For 18 confusing, nail-biting days, Patrick Braxton-Andrew’s disappearance — from a tiny, remote north-Mexican town at the bottom of a breathtaking ravine larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon — remained a mystery.
On Thursday, a tragic answer emerged: According to a Facebook post written by his family, Mexican authorities determined that the 34-year-old Davidson man — an algebra and Spanish teacher who thrived on backpacking through Latin America — was killed Oct. 28 by “a criminal organization” in the state of Chihuahua.
The post also indicates, however, that Braxton-Andrew’s body has not yet been recovered, and that police have not yet made any arrests. And, so, large questions remain.
“It is with great sadness that we announce that Patrick died on October 28th,” the family’s Facebook post reads. “The search continues to recover his body so we can bring him back home.”
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On Wednesday afternoon, the day before news of his death, The Observer spoke with Braxton-Andrew’s mother, Jean Braxton, his younger brother Kerry, and his sister-in-law Kathleen by phone from Mexico City — where the family set up a base of operations a couple of weeks ago. (His father, Gary Andrew, was in another meeting and unable to join the call. Andrew was Davidson College’s head men’s cross country and track and field coach for 29 years; he retired in 2014.)
During the interview, they said Patrick Braxton-Andrew had been planning this trip to Mexico for months, a break from his jobs as a part-time teacher at the private Woodlawn School in Mooresville and as a freelance tutor in Spanish and other subjects.
The main attraction was a feast of Mexican food and culture during the country’s Day of the Dead celebration, which would run from Oct. 31-Nov. 2. But a break in Woodlawn’s schedule gave him a few extra days to travel before that, and Braxton-Andrew fixed his sights on taking a ride on “El Chepe” — a tourist-friendly rail line in northwest Mexico that passes through the eye-popping Copper Canyon National Park and alongside miles of landscapes that appear to be ripped from a postcard.
Originally, his family says, about eight people had planned to join Braxton-Andrew for Day of the Dead, and he threw out a loose invitation for anyone who wanted to tag along on “El Chepe.” But ultimately, no one was able to attend the holiday festivities except younger brother Kerry, and no one could join Patrick for the train ride.
This was fine with him. Patrick had always been perfectly happy on his own in Latin America. In fact, as a foreigner in Mexico, he was as prepared as any to take a trip like this alone, his family says.
He’d cut his teeth as a traveler at a young age, in family trips to Colorado — scrambling up red-rock knolls at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs and along vertigo-inducing trails at Estes Park in the northern part of the state. Before or after the family hikes, Patrick and Kerry would wander the campground, striking up easy friendships with other kids.
During his senior year at North Mecklenburg High School, Patrick showed exceptional writing skills in English class, but was thought to be in danger of failing out of Spanish, his family says. Hated it. Didn’t have an ear for it. Couldn’t understand why he was being forced to learn it.
That changed, though, when — while working toward an English degree at Davidson College — his grandmother decided to celebrate her 90th birthday by taking the family on a bus tour through Costa Rica. It was Patrick’s first time outside the U.S., and the first time he saw that knowing Spanish had benefits beyond a classroom.
Almost as soon as the trip was over, he was plotting a return. In the first couple of years after graduating from Davidson, he banked as much money as he could from his job at a logistics company in Cornelius. Then in his mid-20s, he and a friend bought one-way plane tickets to Mexico City and slowly started backpacking their way south toward Costa Rica.
At some point, he and his friend parted ways. Braxton-Andrew wound up living with a family in Guatemala and became obsessed with the language. In all, he spent 13 months in Latin America before a stomach bug forced him home.
By that time, he was fluent in Spanish.
And he vacuumed up opportunities to use it as a tutor and a teacher. He also quit his logistics job in 2011 and signed on with Davidson College’s Peru-focused study-abroad program, making several trips to South America as its assistant resident director.
While others stuck close to Americans, he often wandered off on his own.
“He loves to just strike up conversations with people in Spanish when he’s traveling in Latin America,” his brother Kerry told the Observer on Wednesday. “He is constantly talking with the locals. And so even when he’s traveling alone, it’s not like he feels alone at any time.”
After learning of his disappearance and arriving in Mexico City, his family worked and worried around the clock, staying in close contact with government officials while also leading a grassroots hunt for clues, information, any speck of data that might return Patrick to civilization.
Through conversations with employees at places he stayed or visited, and with people who crossed his path, this is the family’s understanding of Braxton-Andrew’s final days:
He left North Carolina on Oct. 24 on a flight to Chihuahua via Houston, then climbed aboard the “El Chepe” train the next morning. He got off at a stop in El Divisadero, snapping photos of Copper Canyon with his beloved Sony camera, and spent the night nearby. On Oct. 26, a Friday, he bought a ticket for the treacherous 3 1/2-hour bus ride down into the ravine that wound up in Urique.
His weekend plans included two hikes he’d plucked from the sparse Urique entry in his mother’s Lonely Planet guidebook. On Saturday, Oct. 27, he spent part of the day hiking up the Rio Urique to Guadalupe Coronado village and back (a 9.3-mile round trip) with some travelers he met on the bus ride, then had dinner with them. On Sunday, Oct. 28, he did the round trip downriver to Guapalayna (7.4 miles).
That afternoon, he lounged in an Internet cafe, answering texts and sending work-related emails, signing off at about 3:30 p.m. and returning to his hotel.
According to hotel management, Braxton-Andrew went back out again at around 4 p.m. They said he was carrying his phone, perhaps a book and some small coins, and wore sandals or flip-flops. His brother Kerry says he left behind all of the shoes he would have used for hiking, and his camera, which he typically took whenever he thought there was a chance he might see something Instagram-worthy.
He didn’t take the bus back up the windy road to the top of the canyon on Monday morning as he’d planned, didn’t catch the train to Los Mochis that he was supposed to be on that evening, and missed his flight to Mexico City on Tuesday afternoon.
Given that he’d had spotty reception throughout the trip and that the early part of the week was supposed to have been full of traveling, his family didn’t start worrying until he didn’t show up to meet Kerry in Mexico City on Tuesday evening, Oct. 30.
Was it safe?
As his family chased leads and appealed to N.C. lawmakers for help and met with Chihuahua officials, including the governor and the attorney general, Mexican authorities scoured the surrounding area.
And even as days turned into weeks, his family remained confident that he would return alive.
“It’s hard not to have high hopes right now, just because of the resources we have and because of the contacts we’ve made,” his sister-in-law Kathleen Braxton-Andrew told the Observer on Wednesday, before learning of his death. “Not to say that we’re sitting around happy all the time either. I mean, we’re hopeful, certainly, but there’s a lot of other emotions, too — frustration, anger, sadness. Sadness that he’s not here.”
As for the question of how safe it was to be traveling in the part of Mexico where he disappeared and was apparently killed, his mother said Wednesday that the guidebook he’d used emphasized the area’s beauty and noted that most violence was contained to the cartels, not targeted at tourists.
An American couple who said they’d talked with Patrick had contacted the family, Jean Braxton said Wednesday. “And they said they never felt in danger. They said they felt very peaceful walking around in Urique. She said that of course they were noticed because they were foreigners, but she said they never had a sense of anything evil.”
Added Kerry at that time: “If you read blogs of people that have traveled there, they basically echo that.”
Mexican media outlets are reporting a wide variety of stories about Braxton-Andrew’s death, none of which seem consistent. Attempts to reach law enforcement officials in Chihuahua were unsuccessful Thursday afternoon.
The Braxton-Andrew family was not available to speak with the Observer Thursday, leaving the Facebook post’s simple message:
“Patrick died doing what he loved — traveling and meeting people.”
Charlotte Observer staff writer Cristina Bolling contributed to this report.