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Missing south of the border, but his other life emerges

COLUMN ONE

Dan LaPorte went to Mexico and never came back. His parents didn't know of his drug deals.

September 27, 2008|Evelyn Larrubia | Times Staff Writer

Daniel not come home.

Linda LaPorte stood in the kitchen of her home in Pascoag, R.I., holding her cellphone. Her son's Thai girlfriend was calling from San Diego, speaking a mile a minute in fractured English.

He said call mom if he not come home.

Linda and her husband, Joseph, had called their son just days earlier to wish him a happy 27th birthday. He'd said nothing about traveling anywhere.

Yet here was his girlfriend saying he'd gone to Mexico on business with a guy named Big Daddy. And he hadn't come back.

"What she was trying to convey to me didn't make sense," Linda recalled.

Dozens of American citizens have been kidnapped and killed in Mexico in the last year. They are a small fraction of the 2,500 people, the vast majority of them Mexicans, who have been slain gangland-style. Countless others have been kidnapped for ransom.

Officials on both sides of the border say the American victims are rarely unlucky tourists. Some lived in Mexico and may have known their attackers. Others were businesspeople who crossed the border regularly and were seen as an easy source of cash. Still others were thought to be involved in drugs.

Linda didn't know any of that. All she knew was that Dan was missing.

He was the youngest of the LaPortes' three sons. The other two had married and started families. Dan still hadn't settled down. He was affectionate and fiercely loyal, but had a troublesome temper. He had few ambitions; after graduating from Burrillville High School in 2000, he got a job in a deli.

In the spring of 2005, he followed his boss to San Diego, "looking for something better," Linda recalled.

Dan was working at a restaurant and as a bouncer at clubs -- just to pay the rent, he told his family. His plan, he said, was to open a surfboard factory in Mexico. A 6-foot, 1-inch former high school football player who weighed 290 pounds, he began to take better care of himself. He developed a taste for stir fry and Thai cuisine, started working out vigorously and dropped 100 pounds.

He was finding his way in the world, or so it seemed from 3,000 miles away.

--

Slow down, Linda told Dan's girlfriend, T.K. Dangalongkon. What's this about Mexico?

Dan had left for the border Feb. 22, a Friday, T.K. said. He'd looked worried and told her that if he wasn't back by 10 p.m., she should call his mother. She'd know what to do.

It was Sunday morning now, and Linda had no idea what to do.

She dialed Dan's Rhode Island cellphone and left a message. She called his California cellphone but couldn't connect.

She drove to the house of one of Dan's closest friends. When was the last time he'd talked to Dan? she asked. Did he have the names or phone numbers of any of Dan's contacts in Mexico? Who's Big Daddy?

Linda went to all his friends, but got no answers. They seemed evasive.

She called T.K. back and sent her to a neighbor, who helped her file a missing-person report with the San Diego Police Department.

A tearful day blurred to night. Sleep never came.

Linda and Joe got up Monday and went to work: she as a customer service representative for the Pascoag Utility District, he for the Burrillville Public Works Department. It was hard to focus on anything but finding their son.

Linda spoke to the State Department. One of Dan's friends contacted the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana. Mexican and U.S. authorities promised to scour prisons, jails, morgues, hospitals.

Days passed. Nothing turned up.

Three of Dan's friends flew to San Diego. They shipped back nearly a dozen boxes of his belongings.

Linda scoured them for clues. She turned out every pocket and pored over the files in his computer, piles of papers. She puzzled over a bill for a shrink-wrap machine, bought in the name of the surfboard manufacturing company Dan said he was trying to start.

In his camera were photos of a trip to Mexico in 2005, riding four-wheelers and swimming in the azure ocean. That was the Mexico she knew. Some photos showed men his mother didn't recognize; two of them looked as if they might be Mexican. She e-mailed the pictures to a Mexican consular official.

After a week of searching, Linda was right where she'd started. She had no answers, just suspicions.

--

John Eppick had worked in Mexico for nearly a decade, finding stolen airplanes for American companies, among other assignments. Now, he was intent on retiring after more than 40 years as a private investigator. He and his wife had bought a wooded property in Missouri with a fish pond.

His wife was still in California in March when she ran into a male acquaintance. The man had a friend in Rhode Island who needed a private investigator to work across the border. Was Eppick still taking cases?

Some, his wife replied.

Linda took a shot.

"Most of the other telephone calls I refer to other investigators," Eppick said. "This particular one concerned me because I was well aware of the problems in Tijuana and Rosarito."

Eppick told the LaPortes that the investigation was likely to take a month and cost $25,000, maybe more.

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