A South Carolina woman who was kidnapped while in Mexico for a tummy tuck made it out alive without serious physical injury—but the psychological trauma from the terrifying ordeal may take considerably longer to heal.
Latavia McGee, 35, and three others were ambushed last Friday by gunmen two and half hours after driving across the U.S. border into Matamoros. The four were hit with a barrage of gunfire before being forced out of their white minivan at gunpoint and thrown into the bed of a white pickup truck, action captured on video by a passerby. Over the next several days, the group’s captors shuttled them from place to place at least three times in an attempt to create confusion, according to Américo Villarreal, the governor of Tamaulipas State.
On Tuesday morning, Mexican forces descended on a small wooden shack in a rural area east of Matamoros. There, they found a shaken but unharmed McGee, a mother of six, along with Eric James Williams, who had been shot three times in the legs. Williams’ wounds were not life-threatening, officials said. However, McGee’s first cousin, Shaeed Woodard, and friend Zindell Brown were both dead.
“She watched them die,” Hakquan Burgess, who is also a first cousin of McGee’s, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
In an interview with Myrtle Beach, South Carolina ABC affiliate WPDE, McGee's mom, Barbara Burgess, said she was able to speak to her daughter by phone at the Brownsville, Texas hospital where she is recovering.
“She was crying because her brother got killed and she watched him die,” Burgess told the outlet. “She watched two of them die. They died in front of her.”
(Hakquan Burgess told The Daily Beast that he, McGee, and Woodard grew up together and consider each other to be more like siblings. McGee traveled last year to Matamoros, a popular medical tourism destination for Americans, without incident, he said.)
Williams’ cousin Jerry Wallace also said Williams—who had never been outside the U.S. before—was, like McGee, extremely rattled.
“He’s just upset about his friend getting killed right in front of him, which anybody else would be with the stuff he went through,” Wallace told the New York Post.
After news broke that McGee was safe, another relative, Jihad Abdul Jami, felt relief. He told The Daily Beast he and his family were grateful to have her coming home. But that wave of optimism was tempered by sorrow over the loss of Woodard.
“It didn’t end the way we had hoped, but it could have been worse,” Jami said.
Jami said that Woodard had two older brothers and was a “quiet, yet funny soul that never bothered anyone.” He said his younger cousin's calm personality made his violent death all the more shocking.
“That’s why it’s hitting everyone even harder, because he was the gentle giant,” Jami said.
Matamoros is home to the violent Gulf drug cartel. Tamaulipas Attorney General Irving Barrios said at a press briefing that the foursome may have been the victims of mistaken identity.
Following Tuesday’s rescue, Hakquan Burgess told The Daily Beast he was shocked by the news of the kidnapping, describing it as feeling “like a movie or something.”
Mexican police arrested a 24-year-old Mexican national identified as José Guadalupe N, who had been standing guard over the four hostages, according to Barrios. It is unclear if he is affiliated with the Gulf Cartel, but Barrios said authorities are searching for several others believed to have been involved.
Photos from the rescue scene, published online by EnlaceMx Noticias, showed police removing what appeared to be wrist restraints from McGee. In a video shared by the outlet, Williams could be seen being treated in an ambulance, receiving oxygen but apparently alert.
The three had accompanied McGee on the trip to help with the driving and offer support, according to reports. A fifth friend also made the trek to Texas but was turned away at the border, NBC News reported, citing a law enforcement official. That person has not been identified.
Brown’s mother, Christina Hickson, said she was unaware her son was headed for Mexico, but had she known, she would have tried to stop him.
“When I found out, he was en route in Mississippi,” Hickson told WPDE. “... I would have never allowed them to get in that truck.”
As it happens, Zindell Brown had also been concerned about traveling to Mexico, his sister Zalandria told the Associated Press.
“Zindell kept saying, ‘We shouldn’t go down,’” she said.
Brown’s family is now raising money for his funeral and a potential second autopsy via a GoFundMe campaign, which a company spokeswoman confirmed to The Daily Beast was set up by another sister, Zalayna Brown. The fundraiser, which had raised $1,015 by Wednesday afternoon, said the family was “not prepared for all of the unexpected costs due to this sudden tragedy.”
A U.S. State Department travel advisory warns Americans against going to Tamaulipas state at all, cautioning, “Do not travel due to crime and kidnapping.”
“Organized crime activity–including gun battles, murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, forced disappearances, extortion, and sexual assault–is common along the northern border and in Ciudad Victoria,” the State Department website reads. “Criminal groups target public and private passenger buses, as well as private automobiles traveling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers and demanding ransom payments.”