Matamoros slaying still fuels parents' anti-drug effort

Dallas Morning News/April 11, 1999

Brownsville -- Former Cameron County Sheriff's Lt. George Gavito remembers thinking that unearthing Mark Kilroy's body from a ranch outside Matamoros, Mexico, would neatly wrap up the UT student's kidnapping and murder.

"Before we knew it, we were digging up another one and another one and another one," Mr. Gavito said of his recollections of April 11, 1989.

By the end of the day, Mexican federal police had recovered 12 bodies on Rancho Santa Elena, later known as Devil Ranch. Some, like Mr. Kilroy, had been killed by a cult of drug traffickers who believed that ritual sacrifices conducted in a smelly, blood-splattered shack would shield them from police.

"It was drugs that had killed our son," Jim Kilroy said recently. "Even though he wasn't using, it touches everyone."

Ten years later, Jim and Helen Kilroy have turned that belief into an anti-drug battle that they wage through the Mark Kilroy Foundation. With the help of volunteers and other organizations, the foundation is involved with drug awareness projects in schools as well as rehabilitation programs.

"We had gotten so many letters and calls from people, families that were telling us about how they were affected by their child's drug use or their friend's drug use," Mrs. Kilroy said from the couple's home in Santa Fe in southeast Texas. "People were asking, 'What can I do to help my friend or my son?' We didn't have the answers, and I guess that's what really pushed us into exploring, trying to find help for different people."

Jim Kilroy also collaborated on a candid 1990 book about his son's death, titled Sacrifice.

Devout Catholics, the Kilroys said they quickly came to terms with their son's murder.

"That's probably something that we can't even explain," Mrs. Kilroy said. "It was really when the investigators in Brownsville told us what happened to Mark. We were immediately at peace that we had found him."

"I think the Lord just put a blessing in our hearts," said Jim Kilroy, who in Sacrifice describes his relief at learning that his son was held 12 hours before being killed because he had time to make peace with God.

"We knew he was safe, and it was really God speaking to us about it."

Mark Kilroy was a 21-year-old junior pre-med student at the University of Texas who went to South Padre Island with three buddies for spring break. On March 14, 1989, Mr. Kilroy was bar-hopping with his friends on Matamoros' main drag when he vanished.

His disappearance soon became a priority for U.S. law enforcement officers because his uncle was a U.S. customs agent.

Although it was not part of their jurisdiction, Mr. Gavito and Brownsville's U.S. Customs Agent-in-Charge Oran Neck joined forces with the Mexican Federal Judicial Police.

But luck actually broke open the case.

Serafin Hernandez Garcia, a suspect in a marijuana-trafficking case, was trying to elude police officers when he led them to Santa Elena. Police arrested him and the ranch caretaker.

The caretaker later recognized Mark Kilroy from a picture and remembered making him breakfast. Mr. Hernandez eventually confessed to kidnapping Mr. Kilroy and later burying his body.

He returned to the ranch to show police the burial sites - some belonging to enemies of the drug cult later dubbed the narcosatanicos.

In a tarpaper shack, police found a bloody altar and items used in ritual worship, including cauldrons filled with human and animal body parts.

As the case unfolded, Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo was identified as the group's leader. Known as the padrino, or godfather, Mr. Constanzo was a Cuban-American from Miami who practiced a mixture of Afro-Caribbean rituals, some of which called for human sacrifice.

According to Sacrifice, Mr. Kilroy was snatched after Mr. Constanzo told his followers to bring him a young, Anglo university student. They later used his brain as part of a ceremony.

Ultimately, 15 bodies were found at the ranch. After an extensive search, police closed in on Mr. Constanzo and other narcosatanicos in Mexico City. Mr. Constanzo was not taken alive; he reportedly ordered another cult member to kill him.

Six narcosatanicos are in Mexican prisons convicted of 13 of the killings.

Mr. Gavito, who now is a private investigator and restaurant owner, said the pressure placed on authorities to find Mr. Kilroy put the narcosatanicos out of business.

"If it wasn't for Mark, these killings would probably be still going on because I don't think anybody would ever have found out that it happened there," he said.

Today, there is little evidence on Rancho Santa Elena of what happened 10 years ago. Police destroyed the ceremonial shack shortly after the bodies were found.

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