A group of childhood friends took a trip to Mexico. Only two made it out alive
When FBI agents knocked on Michelle William’s door on a Sunday to announce her husband had been kidnapped in Mexico, she thought it was a scam.
Ms Williams didn’t even know that her spouse Eric Williams had planned to go to Mexico. But as agents explained that Mr Williams and his life-long friends LaTavia “Tay” McGee, Zindell Brown and Shaeed Woodard were ambushed and kidnapped by armed men as they arrived in Matamoros on 3 March, “unreal” fear settled in.
“I just knew he was going somewhere to help two friends,” Ms Williams told WBTW. “Friday morning, he texted me and I texted him back immediately. He didn’t respond. He didn’t respond to our son either, so I’m going to assume that’s when they were ambushed.”
Mr Williams and Ms McGee survived the terrifying abduction, but by the time Mexican authorities rescued them from a “stash house” on Tuesday (7 March), their friends had died before their eyes. Ms Williams says that although she is relieved her husband made it out alive, she cannot fathom what pain he is feeling.
“All of them have known each other all their lives,” Ms Williams told NBC. “They’re childhood friends.”
Ms McGee’s mother said her daughter only suffered minor injuries but noted that it will likely take her a long time to recover from the trauma she experienced after seeing her two friends perish.
“I got my daughter and she’s alive,” Barbara McLeod Burgess told WPDE. “She watched two of them die. They [died] in front of her.”
A testament to their close friendship, the group was travelling from South Carolina to help share driving duties with Ms McGee, who planned to undergo a tummy tuck procedure in Matamoros. But on their way to the plastic surgeon’s office, they got lost and were eventually caught in a shootout.
Shocking video recorded by a witness purportedly showed the terrifying moment the group is forced out of their van and led to the back of a pickup truck on 3 March. US and Mexican authorities believe a cartel is behind the kidnapping, most likely the Gulf drug cartel, which dominates the Matamoros area.
As loved ones of the slain victims await for the bodies to be repatriated, the two survivors continue to recover in Texas before they return to South Carolina.
Zindell Brown described as ‘loving son and brother’
Before the tragic news, Zindell Brown’s sister had held onto hope that her brother was among the two people revealed to have survived the kidnapping in an early Tuesday press conference by Mexican authorities.
“My brother is still alive and he is coming home! I still have strong faith!! I’m keeping the faith,” she wrote on Facebook.
“This is like a bad dream you wish you could wake up from,” sister Zalandria Brown told the Associated Press. “To see a member of your family thrown in the back of a truck and dragged, it is just unbelievable.”
“Zindell kept saying, ‘We shouldn’t go down,’ she added.
His family have since created a GoFundMe account to raise money for a second autopsy and funeral costs.
“We are still working with the authorities to understand when Zindell’s body will be released and sent to us here in South Carolina,” Zalayna Grant, Brown’s sister, wrote in the description of the page.
“From there, we were told that we may have to pay for a second autopsy ourselves. As a family, we are not prepared for all of the unexpected costs due to this sudden tragedy.”
Brown was remembered as a loving son, brother, uncle and friend.
“We hope to give him the goodbye that he deserves. Our family is grieving and we appreciate any prayers and support from the community during this time,” Ms Grant added.
Shaeed Woodard had joined cousin on ‘tummy tuck’ trip
Shaeed Woodard’s aunt Betty McGill said in an interview on Tuesday that he and Ms McGee shared a bond beyond friendship: They were cousins.
Ms McGill described the slain man as someone who was quiet but always down to help his friends and loved ones.
“It’s just shocking,” Ms McGill’s son Hakquan Burgess told NewsNation. “It’s like, I can’t believe it.”
The survivors and deceased victims were found at a “stash house” guarded by Jose Guadalupe “N,” 24, who has been arrested and charged in the case, Tamaulipas Governor Américo Villarreal told a press conference.
Mexican authorities announced on Wednesday that the autopsies on Woodard and Brown’s bodies were finalised and that they were coordinating with US officials to repatriate the remains.
Sources close to the investigation believe that the group was mistaken for drug smugglers by the cartel, according to CNN. No ramson was requested by the kidnappers, Mr Villareal said.
LaTavia “Tay” McGee had previous procedure in Mexico
Surviving kidnapping victim LaTavia McGee’s mother Barbara Burgess told ABC News she was worried about her daughter going to Mexico.
Ms Burgess said she warned Ms McGee it might not be safe to visit Matamoros, an area that is on the US State Department’s “Level 4: Do not travel” list.
But her daughter, who had travelled to Mexico in the past for a medical procedure, brushed off her concerns telling her: “Ma, I’ll be okay”.
Ms Burgess last heard from Ms McGee on the morning of 3 March when she called to say that they were just 15 minutes from the cosmetic surgeon’s office where she was scheduled to have the procedure that day. She never heard from her daughter again.
The family then found out about the kidnapping through a harrowing video posted online.
“We recognised her and her blond hair,” Ms McGee’s aunt Mary McFadden told CNN.
Ms McGee is now back in the US. On Tuesday, she was examined at a hospital in Brownsville, Texas where she spoke with her mother.
In pictures of the rescue shared by the AP, she was captured inside an ambulance in a rural area east of Matamoros called Ejido Longoreño.
According to her mother, Ms McGee witnessed her friends die.
Eric James Williams
Mr Williams’ brother Robert Williams said that he is not sure when he will be returning to South Carolina, but he is glad his brother is alive.
“He’s a fun-loving guy,” the brother told NBC. “He’s somebody who has a zest for life. And he wants to make your life better, put a smile on your face.”
Mr Williams suffered gunshot wounds to his leg and is now recovering in hospital.
The kidnappings have been decried by American officials, who have vowed to get justice for the victims.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday that any attacks on American citizens under any circumstances were unacceptable.
“We remain committed to applying the full weight of our efforts and resources to counter them,” Ms Jean-Pierre said.
Meanwhile, the State Department has advised Americans not to travel to Tamaulipas due to the risk of crime and kidnapping.
Anyone with information is urged to contact the FBI San Antonio Division at 210-225-6741 or to submit tips anonymously online here.