Crime & Courts

Missing NC teacher was killed by Sinaloa drug cartel, top Mexican official says

Patrick Braxton-Andrew’s family told The Charlotte Observer that he took this selfie in Urique, Mexico, with Copper Canyon in the background. The picture was in his camera that Mexican authorities found in his hotel room, family members told the Observer.
Patrick Braxton-Andrew’s family told The Charlotte Observer that he took this selfie in Urique, Mexico, with Copper Canyon in the background. The picture was in his camera that Mexican authorities found in his hotel room, family members told the Observer. Courtesy of Patrick Braxton-Andrew's family

Patrick Braxton-Andrew, the 34-year-old Davidson teacher and tutor who was presumed missing for weeks in a remote part of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, is believed to have been murdered by a drug trafficker in that region, according to the state’s top politician.

Chihuahua governor Javier Corral said in a post on his official Facebook page Thursday night that state authorities are currently hunting for the suspected killer — José Noriel Portilo Gil, who is also known by the nickname “El Chueco.” In English, the Spanish word “chueco” translates to “crooked.”

“I can say that this was a brutal and cowardly murder of a completely innocent person; of a straightforward man whose only misfortune was to cross paths with this thug,” Corral wrote in his post, originally written in Spanish.

During a break from his job as a part-time teacher at the private Woodlawn School in Mooresville, Braxton-Andrew — who was fluent in Spanish and had a great deal of experience traveling in Latin America, often solo — left North Carolina on Oct. 24 on a flight to Chihuahua via Houston. He took a train the next morning into Copper Canyon National Park, then on Oct. 26 (a Friday), he caught a bus that drove him down into the canyon to the tiny town of Urique.

He spent most of the weekend sightseeing, but vanished after leaving his hotel at around 4 p.m.; according to his family, he likely was wearing flip-flops or sandals and left behind belongings (including his camera) that he would have taken if he were planning to stray very far from the hotel. His family didn’t realize he was missing until more than 48 hours later, when he didn’t show up to meet his brother Kerry in Mexico City on Tuesday evening, Oct. 30.

Corral wrote on Facebook that Patrick Braxton-Andrew was killed in Urique the same day that he went missing.

The town of Urique — nestled at the bottom of the breathtaking Copper Canyon, which is larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon — is attractive to adventure-seeking tourists because of its spectacular beauty. But it is also known for significant marijuana and poppy cultivation, and there has been frequent drug trafficking and related violence in and around the region.

According to Mexican news magazine Proceso, José Noriel Portilo Gil “is a young man who leads a group that belongs to the Sinaloa Cartel and controls the Urique region.”

Still, his mother said Wednesday that one of the guidebooks Patrick Braxton-Andrew used to plan his trip emphasized the area’s beauty; she said it noted that most violence was contained to the cartels, not targeted at tourists.

An American couple who said they’d met Patrick in Urique described the town as “very peaceful” and that “they said they never felt in danger,” Jean Braxton said. “She said that of course they were noticed because they were foreigners, but she said they never had a sense of anything evil.”

Added Patrick’s brother Kerry: “If you read blogs of people that have traveled there, they basically echo that.”

In a Facebook post announcing Patrick’s death on Thursday afternoon, the family said: “Patrick died doing what he loved — traveling and meeting people.”

They also indicated that his body has not been recovered, leaving unanswered questions.

The family has been silent since posting the statement Thursday, and attempts by the Observer to reach law enforcement officials in Chihuahua have been unsuccessful.

But Corral, the Chihuahua state governor, said they’re determined to bring the killer to justice.

“Nothing will stop us until we have captured him,” he wrote in his Facebook post. “It could take us a short time or a long time, but we will capture him. ... The attack of innocent people who have nothing to do with criminal organizations or the disputes between them should be made a priority so that they never remain unpunished.”

Cristina Bolling and Lorena Rios Trevino contributed to this report.

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