Brother Seeks Justice in 3rd Autopsy : Investigation: The Van Nuys resident won’t accept a suicide explanation offered by Mexican police. He says Mario Amado was slain.


The past seven months have been painful and frustrating for Joseph Amado Jr., as he doggedly tried to prove that Mexican authorities were lying when they said his brother, Mario, hanged himself in a Rosarito jail.

Until recently, it seemed to the tenacious Van Nuys resident that he would never find out what really happened to his brother in the Mexican town 20 miles south of the border.

But on Wednesday, Amado, 50, took a giant step closer to getting answers. After much wrangling with Mexican and U.S. officials, Amado accompanied representatives of both governments to his family’s plot in a graveyard outside this tiny farming town in Kings County, about 60 miles north of Bakersfield, and watched as the body of Mario Amado was exhumed.


A third autopsy, this one under federal auspices, will be performed so U.S. and Mexican authorities can try to determine once and for all whether the 29-year-old North Hollywood resident committed suicide or was killed--possibly by Mexican police, as Joe Amado suspects.

Just before the copper coffin was hoisted from its burial place under the sparse grass of the tiny farmland cemetery--as an FBI agent, an assistant U.S. attorney and four representatives of the Mexican government looked on--Amado said: “Finally, with all the proof I’ve gotten, the U.S. government has stepped in and will do what they should have done in the first place--give my brother an autopsy and get to the bottom of this.”

None of the American or Mexican authorities present would comment on the exhumation. Enrique Franco, a representative of the Mexican attorney general’s office, said only that the autopsy is needed to complete an investigation into Mario Amado’s death being conducted by both countries.

Joe Amado’s fiancee, Deborah Larson, watched from a distance as television cameras recorded the reopening of the grave.

She had been with the two brothers in Rosarito when Mario was arrested--for drunk and disorderly conduct after quarreling with a girlfriend in her condominium--on June 6, hours before he was found hanging by his sweater in his jail cell. And she has watched Joe Amado spend hours on the phone trying--at first in vain--to get U.S. and Mexican authorities to review the case.

“This is all Joe’s doing,” she said. “If it wasn’t for Joe, no one would know.”

For his part, Joe Amado said he wants to see justice done and has had plenty of time to pursue the matter, since he is unemployed. His fiancee said he is motivated by more than a quest for revenge.


“It has consumed Joe out of deep love and caring,” Larson said. “Because he was 20 years older than Mario, he thought of him as a son. They were very close.”

Amado said he hopes the third autopsy will find fibers and other evidence proving that something other than a sweater was used to hang his brother, and that the sweater was then placed around his brother’s neck as a cover-up.

The explanation by Mexican police was that Mario Amado tied his sweater to a crossbar in his cell, made a noose of a sweater arm, and hanged himself while sitting down.

Amado refused to believe that, and fought to have the body examined by independent experts in the United States. A doctor hired by Amado’s family concluded that the presence of three cups of blood in the body’s liver capsule indicated he was struck in the stomach before the hanging.

Joe Amado showed photos of a deep, narrow bruise around the dead man’s neck, such as would be inflicted by a cord or thin rope. Abrasions on his back, shoulder and scalp suggested the body had been dragged into the cell before the hanging, Joe Amado said.

On Oct. 16, Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, Los Angeles County chief medical examiner-coroner, evaluated the first two autopsies and concluded that Mario Amado apparently died of blunt force trauma to the abdomen and neck wounds that were probably caused by something much thinner than a sweater. Noting that Amado was struck so hard in the stomach that he bled internally, Sathyavagiswaran said Amado was probably too injured to hang himself, and that “there is enough evidence to suspect death at the hands of another.”


Those findings prompted Rep. Howard Berman--brought into the case by Joe Amado--to conclude that “something terribly wrong happened,” as Berman said in a letter to Mexican officials.

Berman (D-Panorama City), wrote directly to Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, asking him to order a thorough investigation. Mexican authorities subsequently began a review of the case and recently asked the FBI to help them interview witnesses in the United States.

On Wednesday, after the body was exhumed, it was taken to the Kings County medical examiner’s office, where it will be autopsied. Amado drove to the office in Hanford to formally identify the body as his brother’s, a legal requirement.

He had to brace himself. The body could have been badly decomposed. “It has to be done,” he said. “Whoever killed him has to pay the price, and I’m willing to do anything to get justice for him . . . I’m sure he would have wanted it this way.”

The identification process was over in an instant. As Amado emerged from the morgue, he appeared shaken, grasping a handrail for support, but managed a smile and a joke.

The exhumation and investigation alone will not satisfy him, he said. He hopes to interest Amnesty International and President Clinton in the case, and eventually take legal action against Mexican officials.


“I’m on the phone constantly. I won’t let them get away with this,” he said. “Right now, I’m dedicating my life to the truth.”