Escape from Playa Del Carmen

Chapter Onefinal-version-cover-art

I have wondered at times if I am an angel by proxy. Drafted for life like Gideon, Saul, or Joanna but never knowing my mission. Just putting faith in the idea that I would be where I needed to be when the time came. I believed God saved my life three times before I was twenty-five, and after each occasion, let me know that he had a plan for me later. After that, several more times I could have died and didn’t, but I guess he didn’t feel it was necessary to say so once I caught on.

I remember after the third incident I felt that I could walk out in front of a bus, and God would protect me. The power I felt was amazing; only to receive my last message: He had other options. Suicide would be my choice—he wouldn’t interfere!

I didn’t hear voices; it was just something that came into my mind like intuition, only clearer. It is something I have struggled with a lot in my lifetime; never sure what or why, or if I had completed my mission.

By the time I was thirty, I had realized God has a sense of humor too. I had always pictured him as stern and just a business-like kind of God, but as a teenager, I had viewed a few Playboy magazines and even read a couple of the articles about the Playboy Mansion.

I thought how great it would be to spend my life surrounded by women and prayed that I would be. By the age thirty, I was married and had two daughters—when it hit me. God had answered my prayer, and I bet he got a big laugh just then. Later, when I married my current wife who had three daughters—that must have been a real knee-slapper.

A lot has changed since then. The girls have kids of their own, and they are all boys. Except for two step granddaughters Princess One and Two. I wonder what they pray for.

I have been told that things happen for a reason. And, it was a bit of a surprise when my wife Vicki announced that we had extra points on our timeshare package and needed to use them or lose them. I have never made a lot of money, but once in a while, we get to travel. Our favorite places are in the Caribbean, so we thought the east coast of Mexico would be a cheap flight away.

Life in a Mexican five-star resort is hard to dislike, and it was our first vacation in years, but there are always issues of some kind. Vicki, my wife, came down with a bug and was hoping she had not picked up Montezuma’s revenge. It meant I was on my own for our scheduled trip to the Chichen Itza ruins at 6:00 a.m.

We were all well-to-do tourists (by local standards) climbing into the shuttle van that looked like an upscale short bus for the handicapped kids. This one was going north to Playa del Carmen from our resort, where we were to catch a luxury tour bus to the ruins.

It was all a little highfalutin for my taste, but with the points from our timeshare program, we were first class all the way on this trip. We had been to Mexico twice before and had stayed at the resort each time since we could not afford any of the excursions.

In some respects, Vicki’s absence wasn’t all that bad since her lack of interest in geography and history was legendary. The only museum that she ever showed any interest in was the Walter Reed Medical Museum because it appealed to her as a nurse. I guess I could have gotten some interest if I had said the first heart surgeries happened there. That might be stretching surgery a little too far since human sacrifice where your heart was cut out without the aid of painkillers and with no intention of the “patient’s” survival was an extreme definition of surgery.

The drive north from the resort was in the dark, not that there was a lot to see along the main highway. The country was flat and the vegetation green to greenish-gray. My fellow passengers were sipping coffee or speaking in low tones. I guess I am getting to be an old-timer as I am pleased that so far no children were on this leg of the trip. The ride was short, maybe 10 minutes, counting the time getting out of the gate and waiting at the light. Traffic was nearly non-existent as the sleepy tourist meccas slowly came to life.

Just as the bus turned off the freeway towards downtown, we came to a police roadblock. I had not experienced any roadblocks as a tourist before but understood they were not too uncommon. Generally, they tended to avoid the tourists who were spending the money that funded the existence of this resort community.

Two blue-and-white Federal Police cars turned to funnel traffic to a single lane. Four heavily armed officers with automatic rifles at the ready reminded me again that we were not in Kansas. Since 9/11 there had been heightened security in the USA, but we were at least not in open warfare with the drug cartels, as were the Mexican authorities.

Although, with the corruption, it was sometimes hard to tell who the good guys were. The street lighting was poor, and only the headlights from the police cars and a military vehicle, possibly a Humvee, made it possible to see anything at all. One man was in civilian dress and appeared to be in charge.  

I looked around and began assessing the situation. Bill, my armor and firearms instructor at the Anchorage Police Department, always stressed situational awareness. My training as a guide, a pilot, and a Military Policeman, as well as Bill’s training, reminded me always to be aware of what was going on around me.

I was raised to believe the cops were the good guys, but life experience as a Military Policeman overseas, and with other corrupt police departments, had taught me not to depend on it. Right now, the guns were in the hands of the police, and they posed the greatest immediate, personal threat. I was fully aware that the Mexican authorities are not considered among the least corrupt in the world. Mind you, at this point, I was not fearful. I was just very aware.

Roadblocks are designed to control stops; and in situations like the drug wars in Mexico, officers position themselves with overlapping views so that if shooting starts, they don’t end up shooting at each other. That is a good idea, but what that means is there are inevitably blind spots. In this case, it was to the rear of our bus.

Bill’s training had taught me to look for a way out, and the blind spot made the back of the bus, in this case, a possible zone of escape. The guy I took for a plainclothes officer told our driver in Spanish that they are looking for a fugitive narco-terrorist, glancing over his shoulder looking at us as he spoke. The driver, listening intently, looked worried as the official stated he would check everyone on board, that it would just be a moment, as he glanced again at us. I didn’t catch every word, my Spanish was not that good, but that was the gist of it. I saw that there were other passengers who knew enough Spanish that they began to steal furtive looks towards their fellow travelers, wondering who might be a terrorist among them.

I sat in the back seat, not because of comfort, but because a life of not liking anyone behind me. It’s a cop’s paranoia thing. I watched as the guy in plain clothes stepped onto the bus. He wore a white, small-brimmed hat and lightweight tan jacket, yellow polo shirt, khaki pants, and highly polished western-style boots. He was medium height, maybe five foot eight inches tall, stocky build, 180 pounds, and Mexican, with short black hair, brown eyes, and features that spoke of more than a little Indian blood. He held a picture in his left hand and began looking at each of the male passengers.

Right about then my shit magnet (a term my mid shift counterparts at the Anchorage Police Department had bestowed on me) antenna went up because it seemed unlikely we were the sort for narco-terrorists. Narcotic drug running is a dangerous business, and my understanding was they never traveled without security and never on public transportation. Something was wrong here, but I wasn’t sure just what it was that made me so positive this was going to go bad.

I had survived my years as a policeman and guide as much on instinct and God’s good will as Bill’s training, and the crawling feeling in my gut wasn’t from lack of breakfast. The people on this bus were tourists, but this Inspector, or whatever the Mexican police called them, seemed too sure that who he was looking for was on this bus. My experience in police settings didn’t calm my nerves any when I noticed what little traffic there had been was being detoured around us. All appearances indicated they had stopped looking after stopping this bus. It occurred to me whoever they wanted was on this vehicle, and they knew it.

International tourist, that was the obvious makeup of the passengers on the bus, as I had heard a couple of languages that I didn’t know and one obvious Canadian accent I would have bet money was Albertan. They seemed for the most part blissfully unaware of the potential danger and should have been edging towards distress at being delayed. No one looked to me as being concerned about getting outed as a terrorist. 

Roadblocks are a net that catches everything. You can never be sure which cast of the net, or in this case, which vehicle, might have who you’re looking for inside. Although, I reflected, there are operations where you have specific information, and that seemed to be the case—yet, he needed a picture for ID. Why? Whoever he wanted, he did not know by sight. That was possible, but this made it seem that he was looking for a fugitive from somewhere outside his jurisdiction, as he would likely know the local players.

This whole thing was beginning to remind me of a bad day at work back with the police department. I had spent ten and a half years of my life working for the Anchorage Police Department, running the gamut from patrol officer to uniformed investigator. I had also spent a short time as a Field Training Officer and four years of double duty as a Major Crimes Scene Team Investigator before leaving uniformed patrol. I finished my career with two years as a Detective in the Crimes Against Children Unit and finally a year in Robbery.

My training went pretty smoothly, finished near the top of the class, got through Field Training okay, and even through probation without major incidents. Both my mid shift and swing shift training officers tried to get me into fights, but I kept talking the bad guys into giving up. I had a way with people, even bad people, that tended to calm them down. After my probation, I did have some “physical confrontations” as we say in our police reports, however, it wasn’t for that I received the title “Shit Magnet.”

The department had been short-handed on officers for quite a while due to budget constraints. Our academy was sorely needed because, at that time, in Alaska, the Alyeska Pipeline was starting to reach completion. The pipeline workers were still coming to town for R&R. Drugs, prostitution, and booze were the order of the day, and readily available, in the oil boomtown. Our local affiliate of the Hell’s Angels was finding the Last Frontier a place to do a booming business, as well as a couple of new upstart gangs out of California: the Crips and Bloods. The lowest ranking officers were ordered to cover areas for those who needed the time off but had not been able to take it, due to the short staffing.

The first month out of probation was the month I refer to as Felony July. I was called in on all my days off. I got on average two felony arrests and six felony reports a night. I could go to Eagle River, where two felony arrests and six reports were the monthly stats for the whole area, but I would somehow get that in one night on my own. Pretty soon, only the other department Shit Magnets wanted to be anywhere near me because they liked the action—and, well, it came to them also.

John from my academy got the nickname “the Undertaker.” In that first month we worked together, John had racked up more dead people, for whatever reason, than any one officer in department history had done in his or her entire career, and that was just his first month off of probation. Since we worked together in the same areas or adjoining areas, we were the backup for each other. Therefore, we shared many of our cases, making me the officer with the second most ‘dead body’ calls. As a trouble attractor, the politically correct term for me, he was also dragged into many of my cases as well.

Five years of mid shift, where we were ardent members of the After Ten Club (those who left after 10:00 a.m., two hours after coming off the streets and doing paperwork) made us also some of the most experienced officers in the department—even more so than officers with twice our time in uniform. We had stepped into more bad stuff and managed to walk away than anyone I knew or had heard about; so when I saw what was happening, I knew something was going to turn out bad. It looked like I would be right in the middle of it, and I didn’t have John for backup! 

The officer stopped two rows up from me glancing from the photo in his hand to the man sitting near the middle of the bus alone on the left side. Putting the picture he had back into his pocket, it was obvious he had found his man. Using an authoritative voice, speaking in Spanish, he asked the man sitting there to come with him. The gentleman he was talking to answered back in an accent I took to be German, and he began protesting loudly and emphatically, bringing everyone’s attention to what was happening.

Apparently, that was the wrong thing to do. Grabbing the poor man by his shirt collar, the cop jerked him violently out of his seat with his left hand while drawing a pistol with his right, and then summarily pistol whipped the guy to the floor and dragged him out onto the ground.

It had a very predictable effect on everyone on the bus, which was not to object to what was going on and to be very afraid. It would likely be best just to do what you were asked, but this smelled wrong, like the time I went to check on a woman who had not come to work for a week. As soon as I opened the door, I knew she was home, but from the smell that hit me, it confirmed she was not alive either. She had hanged herself in a closet. The worst smell I ever endured, and this was beginning to stink that bad.

It looked like the cops here in Mexico worked on the same rules as the German police when I was stationed there as a Military Police Officer. A little excessive to say the least, but the law there was the force used was the necessary force needed, and the officer decided the force needed. What I saw next sent a shiver up my spine and caused my hand to reach involuntarily for my gun, a gun that was securely locked in my safe at home. I saw the detective signal with a head nod to a policeman with an automatic pistol, probably an UZI or something like that.

Then the officer checked his magazine, flipped off the safety, and started for the bus. Bells, whistles, sirens, and every bit of good sense I had said it was time to depart the scene, and fast. I opened the emergency exit back door, and the buzzer went off in front near the driver. He stood up and turned to tell me to leave the door alone. Then he was hit with a burst from that sub-machine gun. It produced a small row of red dots up his side and then flowered into an eruption of bloody exit wounds.

The driver fell over headlong down the steps towards the shooter, causing him to step back and then pull the driver out of the doorway. That gave me my chance. I grabbed my day bag and dove out the back door.

With the alarm going off and the panic in the bus, everyone’s attention was on the shooter, and no one noticed me dive out the back door, stepping briefly onto the bumper and picking my direction to run. I headed for cover, angling to leave that death trap between me and the police officers surrounding it. I made it to an alley and ducked behind a building and glanced back.

The shooting had continued with bursts of automatic fire inside the bus. I saw it but couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. Why were they killing everyone on the bus? My earlier relief that there were no children on it turned to pure thanks to God.

It really hurt to run because years of experience had taught me to run towards trouble, not away from it. However, the other lesson of survival came to mind: live to fight another day. Instead of senseless sacrifice, running was my only real option. I was the sole survivor and the only one who could tell what happened. Or, was that true? The man that was dragged off the bus was hurt but alive the last I saw of him.

Just as I was turning the corner, a uniformed officer came around behind the bus and spotted me. I took off as fast as I could as it was evident they had not intended for there to be any witnesses left alive who could testify.

It was right about then I was thanking my lucky stars for the life I lived. I don’t know but maybe one or two guys who at age sixty were fit enough to run and work as hard as twenty- and thirty-year-olds at heavy manual labor. Being the owner of a construction company, as well as supervisor and chief laborer, I worked as hard or harder than anyone on my crew.

I had been a first responder most of my life and trained to deal with emergencies, keeping a clear head doing what needed to be done. I immediately knew that every bit of skill and knowledge I possessed would be put to the test if I was getting out of this alive. I could use a lot of luck too!

We were stopped just as the sun was beginning to come up, so it was still shadowy between buildings. I didn’t have time to think. I relied on training and instinct. As a cop, I knew that an APB, all points bulletin, would be put out. They couldn’t have much of a description beyond what the Detective would remember, and since I wasn’t the one he was looking for, he likely remembered little beyond gray hair and blue flowered tourist shirt.

The police, if that was who they really were, would expect me to stay low to the ground. My gray hair would seem to indicate at my age, that I would run the street and none too fast. So, with that in mind, I found a trellis made of patterned concrete blocks in the alley going up the side of that building. Looking more like a walking stick insect, slow and careful, than like Spiderman, I climbed it like a ladder to a flat rooftop and moved west away from the scene at 90 degrees. To go east would have put me on the beach and against the ocean. I would have soon been trapped.

I didn’t have much experience as a fugitive, but my military training for escape and evasion—along with training as the runaway fox for the SWAT team and K9 units to practice—at least gave me some idea what I was up against in this situation. My gray hair and apparent age would give them hope I couldn’t get far. Now, I was not an Ironman contestant, and it had been a while since I trained for a marathon, but I had been a runner all my life—until a few years ago, when I had a hip replaced; or was that eight years already?

No matter. I still worked outdoors, up and down ladders, in and out of ditches, and shoveling yards of dirt. In spite of all my complaining that I needed to let the young guys do that work, I was right proud now that Don Sackett was in as good of shape as I was and, at that moment, seriously motivated.

Crossing another street, I climbed over to another building, using a gutter down like a ladder, and down the other side, hopping onto a tin shed roof, then down to the ground. Half the men I saw in Mexico were wearing the white, tank top-style shirts, which is what I had on under my tourist shirt, so I pulled off my Corona Beer shirt with the tropical blue floral print hoping to blend in better.

Fortunately, I had a really good farmer’s tan from working outside in the Virginia sun. Although I was not going to be mistaken for Mexican, I might pass a cursory glance. I stuffed the shirt in my bag and kept moving. From my police training, I knew my best chance was to get outside of any perimeter net before it formed. I figured I needed to get another half mile, at least, and fast. Looking up the street, I saw a UPS truck at the curb; the driver had just jumped in and was starting down the road, going my direction— west.

Jumping up on the back bumper, I grabbed the door handle and held on, and we had made a quick two blocks before the driver stopped again, and I hit the road running at a fast jog. I glanced at the street sign, it said AV Benito Juarez and the early morning sun was to my back indicating east. The street was taking me directly west, the quickest and safest direction away from town and the main highways, as well as fewer eyes to see me.  A stake bed, half-ton, modified pickup truck turned off a side street and started slowly past me. I hopped up on the bumper, holding the side rail with one hand and my day pack in the other. We crossed the main highway and continued west. 

No one in the truck seemed to notice, so I turned around and sat on the bed, not unlike I had seen many workers in Mexico do as a ride to work, keeping my head down looking sleepy. I took time then to slide the pack onto my shoulder and got on the phone.