Remembering Mark J. Kilroy - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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Remembering Mark J. Kilroy

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Posted: Saturday, March 7, 2009 12:00 am

Editor's note: The following account comes from a compilation of information from interviews with current and former law enforcement officials and other witnesses to events; and reference material, including "Sacrifice," a book by Jim Kilroy and Bob Stewart; "Buried Secrets," by Edward Humes; records from U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas; and Brownsville Herald archives.

Twenty years have passed, but anthropologist Tony Zavaleta still recoils when he remembers the scene at Rancho Santa Elena, west of Matamoros, Mexico.

He had not before seen anything like it.

And he hasn't since.

"The sense of evil was tangible. You could feel it. You could sense it. You could certainly smell it because the whole place reeked of death," Zavaleta said. "I have got to tell you that it was a horrifying experience."

On March 14, 1989 a 21-year-old student named Mark J. Kilroy disappeared during a nighttime, Spring Break excursion into Matamoros. U.S. and Mexican law enforcement joined the Kilroy family in an extensive search for the missing student on both sides of the Rio Grande.

It took almost a month to find Kilroy's body. He had been tortured, dismembfered, offered up as human sacrifice in the twisted imaginings of drug traffickers, who thought that sacrifice offered them protection from detection. Kilroy was killed at Rancho Santa Elena, owned by the drug-trafficking Hernandez family, just across the river from the small U.S. community of El Ranchito.


As events unraveled in waves of nightmares, for not just the family of the missing boy but for terrorized border residents who believed Satanists were running amok among them, the public eventually learned that Kilroy, of Santa Fe, Texas, was a responsible son, a pre-med student at the University of Texas at Austin who had fallen prey to a group of "narcosatánicos," or satanic drug dealers as the press in Mexico dubbed his kidnappers and slayers.

Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo led that group of drug traffickers as their "padrino,"or godfather. Constanzo included human sacrifices in his twisted practice of "Palo Mayombe," an Afro-Caribbean religion, to safeguard his group and its drug operations. Central to his rituals, Constanzo had a "nganga," a cauldron, the contents of which he believed provided power and protection.

The handsome Constanzo, 26, was a model turned fortuneteller to the stars, to drug traffickers and politicians, and ironically enough, to high-profile law enforcement officers in Mexico City. Constanzo soon began to inject black magic into his practice of invoking spirits to protect his interests and those of his clients.

Originally from Miami, Constanzo, a Cuban-American, entered the drug trade while living in Mexico City.

"He was a psychopathic serial killer. "Se safo." He lost it," said Zavaleta.

"I have spent 40 years studying "brujeria" or witchcraft and all kinds of stuff and I have been to places and seen things that ordinarily would make your hair stand on end, but I was not ready for what I encountered on that day," Zavaleta said.


It seemed unbelievable that a young, attractive Matamoros woman, an honors student in Brownsville, was involved in the kidnapping and murder of Kilroy.

Constanzo selected Sara Maria Aldrete Villarreal, 22, as the "madrina," or godmother, of the group. Aldrete was an honor student studying sociology at Texas Southmost College, a blond, athletic woman who stood more than six feet tall. Constanzo approached and got to know her because she had connections to the Hernandez drug operation in Matamoros that he wanted to control.

It worked. He took control of the drug operation.

And by 1989 many of the Hernandez family members were part of his group. Some people in the drug gang also were lovers he had brought with him from Mexico City. By some reports, he was bisexual, although most say he was homosexual. In any event, the group's members fell under the spell of the tall, charismatic Constanzo.


Kilroy arrived at South Padre Island on March 11 with friends Billy Huddleston, Brent Martin and Bradley Moore, joining the tens of thousands of students who each year made the trek to a warm sun, alluring beaches and unfettered nightlife on both sides of the border.

Sometime during a visit to Matamoros on their third day in the Valley and into the early morning hours of March 14, Kilroy became separated from his group. They never saw him alive again.

Constanzo needed a human sacrifice to replenish, revitalize and feed his nganga. That sick nourishment was to be Mark Kilroy.

Zavaleta, who was providing background information to law enforcement about Palo Mayombe, went to Rancho Santa Elena after the bodies were discovered.

As he peered into the cauldron, housed in a shack on Rancho Santa Elena grounds, Zavaleta saw "what looked like a human brain and other organs, and a mixture of slop and blood.

"It was just horrible," he recalls. "I mean, just absolutely horrible. But there was clearly, I recall, a brain."

When he saw the nganga, he said, even as he walked toward it, he saw with an anthropologist's eyes, and he knew.

"I said, ‘This is Palo Mayombe.' In March of 1989, nobody here had ever seen anything like that, except me, and that's because I've studied it. And I remember clearly telling (law enforcement officers), ‘You need to look for a Cubano. This is a Cuban doing this. This is not a Mexican,' " Zavaleta recalls.

On April 11, 1989, before Zavaleta arrived, Rancho Santa Elena revealed its horrors: 13 bodies would be located that day, including Kilroy's.

The bodies were all male, all horribly mutilated. Some had been castrated and sodomized; some were missing the brains, limbs and hearts that had fed the nganga. Long wires had been coiled around the bones of their spines, so that they later could be pulled from the earth to be used as necklaces.

Two more bodies subsequently were recovered. The digging stopped at 15.

Constanzo's followers selected Kilroy at random. Most of the other victims were competitors in the drug trade. A 14-year-old boy, related to one of the suspects, was sacrificed by mistake.

All but two of the 11 members of Constanzo's group either died or are serving lengthy sentences in Mexican prisons for the murders and other crimes.

Ovidio Hernandez Rivera and Malio Fabio Ponce Torres were charged in Mexico with Kilroy's murder. However, they remain at large.


Before the horrific revelations of April 11, all Jim Kilroy and his wife, Helen, had wanted was to get their son back.

When the reality of not finding him alive finally hit them, Jim Kilroy asked a friend to tell Mexican officials that all they wanted was Mark's body, so they could bury him properly. They were not after revenge, he said.

"That's all they wanted," said Coach Joe A. Rodriguez, today the Brownsville school district's athletic administrator and who became friends with the Kilroys during the course of the long ordeal.

Rodriguez, with a son of his own, was immediately touched when he saw Jim Kilroy during a television newscast, appealing for help and information regarding his son. So Rodriguez approached Kilroy at church and offered his help. He, his wife, Emma, and their children opened their hearts and home to the Kilroys, who stayed with them for nearly a month, comforting and protecting the Kilroys and their need for privacy.

Rodriguez remembers driving Kilroy to the Cameron County Sheriff's Department, where the desperate father talked to George Gavito, then a lieutenant.

"He (Jim Kilroy) came into the sheriff's office and he never left the sheriff's office," said Gavito, now

police chief of the Brownsville Navigation District. "He was there for 30 days, each single day, Saturdays and Sundays, too.

"He begged me to help him look for his son," said Gavito, who knew he and other U.S. law enforcement had no jurisdiction to launch a formal investigation in Mexico.

Rodriguez, too, wanted to help. On his own initiative, he contacted the business community and helped raise $10,000 for a reward.

Rodriguez, the emotion thick in his voice even today, said that Kilroy was unrelenting in the search for his son: "He would leave (the house) all day with a plan. Then he would go to the (international) bridge and pass out his flyers (bearing his son's photograph)."

The longtime coach also joined in the search, going to Matamoros, visiting the "veladores," who provide security at locales throughout the city, meeting with "kind of shady" people, asking for any possible information that could lead to Mark Kilroy's whereabouts.

In a recent interview, the Kilroys told The Brownsville Herald they have a special place in their hearts for the Rio Grande Valley and the special people who helped them as they searched for their son.

"They were just absolutely wonderful, how they coddled us and took care of us," Jim Kilroy said of the Rodriguezes.

Helen Kilroy was equally moved. "It showed the Christian love that all the people in the Valley have," she said. "We have a special place in our hearts for people in the Valley because they just took us in like we were family to help us to find Mark, and it really is like we have family down in the Valley; the way they just took such good care of us and in helping us."

Area journalists and reporters also developed bonds with the Kilroys.

"They were very strong, and I mean you just could tell that their faith was really carrying them through all that," said Letty Fernandez, at the time a television journalist and now director of news and information for the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. "We tried to keep it in the news every day because he was looking for his son. We really got to know the Kilroys well because I saw them every day and we would talk every day. I really, honestly prayed every night for him, hoping that they would find him - and then when they didn't, and we found out that he was dead, your heart stops."

Diana Eva Maldonado, now an editor with The Brownsville Herald, was a television interim news director then and today remains impressed by the Kilroys' strength.

"They were determined to find their son no matter what. They weren't going to give up," she recalls.

Fernandez, who went to Santa Elena Ranch after the bodies had been removed from the premises, said a school friend and a cameraman drove to the ranch with her.

"You had to travel down this long road to get to it, and we kept driving, and then we saw it. There was nothing out there. In fact, there was no one there. I would have thought that it was a burial ground and that somebody would have been protecting it," she said.

They saw about eight unearthed graves, all in a row.

"I don't think I can forget the smell, you know, of death," Fernandez said.

They left quickly when they saw Mexican police driving down the long road toward them.

She wonders now if the horrors at the ranch would have been uncovered if Serafin Hernandez Garcia had not run a checkpoint, set up by federal police in Matamoros under Comandante Juan Benitez Ayala just east of Matamoros.

"We might not have ever known," Fernandez said.


That checkpoint was in place April 1, 1989 at Benitez's direction. A source close to the investigation maintains that a U.S. Customs agent alerted federal police in Matamoros that drugs had been crossed into Brownsville from an area west of Matamoros, so the checkpoint was set up.

On April 1, Hernandez Garcia drove through the checkpoint, and didn't stop because he felt protected by Constanzo's magic. He thought he was invisible to police.

Mexican federal police followed Hernandez Garcia to the ranch where bales of marijuana were being stored. Hernandez Garcia wasn't arrested at that time, but Mexican authorities began to conduct surveillance on him, the ranch and other Hernandez family properties. On April 9, Hernandez Garcia and several other suspects were arrested in Matamoros. Federal police also picked up the ranch caretaker, who later identified Mark J. Kilroy from a flyer in Benitez's office, left there by the boy's father.

Constanzo, Aldrete and other suspects fled after being tipped off that authorities were closing in on them, but on May 6 police found them in Mexico City.

Constanzo and gang member Martin Quintana Rodriguez were killed either by police or by another group member at Constanzo's direction during a standoff with police.

Sheriff's deputies stopped a Constanzo follower, Malio Fabio "El Gato" Ponce Torres, in Brownsville after conducting surveillance on a house, but let him go.

"His name had not been shared (by Benitez) with us at that time," Gavito said.

Gavito maintains the sheriff's department, U.S. Customs, and Benitez worked together in "perfect" harmony during the investigation.

"There was nothing that one department did not know and did not share with the other department, and I think that made the difference in being able to solve this case and break this thing wide open," Gavito said.

A task force, made up of the sheriff's department, U.S. Customs, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI, had been organized, but it fizzled due to conflicts between the organizations, Gavito acknowledged.

Since Mark's death, the Kilroys have been on a crusade to alert young people to the dangers of drugs. Helen Kilroy says that after her son died, they heard from so many people who called or wrote to say how their lives had been affected by drugs.

"It wasn't just the person using (drugs) that was affected," she said. "It was so far-reaching to the entire family, even beyond that, into the community. It just seemed that was the direction that our Lord wanted to move us in from what happened to Mark.

"It's kind of hard sometimes to put into words - the awful things that happened to Mark. We have really been at peace with it. We have been so blessed that we have not had any kind of hatred toward the people that did that to Mark and to the other victims that were found in that grave on that ranch near Matamoros."

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