonio attorney who is an expert on Mexican law, said an amparo complaint is made to the federal district court, asking the judge to overturn the state court decision.
He added that it would be unusual for Mexican authorities to suggest cremation and have the body embalmed without the family’s permission, as was done with Blair.
“But it’s Mexico, it happens,” Lopez said.
He also recommended making the case an international cause celebre, working with the media to pressure government officials in the United States and Mexico.
“Evidence of a crime would embarrass the Mexican officials into action,” Lopez said. “They tend to act when there’s media pressure. They’re concerned about tourism, making sure that’s protected.”
Mexican autopsy shows injuries to dead OC lawyer did not come from a fall, family says
Rosarito police shook down OC lawyer Elliot Blair shortly before his death, source says
OC attorney who died in Mexico remembered in night aglow with love
Body of OC attorney embalmed in Mexico before independent blood test could be done, lawyer says
Family of OC attorney disputes report that he was shooing noisy pigeons before fatal fall
Happy memories fade
Until Blair’s death, Mexico held most of the couple’s fondest memories. Blair proposed there, had his bachelor party there. It’s where he and Williams were married and where they went to celebrate their anniversary.
In an interview, Williams said Blair’s last day alive was a “magical” one. They ate breakfast near the water, watched the sun set over the waves, got a couple’s massage, ate lobster and danced to live music. They stayed in their favorite room, 308, retiring just before midnight.
Blair took a shower. Williams went to sleep, happy.
And she woke up a widow.
While Williams slept, Blair’s body, dressed in gray boxers, socks and a T-shirt, was found around 12:50 a.m. on the concrete path beneath the walkway outside their room.
Williams said she can no longer sleep in a bed, because of the memory. Her once “happy place” now makes her sad.
“He was my rock,” she said.