MILWAUKEE -- John and Ginny McGowan sat in the lobby of the Iberostar Paraiso del Mar on the beach just north of Playa del Carmen, Mexico. A warm breeze provided a welcome break from the cold and damp Wisconsin winter.
They talked about what they might eat for dinner, thankful they wouldn’t have to cook or even get in a cab. The five-star all-inclusive resort featured multiple dining options — from Mexican fare to Brazilian barbecue, as well as a sports bar, a variety of buffets and beach grills. They decided to wait and ask the kids what they felt like eating.
It was 7 p.m. The two would be getting to the lobby any minute.
The family had arrived at the hotel a couple of hours earlier, quickly settling into their two rooms — Abbey Conner, 20, and her big brother, Austin Conner, 22, on the first floor; their mom and stepdad in a room directly above. Abbey and Austin headed to the pool. They sat on stools at the swim-up bar and toasted the completion of final exams with a couple shots of tequila.
Austin had one more semester to go before graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Abbey had just finished the first semester of her junior year at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She was thinking of a future in business, maybe specializing in human resources.
Ginny and John joined them a short time later after a quick walk on the beach. Ginny ordered a frozen strawberry drink and they relaxed poolside watching the two swim.
Both were strong swimmers. Growing up on Pewaukee Lake, they spent plenty of time in and around the water.
Abbey climbed out of the pool, went to the bathroom and then walked with Ginny over to a little hut to look at clothes, hats and souvenirs for sale.
All seemed well.
It was about 5:30, maybe 5:45. John and Ginny decided to head back to their room to get dressed for dinner.
They would meet the kids in the lobby at 7. That was the plan. They had all agreed.
Music blared as the McGowans waited. They don’t recall what was playing, just that it was loud and a few people were dancing in the middle of the lobby. Fifteen minutes passed. Then a half hour. There was an hour time difference between Wisconsin and Playa del Carmen. Maybe the kids were confused. Their cellphones weren’t getting service, so Ginny went to the desk to ask hotel staff to please call the kids’ room.
The woman behind the desk appeared flustered. She went to get a manager. They asked where Ginny’s husband was. She needed to get him and they needed to hurry. There had been an accident, the hotel workers told them.
Abbey and Austin were at a hospital.
They had both been found unconscious, face down in the pool.
* * *
Hospiten Riviera Maya is a small medical center about 14 miles away. It’s not the biggest emergency care center in Playa del Carmen. Nor is it the closest to Iberostar’s cluster of resorts on the northern stretch of the beach, which includes Paraiso del Mar.
When the McGowans arrived, Austin was sedated. Doctors said he was stable. He had a golf-ball sized lump on his forehead and had suffered a severe concussion. But he had been conscious. He would be OK.
The outlook for Abbey was not so good. She was on a ventilator. Unresponsive. No reflexes to light, touch or pain. She was in a coma. And her collarbone was cracked.
“Anoxic brain injury” and “Cerebral edema,” medical reports would later read.
Lack of oxygen to the brain and cerebral inflammation.
Doctors were preparing to move her to a hospital in Cancun. From there, she was flown to Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
After a couple of days of testing, doctors in the U.S. confirmed what those in Mexico had concluded. Abbey was brain-dead.
Abbey had made it clear years earlier when she got her driver's license that she wanted to donate her organs when she died.
On Jan. 12, her family decided to withdraw life support.
* * *
Six months later, the family still doesn’t know what happened. Barely two hours at an exclusive resort they had booked thinking it was the safest way to enjoy the beaches of Mexico, and Abbey was dead.
They’ve been searching for answers ever since — and getting little information, if any, from anybody. Not the resort, the police, the medics or the doctors, and not the FBI.
Maybe it was an “accidental drowning” as Abbey’s death certificate says. But the McGowans aren't certain.
Did both Abbey and Austin get so drunk in one hour before meeting their parents for dinner that Abbey drowned in chest-deep water, unnoticed by staff or tourists? Did everyone just disappear that quickly? Where were the witnesses?
The last thing Austin remembers was talking to a couple at the bar. There was a group of young guys around as well, doing flips into the pool and drinking. When they invited him and Abbey to join the group in doing a shot, they all drank one together. And that was it.
Austin doesn’t know what was in the shot. It looked like a “Jägerbomb” — a shot of Jägermeister commonly mixed with beer or Red Bull — but he couldn’t be sure. He and Abbey had already had four or five tequila shots.
His next memory is of waking up in the ambulance.
“I’ve been in college for five years and had my fair share of drinks before," he said. "No way in hell I’m putting my face down in a pool and going to sleep.”
He said neither he nor Abbey had taken any type of relaxant or other pills on the plane or once in Mexico. And although they had smoked marijuana in the U.S., they had not smoked anything in Mexico.
At 6-foot-2 and 155 pounds, he can’t imagine that he was that drunk. He didn’t feel it, anyway. They were getting ready to eat with their parents. They weren’t trying to get wrecked.
“Knowing that we got played or are victims of some sick person drugging us is almost surreal,” he said.
Toxicology reports from the Playa del Carmen medical clinic show his blood-alcohol level was 0.26, more than three times the limit considered by Wisconsin law to be impaired.
Abbey’s was 0.25.
Blood-alcohol content of 0.25 and higher can cause severe drowsiness, confusion, vomiting, slurred speech, lack of balance, loss of motor skills, even to the point of inability to stand or walk, and unconsciousness.
At 130 pounds, she would have to drink about seven shots in one hour to have a level that high.
“Somebody had to slip them some type of drug,” said Bill Conner, Austin and Abbey’s father. Conner lives just outside Madison; he was not at the resort.
The blood tests didn’t detect any opioids, cocaine or benzodiazepines typically associated with date-rape drugs, though the panel didn’t test for every type.
What would the motive be for drugging the kids, anyway, the McGowans wonder? They weren’t robbed. It doesn’t appear as though they were sexually assaulted. Ginny asked the Cancun hospital to conduct a rape test. The doctor said they did but there’s no documentation included in the materials given to the McGowans.
Could it have been a botched kidnapping attempt? Possibly, but it seems like kidnappers would do better to just snatch someone from the street rather than going into an exclusive resort, the McGowans reasoned.
* * *
At least two blog postings from other travelers who visited Iberostar’s nearby sister resorts in Playa del Carmen in the last two years report eerily similar incidents, though nobody died.
In one case, a husband and wife celebrating 13 years of marriage were sitting on the beach at Iberostar Paraiso Maya, in the same cluster of resorts where the del Mar is, in January 2015. The woman said she ordered two mojitos from the bar. Her husband had three beers.
They were talking to a couple who said they were from Oregon. They all ordered another drink and within a few minutes she began seeing black spots and told her husband something wasn’t right. Then she blacked out. She remembers being on the bathroom floor, vomiting and feeling like she was dying.
The next thing either of them recalls is waking up in their hotel room, more than five hours later. Her husband’s hand was broken. Neither had any idea what happened. Their belongings were still on the beach. They had not been robbed.
“I felt as if I had just been terrorized but did not know how and by who,” she wrote in her posting on the website, mexicovacationawareness.com. “I knew we came close to something evil, we were grateful to be alive, but filled with fear not knowing who did this to us.”
She said when they reported the incident to the resort staff, they were told to go to the hospital and to take cash.
* * *
When Abbey and Austin’s stepdad, John, and Austin hired a translator and went to file a police report a few days later, they say the police resisted launching an investigation, insisting it was an accidental drowning. How could they say that without at least interviewing the hotel staff who found them, the family wondered.
When they left the police department they weren’t certain whether any investigation would be done.
Within weeks, the McGowans hired an American law firm with a sister office in Mexico to help get answers. On Monday, they received their attorney’s report.
It raises even more questions.
On May 30, an attorney in Mexico inquired at the police department and found they had done a limited investigation. Police had interviewed three hotel staffers. The attorney’s report doesn’t say when the interviews took place.
The McGowans' American attorney, Florentino Ramirez, said he puts little credence in the police report.
"It's all too convenient," he said. "If it was an accident, where was everybody? It just doesn't make sense. There are too many open ends."
He suspects there could have been a fight, maybe with another guest or with hotel staff, that Austin cannot remember. "He gets hit over the head and goes down. That happens in 15 seconds. ... That's one possibility."
The police report did not contain any statements from hotel guests, the bartender or a woman who reportedly alerted hotel staff after seeing Abbey and Austin having trouble getting out of the pool. It does not contain key details from the medical clinic that received Abbey and Austin by ambulance.
The statements from the three staffers — the pool manager and two security guards — all indicate they arrived on the scene, pulled the kids from the water and performed CPR on Abbey. She was unconscious with a low pulse and spitting up foam from her nose and mouth as they tried to revive her, they all said.
Austin was going under and began moving and spitting up water as they pulled him out, they said.
Abbey “was seen” drunk at 7:03 sitting on the edge of the pool, they said, where the water was less than 4-feet deep. The report does not say who actually saw the brother and sister. It also notes security guards were nearby, 20 to 30 seconds away.
This doesn’t make sense to the McGowans for a number of reasons.
They were in the lobby at 7. If two people were being transported by ambulance, wouldn’t there be some commotion? Then again, maybe there was a back route out.
What about video surveillance? Is it true the hotel doesn’t have or use video cameras around the pool, as resort officials told John? Why won’t the resort help them get answers, let them interview the bartender and other guests?
What’s especially upsetting to the family is that Iberostar not only won’t answer their questions, nobody from the hotel ever reached out to say they’re sorry about the family’s loss.
“They did not seem to think this was serious,” Ginny said.
An Iberostar representative didn’t immediately provide answers to questions from the Journal Sentinel.
Ginny said when she reached out to the local FBI in Milwaukee she was told the agency could not help them. Crimes on foreign soil are out of their jurisdiction, she recalled someone from the office telling her.
Leonard Peace, a spokesman for the local branch of the FBI, had no comment on this case. But he said the agency follows up on all complaints, depending on the facts presented. He said the office might also refer someone who is a victim of a crime in a foreign country to the U.S. State Department.
“They were very unhelpful,” Ginny said of the FBI. “They did not tell me to file a written complaint or to contact the State Department.”
Staffers in U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s office tried to help but hit a dead end early on when they reached out to the U.S. State Department and officials there said that without a police report, there was nothing to pursue.
The McGowans just saw the police report for the first time this week.
Bill Conner, Abbey’s dad, still hasn’t seen it. On Monday, he completed a more than 2,500-mile bike ride from Madison to the hospital in Fort Lauderdale, where Abbey spent her final days. The weeks he spent pedaling helped him work through some of his grief and at the same time raise awareness about the importance of organ donation. All of Abbey's uninjured organs were donated.
"I still can't believe this happened," Conner said. "I'm still waiting for my daughter to walk through the door. This couldn't have happened ... in the middle of the bar, two adults, floating in the pool long enough to drown."
He took a slight detour along the way to stop in Baton Rouge, La.
That's where Loumonth Jack Jr., lives. The 21-year-old was the recipient of Abbey’s heart.