An 81-year-old Oxnard man suffering from prostate cancer is being held in a Tijuana prison on a federal drug trafficking charge after allegedly buying a large quantity of sedatives, and members of his family says they are afraid he will die there.
George Murl, a retired car salesman, has been in custody since May 24, when police said he purchased 600 tablets of Ribotril, similar to Valium in the United States, near the Mexico-U.S. border.
Murl was being held without bail Wednesday at La Mesa State Penitentiary pending trial on a charge of possessing drugs with intent to sell. Relatives say Murl cannot wait out the three to six months it could take for his case to come before a judge because he needs chemotherapy and other medical attention.
Phil Egger, chief of U.S. Consular Services in Tijuana, declined to give details but said his office has been working with local authorities for several days to assist Murl.
Liliana Sheridan, a spokeswoman at La Mesa prison, said a doctor had examined Murl earlier in the day and was recommending that he be moved.
Murl regularly crossed the border for cut-rate drugs because he is on a fixed income and the medication helps relieve muscle spasms, said Murl's ex-wife, Rose Burgess. She and Murl's relatives are demanding he be released until his court date, or at least be hospitalized so he can receive medical attention.
"This is an ill man. Hopefully, we can get him out of Mexico and into a VA hospital in the next few days," Burgess said.
Officials with the American Consulate in Tijuana were working to have Murl transferred to a Mexican hospital, possibly by Wednesday night, according to a pastor who has been helping Murl's family.
Murl is haggard and refusing to eat, said Pastor Dave Walden, who saw the World War II Navy diver Tuesday. He was alert, but in pain and coughing up blood, Walden said.
"George is very, very ill," said the San Diego-based minister who visits prisoners. "His body is shutting down. He needs this medical treatment immediately."
Murl lives in Oxnard with Burgess, who has remained close with her former husband since their divorce. But Murl was preparing to move to Akron, Ohio, where he has several relatives, Burgess said.
Murl told Walden he usually buys a one-month supply of drugs but purchased more because of his upcoming move. He told the pastor he had parked his car just north of the border and walked to a row of waiting taxicabs in Tijuana.
It is common for taxi drivers to offer rides to Americans interested in buying cheap prescription drugs from the hundreds of pharmacies situated just south of the border, Walden said.
Murl told Walden the driver purchased the drugs and then delivered them to Murl near the border, the pastor said. The elderly man then went to a restaurant for a meal and was arrested by Mexican police, Walden said.
Murl had an outdated Mexican prescription for a one-month's supply of Ribotril, about 90 pills, when he was arrested, Walden said.
Walden said Murl was initially taken to La Ocho Jail in Tijuana, where he was forced to stand in a 10-by-10 cell with 30 other men for two days before being transferred to the state penitentiary. On Tuesday, he had his own room but was weakening, Walden said.
"His face is drawn, and he has not eaten for over 10 days," Walden said. "That's his choice. He's very upset, because he said he is being treated as less than an animal."
Other inmates have nicknamed Murl "Grandpa" and have taken turns visiting him to keep his spirits up, Walden said. The pastor said he knows of five other Americans in custody on charges of transporting drugs after attempting to purchase controlled substances without a prescription.
"This is not unusual," Walden said. "But he got into this situation because of the high cost of living here in California. He just could not afford to pay the cost of the Valium supply."
A spokeswoman for the Sepulveda Ambulatory Care and Nursing Home confirmed that Murl is enrolled as an outpatient there. But she declined to give details of his condition and treatment, citing patient privacy rules.
"I can tell you that we have sent information to the U.S. Consulate in Mexico at Mr. Murl's request," Beverly Fitzgerald said.
Burgess said Murl is receiving chemotherapy on an outpatient basis and is due for another treatment. Murl's veteran's benefits cover prescription drugs, but not the entire cost, she said.
Murl has been assigned a Mexican public defender, but his family is looking for a private attorney to win his release soon.
"My wish is to see him in a U.S. hospital where he can be cared for and eat and live again," Burgess said.