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Woman Probes Mystery of Son’s Death in Tijuana

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The friends and teachers of aspiring screenwriter Patrick Sean Kelly had always believed he was touched by destiny. And no small part of his genius, it seemed to them, lay in the candor and eloquence with which he confronted the loneliness of growing up a Canadian Indian adopted into a Caucasian world.

Sean was still in his early teens when his journals signaled his gifts as a writer. One of his high school English compositions on cinema was described as “brilliant.” An instructor at the prestigious USC film school called the 22-year-old junior “a star on the rise.”

But any dreams that he might ever bring his hard-won insights to the silver screen were laid to rest May 26 when his adoptive mother, Terri Kelly, identified her son’s bruised body on a cold slab in the Tijuana morgue.

The discovery has opened a Pandora’s box of questions about the accident that supposedly killed her son.

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The shifting maze of official explanations offered by Mexican police has been riddled with contradictions. They have said Kelly was run over by a car, hit by a motorcycle, or was riding on a motorcycle that was hit by a car. That he died after six days in a coma or minutes after arriving at the hospital. And no one knows who used his ATM card and car--after he was supposedly dead.

Other enigmas revolve around Kelly. Why did he go to Tijuana without telling his best friend, with whom he partied hours earlier? His friends say Kelly was known to slip off for lone jaunts, sometimes as far as Las Vegas, that he said provided fodder for his screenwriting. They also said he had a low tolerance for alcohol.

The death of a child in a foreign country--with a different language and legal system--is a nightmare for any parent.

What most troubles Terri Kelly is simply not knowing what happened. The uncertainty haunts her every waking hour, and finding out has become her mission.

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“Dealing with the loss of a child is impossible,” Kelly said. “Trying to find out what happened to him has made me a nervous wreck. . . . I don’t think the pain will ever diminish.”

Moreover, the conviction with which Mexican police cling to their conflicting report has led her to suspect foul play.

She wants the Canadian government to use its influence, as a partner with Mexico in the North American Free Trade Agreement, to obtain an independent investigation.

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“I don’t want the Tijuana authorities to have anything to do with it,” said Kelly, 49, a Wyoming native who works as a consultant for Indian land claims in Edmonton, the capital of Alberta province. “I think the Baja California authorities were involved in his death or a cover-up.”

Mexican authorities flatly deny any wrongdoing, although they acknowledge bureaucratic bungling in the trail of police and traffic reports that have gone into Kelly’s file.

The mystery of her son’s death has made it impossible for Kelly to bury him. The Los Angeles County coroner’s office has agreed to conduct an autopsy and to collect tissue samples that will be saved for any future investigation. This will cost Kelly, who has already exhausted her $25,000 life savings on her search, another $3,000. Once the autopsy has been performed, Sean Kelly’s remains can be cremated. But the search, his mother said, will go on.

The Kelly case poses difficulties of another sort for Canada’s diplomats, who must make judgment calls without the benefit of their own police investigators.

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Canadian diplomats say they plan to present a list of “unanswered questions” to the Mexican government in late July, but they charge no wrongdoing. “Our preliminary conclusion is that he was hit crossing the road and died as a result of that,” said Colin Stewart, a spokesman for the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa.

Since the discovery of Sean Kelly’s body, versions of his death have mutated like a virus.

Baja California state judicial police first told Canadian diplomats that Kelly was in a motorcycle accident May 5 and then run over by a car. Then they said he was not run over--that victim was someone else nearby. Two witnesses told a Canadian diplomat that they saw the motorcycle hit Kelly--though one, Victor Sanchez, now says he never saw the victim’s face and could not be sure it was Kelly. The official June 18 report by the state judicial police says Sean died within 20 minutes of arriving at the hospital--and that he was the motorcycle’s passenger.

That version only compounds the confusion because the American driver of the motorcycle says his passenger was a Mexican, Octavio Valenzuela, who is still alive.

In the process, the man identified by police as Sean has appeared on paperwork as Unknown, Octavio--and recently, Luis Rodriguez. He still bore that name when Terri Kelly showed up at the morgue with a Long Beach private investigator, Doug Roth, although the family of the real Luis Rodriguez had already appeared and indicated that the body was not Rodriguez’s, diplomats said.

An independent autopsy report commissioned by Kelly said Sean’s body had multiple bruises but bore no injuries to support the official accounts or confirm the Mexican autopsy’s conclusions. “Findings do not support an interpretation that death was caused by a motor vehicle accident,” Dr. James May, a Los Angeles pathologist, concluded in his July 8 report.

Daniel Hirsch Gonzalez, the Tijuana police operative who wrote the state judicial police report, said any official inconsistencies reflect confusion, not a whitewash. “This was not a homicide,” Hirsch said. “That is a figment of the private investigator’s imagination. He is putting ideas into the family’s head to make money.”

The credibility of the Mexican police was not enhanced, Roth said, when a homicide division supervisor suggested to him that the investigation could be expedited if he was willing to pay.

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Nor did it inspire confidence when police, according to diplomats, informally alleged that Sean was involved in narcotics traffic. They have since dropped the issue.

Terri Kelly said she was incensed when this was repeated to her by Dale Chisholm, a Canadian foreign affairs department official responsible for Mexican consular operations.

“They were trying to force me to back off,” she said. “He told me that if I go public, the Mexican police would have to release information that my son was a well-known drug dealer. I said go ahead, but they’ll have to answer who was the drug dealer--Octavio, John Doe, or Luis Rodriguez.”

Canadian officials denied that they tried to intimidate Kelly.

“That anybody implied a threat was never any part of our discussion,” spokesman Colin Stewart said. And the drug rumors? “That’s the kind of detail we’d rather keep between us and the family,” he said.

Terri Kelly said she had no idea that her son had even been in Tijuana until bank records allowed her and Roth to follow a trail of transactions on Sean’s ATM card. A full 16 hours after the May 5 motorcycle accident, his ATM card was used to withdraw $114.77 from a Tijuana bank, clearing out his bank account and leaving it $17 overdrawn.

Records at a San Ysidro parking lot, where Sean apparently left his car May 4, show that somebody paid $60 of accumulated fees May 15, drove the car away and returned it a day later, U.S. and Mexican police say.

Los Angeles police, alerted to his disappearance, collected samples of what appeared to be blood from the car. But they closed their missing-persons investigation once Sean’s body was found, saying that his death was not in their jurisdiction.

The American driver of the motorcycle, Tony Waara, has his own account of the accident. Waara, a May graduate of San Diego State University who lives in Tijuana, declined to speak to reporters directly, but agreed to answer questions through his mother, Katherine Waara, a San Diego County probation department employee who lives in Clairemont.

As soon as he regained consciousness May 5, Waara said, he was lifted out of bed and taken to jail by Mexican police officers. Diplomats said Waara reportedly paid 10,000 pesos--about $1,335--in bail and administrative fees. Waara said he handed over $2,000 and was told that he could not get his motorcycle back until he scraped together at least $500 more.

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His passenger, Waara said, was a Mexican named Octavio, which matches hospital admission records and a Tijuana municipal police accident report written at 1:30 a.m.

Octavio spent five or six days in the hospital, the Waaras said. He came out with his jaw wired and still needs considerable dental work, they said.

Waara told his mother that he has no idea who they hit as they sped down a dark, narrow stretch of the four-lane Internacional avenue that is rarely frequented by pedestrians--except those seeking to cross the U.S. border illegally. The official police report said the pedestrian suffered only light injuries, and the investigator assumed that he was a Mexican attempting to cross the border.

“No Canadian would have been out there walking around at that time of night,” said Hirsch, the investigator.

Since the investigation, Hirsch has been transferred to an operations division. A second officer whose signature appears on the report, Trinidad Camberos, said he had nothing to do with the accident investigation. And their supervisor, J. Cesar Guzman, has been transferred to a neighborhood substation.

Death in Tijuana was not the fate anyone envisioned for Sean, who seemed more focused than ever last semester. He had avoided drinking anything stronger than Coca-Cola since a fraternity party drinking binge had sent him to the hospital in the fall, friends said.

Two days before he disappeared, Christopher Knopf gave Sean an A in his advanced screenwriting class for a moving drama about the relationship between a father and son--something Sean had never known.

“He had the incredible insight of someone caught between two worlds,” said Knopf, a professional screen and television writer and a past president of the Writers Guild of America, West. “He could look from the inside out and the outside in. It was extraordinary.”

Sean acquired that bittersweet gift when he was adopted by Kelly, a U.S. citizen living in Canada, as an 18-month-old baby of the Blood tribe, a member of the Blackfoot confederacy. His coming of age was an often solitary odyssey. Like The Invisible Man in Ralph Ellison’s classic novel on the black American experience, Sean always felt his racial distinctiveness hid his humanity from the white mainstream.

In the Caucasian suburbs of Edmonton, whites only accepted him “at a sort of mascot level,” Kelly wrote in the essay that sealed his acceptance into the USC film school undergraduate screenwriting division, a highly competitive program that accepts only 24 students worldwide.

“I don’t know why we dwell on the thickness of lips, the structure of cheekbones, or the color of skin, but as we separate and form into teams, I want to be on one,” Kelly wrote. “Everywhere I went I felt like an outsider.”

His careful attempts to avoid negative stereotypes of Indians heightened the painful self-consciousness of adolescence. “I could not drink as my friends did because no matter how many drunk whites surrounded me, I would be seen as another pathetic Indian,” he wrote. “They did not understand or respect my race. My physical differences made the females around me wary, which was at the core of my need to be with my own kind.”

Kelly apparently found a sense of mission at USC, writing about an experience that he feared might otherwise defeat him. “If I am violent toward everyone that disrespects me, I will be fighting for the rest of my life,” he wrote in his application. “I’ve decided to release my anger through writing.”

Sean also found some sense of belonging at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, though the college keg parties sometimes posed difficulties for someone who friends said was unusually sensitive to the effects of alcohol.

At one party in the fall 1995 semester, Kelly took a large handful of sedatives and drank heavily, according to his best friend and fraternity brother, Mike Park. He was taken to the hospital and had his stomach pumped, Park said.

“When he drank he was a different person,” Park, 20, said. “I think it was a suicide attempt. He was depressed or lonely. He was calling for help.”

His roommate at the time, Elias Cervantes, 22, interpreted the incident as simply “way too much partying.” Sean spent the last three weeks of the semester in Canada. When he returned, Cervantes said, Sean mainly drank Diet Coke.

Tijuana hospital records for the patient said to be Sean did not mention any alcohol or drugs. His advanced state of decomposition and his embalming by Mexican authorities would cloud the reliability of tests for drug or alcohol in his system, May said. The pathologist said he was not asked to conduct such tests.

Sean did not tell his friends that he was planning to go to Tijuana, though he and Park partied together at the House of Blues into the wee hours of May 4, the day he took off.

“He was a writer, so he used to do kind of oddball things sometimes,” Park said. “He used to say he wanted to suck the marrow out of life, and really experience it.”

The last sighting of Sean alive appears on a videotape at a San Clemente convenience store that Saturday morning, Doug Roth says, with a man he may have known. His car was later parked in the San Ysidro lot, Roth said.

And a few hours later, his steps vanished into the air.

In a eulogy at a university memorial service, John Furia, the chairman of the writing division of the USC film school, said of Kelly:

“He was a writer of unusual grace. He wrote of nature, of growing things, and skies, and waters rushing. The things he loved. And he wrote in the shy intimacies of one man singing to the world in his own sweet, clear voice . . .

“That voice is still.”


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