A fifth friend has revealed she had a lucky escape from the fatal Matamoros kidnapping after she was stopped at the US-Mexico border because she didn’t have a photo ID.
Cheryl Orange was part of a group of American childhood friends who drove from South Carolina to the border in Texas last week so that one of them – Latavia “Tay” McGee – could get a tummy tuck procedure.
Ms Orange told The Associated Press that she had forgotten to bring an identification card on the trip and so she was denied passage across the border.
That missing ID may well have saved her life.
While she stayed behind at a motel in Brownsville, Texas, her four friends – Ms McGee, Eric James Williams, Shaeed Woodard and Zindell Brown – continued onward with their journey.
The group crossed the border in their white rental minivan – which had North Carolina license plates – and appeared to get lost on the way to the clinic.
Not long later, they were ambushed and shot at by a group of armed gunmen.
Disturbing video footage showed the four victims then being bundled into the back of a pickup truck by the attackers.
The video showed one person sitting upright and moving while the other three were dragged limply into the vehicle. One of the victims being dragged did show signs of life by lifting his head.
Mr Williams’ North Carolina diver’s license was found left behind at the scene of the abduction.
A Mexican woman was also shot and killed in the attack.
On Tuesday, the four victims were found at a drug cartel “stash house” on the outskirts of Matamoros. Woodard and Brown were dead.
Ms McGee and Mr Williams both survived, with Mr Williams suffering multiple gunshot wounds.
Ms Orange told police that the five friends had rented the minivan from South Carolina on Thursday and driven to the very southern tip of Texas that day.
On Friday morning, at around 8am, the four set off across the Mexican border to take Ms. McGee to her procedure.
“She simply went for a cosmetic surgery, and that’s it. That’s all, and this happened to them,” Ms Orange said.
She explained that Mr Williams, Woodard and Brown were only planning to drop Ms McGee off at the clinic and then drive back over the border to rejoin her in Texas.
She was expecting them to return to the motel in Brownsville just 15 minutes later where she was waiting with the group’s luggage.
They never returned.
As several hours passed she grew increasingly concerned and couldn’t get through to any of them on their phones.
She contacted Brownsville Police to report them missing.
The police report, obtained by CNN, reveals she was told to call back if she still hadn’t heard from them by Monday.
Before then, US and Mexican officials were alerted to the incident and a huge cross-national effort was launched to track down the medical tourists, with the FBI offering a $50,000 reward for their return and for the arrest of those responsible.
Through the four-day ordeal, officials believe the victims were moved multiple times to evade authorities.
On Tuesday, the victims were finally tracked down to a “stash house” along a rural area east of Matamoros called Ejido Longoreño on the way to the local beach known as Playa Baghdad.
Mr Williams and Ms McGee were taken to a hospital in Texas for treatment.
Mr Williams was shot three times in the legs during the attack and underwent surgery while Ms McGee appeared to be unharmed.
The bodies of Woodard and Brown’s bodies are expected to be repatriated to the US on Thursday after Mexican officials carried out autopsies.
A suspect – identified as 24-year-old Jose “N” – was arrested over the fatal kidnapping.
Tamaulipas Governor Américo Villarreal said at a Tuesday evening press conference that the suspect had been tasked with making sure the victims didn’t escape.
Officials have not revealed if the suspect has ties to the Gulf drug cartel – a notorious gang known to rule over Matamoros.
However, several US officials pointed to cartel involvement in the incident with White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre saying that the Biden administration remains committed to “disrupting transnational criminal organizations including Mexican drug cartels and human smugglers.”
“We remain committed to applying the full weight of our efforts and resources to counter them,” she said at a press briefing on Tuesday.
“Right now, our immediate concerns are for the safe return of our citizens, the health and well-being of those who survived this attack, and the support which must be rendered to the families of those who need it.”
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he was sorry the fatal incident happened on Mexican soil.
“We continue to work every day towards peace and are very sorry that this has happened in our country,” he said on Tuesday.
“We send our condolences to the victims’ friends and family and the American people. And we will continue to work towards peace.
The border city of Matamoros, based in the state of Tamaulipas, is largely controlled by the Gulf drug cartel, with violence and migrant smuggling rife.
The US State Department is advising Americans not to travel to Tamaulipas due to the risk of crime and kidnapping. The region is on the “Level 4: Do Not Travel” list.