A Young American Dies in Paraguay: Mushroom Tea, Murder, Rape, and a Cover-Up
‘I so badly wanted to hold him, I couldn’t believe it was my son lying on the table,’ she said. Then she asked to turn on the air-conditioning ‘to keep the flies away from my son.’
ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay—Luis Villamayor’s sleepless night began like so many do for parents worrying about a child.
Hours earlier, he had spoken to his son by phone. Sixteen-year-old Alex Villamayor was spending the weekend at the family ranch of one of his best friends, 400 miles away in Obligado, when things got rowdy. Alex, René Hofstetter, 18, and Alain Jacks Díaz de Bedoya, 16, were drinking mushroom tea alone in the house. René's mother and father had promised to be at the ranch, but they were six hours away.
Luis offered to pick him up but Alex assured his father everything was fine. Then, the line got cut off. Luis called him back.
He added minutes to Alex’s phone and called him again.
He called René’s mother, who assured him everything was fine. Their ranch hand, Matthias Wilbs, was sent to check on the boys in the main house.
Then, the call came at 7:55 the next morning. René was crying.
“Tio, Alex shot himself,” he said.
“Wait, what? What do you mean?” said Luis.
Luis dropped the phone and ran barefoot down the street to the house of his ex-wife, Alex’s mother. He made it only as far as the gate before he collapsed and a neighbor came to help.
Puning Luk, Alex’s mother, was not there. She was teaching English that Saturday morning when she heard about her son’s death. She was so distraught, her student had to drive her home. When she arrived, Alex’s younger brother Daniel, 11, was sprawled on the stairs crying. He clung to his mother. Another child, 21-year-old Milagros, was in tears as well. She couldn’t shake the image of her father, who made his reputation as a tough criminal lawyer and former Paraguayan congressman, weak at the knees outside their gate.
“That was a horrible moment,” Luis told The Daily Beast.
By the time Puning and Luis got to their son, he was already in a body bag.
“I so badly wanted to hold him, I couldn’t believe it was my son lying on the table,” she said. Then, she asked the nurse to turn on the air-conditioning “to keep the flies away from my son.”
“Puning is the best mother I have met,” said Luis, her ex-husband. “She always had energy, enthusiasm, and patience for all of them. And yet they took her boy away in such a horrible way. May the Lord forgive them.”
It’s been over two and a half years since Puning and Luis lost their son and still there has been no trial, but the story has captivated the nation of Paraguay. Just this past Thursday, the trial date was postponed to February 19, 2018, a third time. The last time it was postponed was in June 2017.
Much has transpired since Alex’s death in a land known for its social inequality and judicial corruption and impunity. The suspected suicide was changed to a murder probe; the first district attorney on the case was removed and charged with obstruction of justice; René was arrested and jailed after fleeing to Germany; Alain was indicted and quickly acquitted; Paraguay has twice declined to have the FBI involved in the investigation—and new evidence has revealed for the first time the brutality of Alex’s murder.
Friends and family said Alex was kind, intelligent, thoughtful, and social. His favorite U.S. president was Abraham Lincoln and he loved to cook, learn languages, play video games, dress well, and make people feel comfortable.
“Alex was the kind of person you call to fix a problem or just to talk,” said Humberto del Valle, 20, a high school friend from Pan American International School (PAIS) in Paraguay. “He was a guy you could talk to for hours.”
Carlos Pedroza, 20, met Alex at PAIS where they became fast friends. “Alex wasn’t hated by anyone. He was so fun to talk with, always ending every conversation making us laugh,” he said.
“He had a thirst for history, trivial information, and jokes,” said Puning. “He possessed a high level of emotional intelligence.”
When René needed a mechanic, Alex was the first to find him one. When Alain needed help studying, Alex was ready to share his knowledge.
Schoolmate Renato Rolon, 20, remembers that Alex had a funny obsession with the number 23. They began to notice the number everywhere they looked and exchanged photos of it. Alex had a file devoted to it called “23.”
“It was like the magic number of our group,” he said, referring the clique of boys from school that included René and Alain.
On his way home from Alex’s memorial, Rolon said he noticed the number 23 in his father’s car. The clock read 10:23 p.m., the thermometer read 23 Celsius, and the odometer’s last two numbers read 23. “In that second, the moment I saw all that, I started crying because for me, it was like a message from him saying, ‘I’m in heaven, I’m okay.’”
Alex’s favorite song was “How To Save a Life” by The Fray, a band he went to see with his aunt, Kim Luk.
Kim, who lives in Maryland and is spearheading efforts to bring justice to Alex, said he was a gentle soul who was the light of everyone’s life.
“Alex and I were so close. He was such an amazing kid, I can’t even tell you,” said Kim. “We miss him every single day.”
But Luis Villamayor recalls there were times that Alex was the butt of some cruel jokes by some friends of his, including René and Alain. One time, Alex went to a house party and left with a shaved head. He had passed out after drinking beer for the first time, said Luis, and they shaved off all his hair. “That really hurt Alex,” he said. Another time, some friends put Alex on top of a Volkswagen bug and recorded it. Luis found it abusive.
Two weeks before Alex was murdered, Kim put his tie over the shirt they bought together and shined his shoes for his high school commencement. He graduated with honors. That night she waltzed with him. A couple of days later, she said to Alex, “I’ll see you back in the U.S.”
Alex was going to live with her while he attended Montgomery College to study business management. His brother Antonio also studied there and his parents were graduates. His brother was so excited about his arrival to in the U.S., he had posted a long message about it online.
That was the last time Kim saw Alex.
While Alex’s graduating class made plans to go to Cancun that summer in 2015, a trip he and his mother decided against because it was costly, Alex went to René’s ranch instead.
On Thursday, June 25, 2015, Alex took a bus with Alain from the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion, to Obligado.
“I thought it would be good for him to go to the ranch and have some fun,” said Puning Luk. “I never imagined in a million years he was going to be beaten, raped and killed by his friends.”
The family was skeptical from the onset about Alex’s alleged suicide on Saturday, June 27. Alex was an emotionally mature young man without any signs of psychological issues. He loved his family and was equally loved, they say. There were no signs he was contemplating taking his own life.
His friends shared the sentiment.
Rolon’s initial reaction to the news was that it couldn’t be possible. “Imagine a happy person you know with a good, happy life. You can’t process the idea of a suicide or a homicide,” he said.
“I couldn’t understand it at first,” said Pedroza. When he gathered with classmates at a house where they heard Alex had committed suicide, he immediately became suspicious. “I think there are friends who aren’t talking.”
Then, the cracks in the case began to appear.
That Saturday night, the DA, Olga Araujo, told the Villamayor family that she concluded it was a suicide, without conducting any standard investigative procedures. That same night at the morgue, Andy Fernandez, the Villamayor’s family friend and lawyer who identified Alex’s body, was told by a forensic photographer that the wound patterns weren’t consistent with suicide.
Then came some of the most compelling evidence. Photos from the crime scene showed a gunshot wound to the right of Alex’s head while the gun was in his left hand.
“That’s physically impossible to shoot yourself in the right side of your head with your left hand,” says Fernandez, who is now on the Villamayor’s legal team.
The first thing Puning noticed in the photos were Alex’s clothes. “Those aren’t his clothes,” she said. “Why is he wearing someone else’s clothes?” In the photos, Alex had a black pair of sweatpants on that were too big on him.
The tallest boy there that night was Alain, Fernandez said.
“This case was so botched up from the very beginning,” said Kim.
When law enforcement tested the clothes and skin of Alex, René, Alain, and Matthias it revealed there was no gunshot residue.
“That’s proof he didn’t kill himself,” said Fernandez. “If he killed himself, it would be everywhere. In his hair, on his skin.” But the discovery raises other questions.
Alex’s friend Pedroza says the weekend Alex was at the ranch, he shared videos with him of Alex, René, and Alain shooting at eggs and other things. Fernandez said that it was impossible for there to be no traces of gunshot residue on Alain and René if they were shooting guns the day before.
“Someone taught them how to create a suicide scene,” he said, and before authorities got there. “They washed up.”
In fact, phone records belonging to René and his ranch hand Wilbs reveal that René called his father over 50 times starting at 3:00 a.m., even though in their testimony, René and Alain said they both woke up at 6:00 a.m. to find that Alex had taken his life outside on the deck near the pool.
The records also reveal that just before 6:00 a.m., a call was made to a former police officer who, Fernandez believed, helped them create the scene and clean up.
A ballistic test showed that the gun in Alex’s hand had not been fired in a long time.
Armed with the puzzling new evidence, authorities approached the ranch hand Wilbs who eventually confessed to tampering with the crime scene. He told authorities he moved Alex’s body and put another gun in his hand.
But he also added something else: he said he did all this to protect René. When authorities revisited the phone records, they saw that Wilbs had also spoken to René’s father that night. René’s father, in hiding, is currently indicted on charges related to the alleged coverup and illegal gun possession.
When a second autopsy report was conducted, it revealed additional evidence that hadn’t been reported earlier. Alex had been brutally physically abused. The medical examiner found deep bruising all over his body, including his genital area. Marks on his body made by an object like a stick revealed the possibility of torture. The autopsy report also revealed that semen was found in his anus.
DNA results often take weeks, but this time they took seven months, Fernandez says, and the result was surprising–the semen was Alex’s own.
“There’s no record in this world that shows someone had semen in his own body,” Fernandez said.
In February, the prosecution will argue that that sometime between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., Alex was murdered. Prior to that, he was raped and tortured.
“I’m not sure when or why they tortured him. That’s the part of the story I can’t understand,” said Fernandez.
Although Alain was indicted for murder over two years ago, he was acquitted less than a month later before the investigation had been completed. René and Wilbs are currently in prison awaiting trial for premeditated murder.
“I am shell-shocked,” says Luis about what happened. “I never thought that such a thing would happen in René and Alain’s company. Alex was like a kid-brother to them. They were supposed to take care of him, not hurt him.”
Alex has not been properly buried. Kim said they were hoping the FBI could still assist them in the investigation.
“I have two objectives. One is to bring justice to our family,” said Kim. Four months after she came home following Alex’s death, Kim began working with Maryland Congressman (now Senator) Chris Van Hollen and Sen. Ben Cardin to see what can be done.
Her other objective is to change the laws in the United States so that no American citizen can be murdered without the FBI getting involved. “More people have to understand what happens to you when you travel overseas,” Kim told The Daily Beast.“We’re in an administration right now that is seeking Americans first. This is a perfect time for us to change laws.”
Kim says she and the family can forgive in order to move on, but she needs to know what happened… but, then, she thinks she may never know.
“I have to put away the thought that we’re going to know what truly happened. It’s the truth and the lies and you meet somewhere in the middle,” said Kim.