By SAM DILLON
MEXICO CITY --
When Frederick Mc Phail Jr., a 27-year-old New York University
graduate student, was found dead here at dawn last fall in his parked car, reeking of alcohol,
only his family knew something was outrageously wrong with official accounts of his death.
The police said
he had drowned in his own vomit after a late-night binge with liquor and
his family knew Mc Phail as a virtual teetotaler. At his last dinner, on Nov. 17 during a visit here, he
drank one beer and three Diet Cokes.
this usually disappear, unclarified, into the Mexican Government's chaotic
the frustrations of a society fed up with police corruption and ineptitude. But with Mexico City in the
hands of a reform government that is seeking to root out police graft, this case ended differently.
detective checked Mc Phail's bank records and found cash withdrawals from
automatic teller machines all over Mexico City in the hours before his death. That led to another
stunning discovery. Videotape from bank security cameras showed three men withdrawing Mc
Phail's money, all of them Mexico City police officers. One was wearing his bullet-proof vest, his
badge number visible.
investigation came to a climax the other day with the arrest and indictment
officers for Mc Phail's death. The authorities said the officers forced Mc Phail to drink an entire
bottle of liquor to make him incapable of identifying them as the assailants who stole his bank cards.
Prosecutors have identified a dozen other victims, including three foreign tourists, who they believe
were victimized by the same rogue officers.
The case has
attracted special attention here because the murdered student's father,
Phail Sr., a wealthy American businessman who lives in Mexico, bought newspaper advertisments
calling his son "one more victim of the violence" here. Mc Phail Sr. says the ads have brought an
outpouring of public outrage, with 250 Mexicans and Americans telephoning him, many describing
their own victimization by the police.
Mc Phail Sr.
has formed a nonprofit association, called Fredy Protects, that he says
will seek to help
"This case shows
how corruption and police violence have just become rampant in Mexico,"
in an interview.
of Mc Phail Jr. in the advertisement shows a handsome athletic man with
easygoing smile. Born in Mexico City to American parents, Mc Phail attended high school at the
Kent School in Kent, Conn.
a lot to our school," Don Gowan, Kent's former dean of students, said in
phone interview. "He was outgoing, had a great sense of humor, just a super personality."
The younger Mc
Phail studied business administration at Universidad Iberoamericana in
City. After receiving his B.A. in 1994, he moved to Jersey City, commuting to Murray Hill in
Manhattan to work as a planner for a shipping company.
In 1997, he married
an analyst for a Manhattan brokerage firm and last spring began attending
banking courses at New York University's School of Continuing Education. Enrolling in the fall in a
graduate finance program, he returned to Mexico City to pick up his college transcripts, his father
On Nov. 17, the
night before his scheduled return to New York, he dined out with his father
brother. The three left the restaurant at 11:15 P.M., and Mc Phail drove off into the Mexico City
His body was
found the next morning, slumped in his car a few blocks away. Forensic
found high levels of alcohol in his blood.
detectives assumed that he had got wildly drunk in the red light district,
but the case was
not dropped. Examination of his bank records showed several automated withdrawals totaling about
$800 before his death, and investigators subpoenaed videos from the banks. The photos showed
three men huddled around the cash machines, including a uniformed officer whose badge number
identified him as Lucio Tapia Galindo. Police records showed that on Nov. 17 he had been assigned
to a patrol car alongside Francisco León González.
falling on the police, the case was transferred to a special anti-corruption
by Hugo Vera Reyes, the prosecutor whose investigation of fraud last year in a computer
procurement contract led I.B.M. de México to repay $37.5 million to the city treasury.
files, Vera's investigators turned up a June 1998 complaint by a Salvador
Prieto, who said he had been seized by police officers who stole his bank cards and forced him to
drink five tumblers of vodka. The officers were later tentatively identified as Tapia and León.
The detail about
the vodka led investigators to search through hundreds of case files, identifying
other victims who had complained of being pulled over by patrol cars, compelled to drive to parking
garages or vacant lots, robbed of their bank cards, and forced to guzzle large amounts of cheap
liquor. The victims included tourists from Germany, Brazil and Norway.
Some were beaten
with nightsticks to force them to drink, but most agreed after psychological
pressure, Vera said in an interview.
of the investigation, Tapia and León abandoned their patrol car
on Dec. 7, leaving
behind uniforms and service revolvers, Vera said. They fled north, crossed illegally into the United
States, and found construction work in Florence, Tex. Investigators who befriended their wives
tracked their movements, and Mexican detectives traveled to Texas and photographed Tapia, León
and three other Mexico City officers living in a trailer park. The other officers were also traced to
Mc Phail's murder and other crimes, Vera said.
The rogue officers
were deported by American authorities, arrested and charged with Mc Phail's
murder and multiple counts of robbery.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company