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Accident or crime? Shocking new details emerge in death of O.C. public defender in Mexico

A man gives a thumbs-up sign while on a boat at sea.
Shown is an undated image of Elliot Blair, 33, who died Jan. 14 in Rosarito, Mexico, while celebrating his first wedding anniversary with his wife, Kimberly Williams.
(Blair family)
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The death of a deputy public defender from Orange County who was vacationing in Mexico with his wife last week has produced conflicting reports, with Mexican officials calling the death of the 33-year-old lawyer, Elliot Blair, an “unfortunate accident” while an attorney for the family said his wife was told he suffered a gunshot wound to the head.

On the night of Blair’s death, a plainclothes detective who was wearing a badge told Blair’s wife, Kimberly Williams, that Blair had suffered a gunshot wound to the head, Case Barnett, a lawyer representing the family, said Thursday.

Barnett also said that the family was informed that the district attorney had ordered Blair’s body be embalmed against the family’s wishes, which he added obstructed the family’s independent investigation and blocked efforts to disprove claims that Blair was drunk at the time of the incident.

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“We cannot get the toxicology to get our own independent information regarding [Blair’s] blood alcohol level, and the family is devastated by it,” Barnett said.

In an interview with The Times a spokesman for the Baja California attorney general disputed the family’s claims.

When officials arrived on the scene and at a subsequent autopsy, “there was no sign of violence,” the spokesman said in Spanish. He denied that there was any evidence of a gunshot wound.

Responding to the claim about embalming, he said the decision on what to do with a body “is a question for the family.” He emphasized that authorities would never suggest that a body be embalmed without consulting the victim’s family.

Mexican officials have not contacted Blair’s family directly, and the family has been working with U.S. officials to gather facts about Blair’s death, according to statements made through a family lawyer and shared on a GoFundMe page created to help with the costs of returning Blair’s remains to the United States.

The family has said the Mexican authorities’ investigation is insufficient, and they are conducting their own inquest into Blair’s death, according to their statement.

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Here’s what we know.

What happened?

Blair and his wife, Kimberly Williams, were in Rosarito, a popular tourist destination in Baja California, Mexico, celebrating their first wedding anniversary. The couple stayed at Las Rocas Resort and Spa, where they were frequent guests throughout the last five years and were familiar with the hotel’s layout, according to a family statement.

The Orange County Register, which first confirmed Blair’s death, reported that Blair’s body was found early Saturday below the third-floor balcony.

What have Mexican authorities said?

On Wednesday, Baja California Atty. Gen. Ricardo Ivan Carpio Sanchez called Blair’s fall from an open-air hallway a “very terrible case.” Carpio Sanchez said an autopsy, conducted by the Forensic Medical Service, ruled that Blair died of a traumatic brain injury, and he did not show any visible injuries from a firearm or sharp weapon.

In the fullest account offered by Mexican officials to date, Carpio Sanchez said the couple had some drinks before going to their room the night of Blair’s death. He said that as the couple prepared for bed, Blair told his wife he was going to “scare away” what he thought were pigeons making noise outside their door.

Police were notified after midnight about a death at the hotel and initially investigated it as a crime, Carpio Sanchez said, adding that the case received “its due treatment, considering every possibility of whatever could have occurred previously.”

He said that Williams was asleep in bed when a hotel employee knocked on her door and informed her of Blair’s death. Authorities interviewed Williams and several others, searched the couple’s room and found no evidence of violence, the attorney general said.

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He also said that Williams told authorities that noisy pigeons lured Blair outside their room.

Before Carpio Sanchez’s comments, which were made Wednesday to a group of reporters in Mexicali, officials with the attorney general’s office called Blair’s death the “result of an unfortunate accident from a fall by the now deceased from a third-story floor,” according to the Register.

Mexican authorities said they were investigating his death and were communicating with U.S. agencies, including the Justice Department and the FBI, who were updating Blair’s family.

What has the family said?

Blair’s family has disputed the Mexican authorities’ findings and statements, calling the death “tragic, untimely and suspicious.” The family has said it “wholeheartedly believes based on their initial investigation, that Elliot was the victim of a brutal crime.”

According to the family’s lawyer, Blair and Williams had been out to dinner at a seafood restaurant in a nearby town before returning to the hotel’s bar, where they sang karaoke and met another couple from Temecula. They went back to their room at around midnight, and Williams fell asleep while Blair took a shower, Barnettt said. Williams woke up to the sound of two hotel employees knocking on her door at around 1:40 a.m. asking her about Blair, who Williams saw was face down several floors below the couple’s third-floor hotel room.

Williams was told that police were on their way, Barnett said. She was also told by a plainclothes detective wearing a badge that Blair had a bullet wound to his head, Barnett said.

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It remains “very difficult to explain” why Blair was outside the hotel before his death, but investigators hired by the family are gathering more information, Barnett said.

The family has said it is “categorically false that Kim ever stated that Elliot exited their room that night to scare away pigeons or in response to any noise” and that “Kim was asleep at the time this incident occurred.”

In previous statements, the family has said that Blair, who was fluent in Spanish, was not intoxicated at the time of the incident, and that he was found in his underwear, his sleeping T-shirt and socks. They also said the incident occurred in the open-air walkway outside his room’s front door.

They have raised other concerns.

According to the family, Mexican officials have not reached out to them directly. Their only communication to date, on Monday, was with a representative of the local coroner’s office, who informed them that the autopsy report indicated that the cause of death was severe head trauma and that the case had been forwarded to the district attorney’s office to conduct a possible homicide investigation.

The family has also said Mexican authorities and funeral home representatives repeatedly suggested cremating Blair’s remains.

The family is leading its own investigation, including hiring a private firm and an independent forensic pathologist to conduct a medical examination.

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Blair’s remains are at a funeral home in Mexico, Barnett said.

Who was Elliot Blair?

Blair had been a deputy public defender in Orange County since 2017, the year he passed the bar exam, and handled felony cases out of the Santa Ana office.

In a statement, the family described Blair as “a brilliant attorney with a bright future.” A friend and colleague said Blair was a compassionate and clever lawyer called to represent indigent clients.

Williams, Blair’s wife, is also an Orange County public defender.

Times staff writers Terry Castleman, Nathan Solis and Hugo Martin contributed to this report.

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