Murder in Mexico
Words by Jed Smith
I meet Lirio first. He's waiting for me at the entrance to Hyde Park in the centre of Sydney, having just flown in from Fiji where he'd finished a stint working as a boatmen near Tavarua. Lirio was one of murdered Australian surfer Dean Lucas's best mates and he's here today, I suspect, to offer Dean's fiancé, Josie, moral support as we retrace her journey to get justice for her slain partner. "My life is in two parts, before I met Dean and after," he tells me. The pair first crossed paths in Hossegor, southern France, though it was much later during a trip to Brazil that Lirio credits Dean with saving his life. Dean had managed to talk Lirio out of a suicidal bout of depression, convincing him to fly to India and meet him at a mysto point break they coined, 'The Dream Spot.'
"Dean was kind of trying to help me out, put me back into life, you know, let's go surfing, look there's some girls, let's get a drink, let's party, let's make plans to move on in life and stuff because I was really, really down," recalls Lirio.
It was at ‘The Dream Spot’ that Dean met Josie. He and Lirio had been barhopping the town's secret rooftop bars (partying was forbidden) and spotted Josie, though she was too inebriated to think much of it at the time. "I remember going to Olivia have I got beer goggles on? He's good looking isn't he?" she recalls. They spent the night and following day together, staying in contact via Facebook over the coming months.
Josie never thought much would come of it but Dean knew better. He, like Josie, and like Lirio, and like the other murdered surfer, Adam Coleman, were part of a strange tribe. Impervious to the anxieties of an uncertain future, of financial insecurity, and of a world that, if you read the news, is becoming more and more closed off by the day (terrorism, drug cartels etc), they are citizens of the world. They dream big, spin the globe, and rely on savings and work picked up along the way to survive.
"If you happen to be in the same country, or if you're close by you just fly and meet them," says Josie.
"Sometimes we don't catch up for a while and just randomly, by accident, catch up and go crazy, and then we don't know the next time we gonna see each other," says Lirio.
It was a life Dean was born to lead. His parents spent much of the seventies travelling Asia, Australia, Europe and the Middle East, taking Dean and his siblings around Australia when they were old enough. Growing up in the coastal obscurity of Mandurah, West Australia (a couple hours up the road from Margaret River), he was close to one of Australia's most challenging wedges, and he indulged. By his late teens he had an unquenchable thirst for surf and travel, making his way through over 60 countries over the next ten years including a handful of trips with his dad to Indonesia, Morocco, Ecuador, Taiwan, Europe, Canada and many places in Australia. More recently, he continued with his travels through South Africa (he left J-Bay two weeks before Mick Fanning's run in with the shark), India, and elsewhere, alone and with friends.
It was inevitable then that he would one day be drawn to Mexico, home of the best right points in the world. He made the pilgrimage, many times in fact, and it was here he sealed the deal with Josie. Months after meeting in India he'd learned she was heading there for a holiday and organised to fly in from Los Angeles. Together they would travel across Mexico and Central America, falling in love with each other and the country.
"The lifestyle, the people, the coastline, it's all beautiful," says Josie.
The fateful journey came later. Josie and Dean were living in Edmonton, Canada, at the time, Dean working a job in construction and Josie as a performer in the theatre. The ocean was calling once again and Dean never ignored it. His old mate Adam from high school was keen, too. Adam had a Mexican girlfriend and was keen to spend some time in her homeland. Both were very familiar with the region's waves and various pitfalls. Josie doesn't buy into cosmic fate but there was plenty of it in the lead up to this trip. Had it not been for a last second job offer to work in a theatre in Alberta, she would have been in the car the night they were hijacked. Prior to leaving, Dean had also randomly brought up the topic of what would happen if one of them died.
"It was weird we had this conversation before he passed. It was like pillow talk, just messing about, having a chat about what would happen if either of us passed. He was like, it either has to be like (Hollywood film) The Notebook - we either have to die together. Or he had to go first because he thought I'd be able to process it better than him," says Josie.
They even came up with a plan for spreading his ashes. Dean asked, half in jest, that he be spread around as many good surf spots as Josie could get to, "just to give him a choice of waves," she says.
The road to Guadalajara is as perilous as they come. “To be honest, there’s not a lot of surfers doing that drive down to Mex because of the dangers. I’ve done the drive down to Puerto twice before things got gnarly in the last seven or eight years, and I won’t do that drive again,” says Californian surfer, Rusty Long, who last did the drive back in 2006, prior to the drug wars kicking off.
Neither, Dean, Adam or Josie bought into it. Most of their travels through the region had been undertaken during the drug war.
"You don't see any of that at all. If you want trouble you can go find it, but you could do that anywhere. If you're not looking for it, if you're just chilling out, you don't see it," says Josie.
But sometimes fate decides and when the ferry to Topolobampo was two hours late, forcing them to drive through the night, their fate was sealed.
Josie is straight to the point when talking about it.
"It's quite straightforward. He went to Mexico, so obviously when I found out I went to figure everything out and straighten things out. And then once everything was sorted out and the bodies were flown back to Perth, I followed him back to Perth and went to the memorial,” she says.
Topolobampo, where Dean and Adam were last seen, lies in the state of Sinaloa on Mexico’s Pacific coast. The region is home to the Sinaloa drug cartel, the most active cartel in America, run by the infamous Joaquín Archivaldo ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán Loera - “the most powerful drug trafficker in the world,” according to the United States Department of Treasury. It was the Sinaloa cartel that’s said to have triggered the Mexican drug war that has seen 60,000 deaths and 12,000 kidnappings, following an assassination back in 2006. Dean and Adam were ambushed in the night. They were robbed, shot dead, and had their bodies torched in the Chevrolet van they were travelling in. Josie and Dean had been in contact just days earlier. Dean had professed his love and eternal bond with his girlfriend over Facebook, posting selfies of them together, and organising a friend in Canada to drop off her favourite roses and Lindt chocolates. It was their third anniversary the day Dean was killed.
"I was the most precious thing to him and he made sure I knew that, which was amazing. But it was just very crap really, nice, but crap. Bittersweet I guess. The last status he posted, and all these amazing things and the selfies he sent me just before he passed, the pictures and conversations we had were really lovely," says Josie.
Dean's last post on Facebook, read:
Happy anniversary Josie Cox!! 3 amazing years traveling the world, sharing adventures and living the dream with my best friend. Thank you!
Josie headed straight for Mexico when she found out. Lirio was surfing in remote Sumatra and didn't receive the news straight away. With Josie's background in law enforcement, she wanted to help. It was her initial work over Facebook that brought the case to light, with Mexican authorities yet to put together the missing persons report from one state, with the burned out van in another. Once on the ground, Josie knew she had to keep a straight face. "I'm pretty organised. Obviously I was devastated when it happened, but when it came to the investigation side I was quite resilient and had to be. Obviously, if I was too emotional nothing would have got done," she says.
With the investigation predicted to take at least a month (at the time of print Mexican authorities are continuing to prosecute the case, with hearing dates set for later this month), Josie and Andrea, Adam's girlfriend, decided to finish the boys trip for them. Heading south from Guadalajara, they stopped in at the spots they'd planned to visit, in what was a predictably heart wrenching journey. Still, Josie refuses to sink the boot into Mexico.
"They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mexicans are brilliant," she says, adding, "You can get that in any country. I've had no problems in Mexico, nothing has changed my opinion," says Josie.
The alleged murderers were eventually apprehended, and revealed to be nothing more than low-level bandits with no links to any drug cartel. Their main earn was selling small amounts of drugs and robbing people along the stretch of highway Dean and Adam had been travelling. When confronted it is believed the Australians fought back and were shot dead in the struggle. Far from turning her back on the country, Josie and the families of the deceased remain committed to charity work in the region, via US-based Share The Stoke and the locally-based PEACE.
As the families and friends of Dean and Adam began to arrive in Mexico, Josie and Andrea headed back up to Porta Villata to help with investigations, the entire crew moving into the same house as the grieving process kicked in in full. "That was a story on its own," says Josie.
Dressed in blue pants and a white top today, she bares the tanned complexion earned since beginning the journey to spread Dean's ashes around the world's best surf spots (Dean's family is preparing to do the same). After travelling up the east coast of Australia, she plans to post-up in Bali for a while, then continue onto Hawaii, South Africa, Iceland, Morocco and more.
"I know it sounds weird and morbid to say about that conversation, but in hindsight I'm glad we had it because now I know what to do. So it’s not just like, do I put him at one wave? No, he told me. So I'm just gonna spend as long as it takes to take him around the world to places even I haven't been, like Hawaii, South Africa, and Morocco, Iceland, where there's some good waves and it will take me to some different places - India, Bali, France, to put some ashes there as well. As many as I can get to for him. It will keep me travelling, with a purpose I guess. I won't be morbid about it, just have a glass of wine, find a wave," she says.
Sipping from a glass white wine, with a menthol cigarette in her hand, Josie is the embodiment of strength and dignity. She refuses to show emotion, and not for a second looks like cracking. But the ructions are there, on the inside. She sighs before letting it out. "It’s a really, I dunno..."
"I was gonna spend the rest of my life with him. We were engaged you know? Unofficially, but we were. Even though we were gonna live the rest of our lives travelling, we planned things."
"I was his best friend, he was my best friend. He talked to me about everything and anything…Just to go from that complete and utter unity…We were one person, almost. We had our individual personalities but we did everything together. I mean, we gave each other space to go and travel, but he'd never go to his friends with problems. He'd only come to me and vice versa."
"To have that cut off, it feels lonely. Very very lonely. Even though I'm with people all the time. It's very, very lonely," she says.
"It's almost like a dream. I imagine this dream guy and this dream lifestyle and it's like I dreamt it all. Like, oh, it didn't actually happen. Yeah, it was like a long dream."
Nevertheless, the dream continues.