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Father Hailed for Taking Justice Into Own Hands

Mexico: Dogged pursuit ends in arrest of suspect in daughter's slaying.

June 20, 2001|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Eduardo Gallo refused to let his daughter's brutal kidnapping and slaying become just another forgotten case. So he solved it himself, right up to the arrest this week of the alleged triggerman.

Like the relatives of hundreds of other kidnapping victims in Mexico, Gallo paid a ransom--about $18,500 and some jewelry--after his daughter Paola was seized by a gang from the family's weekend home last July in the town of Tepoztlan near Mexico City.

But Paola's body was found a week later. She had been shot twice, in the neck and the back. Three suspects were quickly arrested and are awaiting trial. But the gunman could not be found, and nothing more happened.

Her father, frustrated by police inaction, closed his consulting firm and turned himself into a novice detective. He chased leads and pored over information including cellular phone records to crack the case.

On Sunday, Gallo's nearly yearlong pursuit paid off when he helped set up the arrest of the suspected gunman. The next day the man confessed, according to prosecutors and police commanders. They credit Gallo with solving the case.

Gallo recounted his efforts and his frustrations in an emotion-charged newspaper advertisement Tuesday describing his odyssey. And he offered a eulogy to his 25-year-old daughter:

"I will always love you, my adored child," he wrote. "Thank you for your smile and your caresses. Thank you for your songs and your happiness and your love of life. Thank you, beautiful daughter; you always lighted the path so I could distinguish between justice and vengeance. Thank you for being my inspiration for keeping my hands clean and my soul calm, the only way I can see you again."

"This man," said Morelos state Police Chief Jose Agustin Montiel, "with much bravery, put aside all his own business . . . and carried out the investigation."

Kidnapping has become one of the most notorious criminal enterprises in Mexico, from express jobs--grabbing people in taxis for a few hours and emptying their bank accounts at ATMs--to months-long kidnappings for multimillion-dollar ransoms.

In an interview Tuesday with The Times, Gallo said the crucial lesson for Mexicans from his ordeal is the need to "report the case, go to the police and then follow up, keep applying pressure." He said his own research found that 80% to 90% of kidnappings are never reported to authorities, out of fear of reprisals or a sense of shame and helplessness.

Paola was kidnapped in brazen fashion as she relaxed with several friends at her parents' weekend home. The attackers jumped the fence, entered the house and terrorized the group for two hours, stealing jewelry and clothes. Then they took Paola and two cars.

It was one of a spate of kidnappings at the time in Tepoztlan, a popular weekend destination for Mexico City's well-to-do about 35 miles south of the capital in Morelos.

Paola, vivacious and dark-haired, loved to sing and was always surrounded by friends, her father said. She did volunteer work at orphanages and was in the third year of studying for a master's degree in psychoanalysis.

A week after she was seized, the bodies of three of the suspected kidnappers were found in a nearby town, close to the spot where the ransom was paid. Paola's body was found nearby a day later.

Morelos officials leaked stories suggesting that the father had organized a rescue with his own gunmen, resulting in the blood bath. Senior commanders now discount any such accusation against Gallo, who suspects that the three were killed by police. About two-thirds of the ransom was found alongside the gang members' bodies and returned to Gallo, but the rest was not recovered.

The father believes that the kidnappers executed Paola in retribution for the killing of their accomplices. He is determined to pursue the mystery of those three deaths and to find two more kidnapping suspects still at large.

He said the subsequent police investigation was riddled with errors and apparent corruption. When a car stolen during the kidnapping was recovered months later, police refused to conduct a thorough forensic test "because it was raining." Only when Gallo went to higher-ups were the tests done--and strands of his daughter's hair found, important evidence in the case.

The clothes his daughter was wearing vanished before tests could be conducted on them, and Gallo by chance found goods stolen from the house in a police strongroom. No fingerprints were taken at the house after the kidnapping.

"The most effective form of corruption, because you can't see it, is the incorrect or incomplete formulation of the case," Gallo said. "If they don't pull together all the facts, the charge remains weak and the case collapses.

"I gave them details, and they did nothing, or they distorted the truth," he said. So he mounted his own probe.

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