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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Killing of Tijuana pizzeria owner leaves family, Mexican authorities at odds

George Norman Harrison, a San Diego County native, was found with his head and limbs cut off. Authorities say he was 'keeping bad company' and considers his death drug-related; his family disagrees.

March 17, 2009|Richard Marosi

TIJUANA — When San Diego County native George Norman Harrison opened his Tijuana pizzeria in 2007, he plastered the El Mirador neighborhood with fliers and hired a team of delivery boys to zip up and down the shanty-lined hills on motor scooters.

Business was good, and he told his family he liked the low cost of living in Mexico. But the stout, mustachioed former construction worker recognized the dangers and stashed a 9-millimeter handgun in his property, one of four weapons he owned without Mexican permission.

On Feb. 3, three gunmen abducted the 38-year-old U.S. citizen from the pizzeria and held him captive for one month, extracting two ransom payments from his family in San Diego County. Then his captors beheaded him, chopped off his arms and legs and tossed his body in a weed-choked lot beside those of two other men, with a taunting sign warning about "snitches."

The gruesome slaying has left Harrison's family and Mexican authorities at odds over why he was killed.

The Baja California attorney general's office considers Harrison's death another organized-crime slaying, one of about 800 here in the last year. They suspect the pizzeria businesses -- Harrison owned another restaurant near the beach -- were a front for drug trafficking, and they suspect that he crossed the wrong person or owed a drug debt, noting that he had a drug conviction eight years ago.

"He was keeping bad company, and was taken by people they knew," said Assistant Atty. Gen. Rafael Gonzalez.

Harrison's family says Mexican authorities have been too quick to categorize his death as drug-related. Harrison had put his conviction behind him and was targeted because of his business success, say family members who asked that their identities not be revealed for security reasons.

"Business was really good. He was really happy," said one family member. "He was always busy, running around like crazy, bringing supplies, keeping the employees busy."

If Harrison's death is drug-related, it would fit the profile of the vast majority of homicides in Tijuana: a lethal adjusting of accounts among suspected traffickers, gunmen, drug addicts and other criminals who placed themselves in the cross hairs of crime bosses battling for control of the city.

But Tijuana also ranks among the world's most dangerous cities for ransom kidnappings, a situation that has prompted hundreds of middle-class and upper-middle-class Mexican families to flee to the San Diego area.

Harrison was born in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa to a Navy veteran father and a Mexican American mother. He worked in the auto-wrecking business and construction, and moved to Tijuana about 12 years ago, telling his family he enjoyed the culture and more affordable lifestyle.

In 2000, he was arrested at the San Ysidro Port of Entry with more than 50 pounds of marijuana in his car, according to family members. It was a felony offense and he was given probation after being jailed for less than one week, they said.

Harrison dubbed his eateries Harley's Pizza, after his beloved Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The biker theme became the pizzerias' motif: On one wall, Harrison and his brother painted a mural of a motorcyclist driving through the cactus-dotted Baja California landscape.

His employees said they admired Harrison's energy and fairness.

"He was a great boss, really good people," said one. "He treated us like sons."

Family members in San Diego expressed concern about violence in Tijuana, but Harrison insisted he had things under control. Police knocked on his door for regular extortion payments and he said their actions, though corrupt, gave him a sense of security.

"I asked, 'Is everything OK?' " recalled one relative. "He said, 'Don't worry. I'm fine.' "

On the day of the attack, Harrison was carrying thousands of dollars to meet his payroll, his family said. The gunmen, armed with AK-47s, ordered everyone to the ground. Harrison was struck in the leg with the butt of a weapon and dragged out. "He seemed confused. He said, 'What's up?' " said one witness.

Over the next month, Harrison's girlfriend in Tijuana got daily phone calls from the kidnappers. They demanded that the family raise money by selling his Harley-Davidson motorcycles, cars and all-terrain vehicles.

The kidnappers chopped off one of Harrison's fingers and left it in a box at his girlfriend's house. They delivered another finger a few days later, the family said.

The family paid an undisclosed amount in two payments. Prior to the second payment, the kidnappers put Harrison on the phone. "He sounded good," said a family member. "We thought he was coming home."

The next day, the family heard that three bodies had been found near the beachside bullring. They identified Harrison's body by a tattoo. He had been strangled and his killers had dismembered the body.

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