The Mysterious Disappearance of Danny LaPorte
Danny LaPorte was a friendly guy from Burrillville who moved out west searching for the good life. Then one day, south of the border, he met a grisly end. Was he a victim in the Mexican drug wars? Or was he a player?
Illustration by Brian Hubble
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The scene is a cinderblock compound somewhere in Mexico, late January of this year. The camera focuses on an unshaven, middle-aged man whose eyes show nothing but cold indifference. He stands with hands clasped behind his head, the position of a prisoner. Lined up behind him is a phalanx of cops, but they’re outfitted for combat, not a neighborhood beat. They wear helmets and Kevlar vests and grip automatic rifles with both hands. Masks conceal their faces. Gathered in the foreground is a gaggle of newsmen, waving microphones and shouting questions. This YouTube video is a police press conference, one unlike any held in the United States. The cops are announcing the capture of one of Tijuana’s most wanted, Santiago Meza López, alias “El Pozolero,” a moniker that translates as “The Stewmaker.” An officer prods him with a gun, and he begins to brusquely describe his crimes.
This is Mexico as revealed on the Internet. Turn on MTV and you’ll still see umbrella drinks and spring break beach parties. But go online, and you’ll find a country ripped apart by a vicious street war, one that has claimed more than 8,000 lives in two years’ time. The combatants are underworld cartels vying for control of the multi-billion-dollar business of moving marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine across the border. And two years ago the Mexican military stepped into the fray, joining forces with the federal police in their effort to stamp out the enterprise. In the Digital Age, anyone can record and report the violence, and so the blood spilled in the street often splatters onto computer screens. You’ll find pictures and clips shot in the aftermath of street gun battles and assassinations, and mp3s of folk songs celebrating the ferocity of a drug lord. (Often, the criminals commission these tunes.) Crime buffs and amateur video-graphers are responsible for many of the postings, but in this war even hit men carry cameras and laptops. What better way to intimidate the next possible target? One notorious online video (sometimes posted with the title “Lazcano, You’re Next”) shows gangsters taunting and beating a victim bound to chair, and then beheading him with a wire garrote. Countless viewers watched or downloaded the clip before it disappeared from YouTube.
Filmed by journalists, the footage of El Pozolero’s press conference contains no graphic violence, but it is nonetheless the stuff of nightmares. While the suspect speaks only Spanish, the post includes written text in English, and there are several more accounts elsewhere on the Web. He’s employed, he says, by Teodoro Garcia Simental, an underworld upstart who’s waging a vicious campaign to take over the Tijuana end of the drug smuggling trade. The suspect’s nickname — El Pozolero — is a tribute to his handiwork. His job is making stew. The recipe: a large vat of boiling water, two bags of lye, and the bodies of those who have somehow offended his boss. When the cooking is done, very little remains beyond teeth, fingernails and a few slivers of bone. This is sometimes done to hide evidence of murder; more often, it’s done to make murder more terrifying. Plastic industrial barrels of the human broth are left in public places, with notes that mock and threaten the enemies of Garcia Simental. El Pozolero says the number of corpses he’s disposed of this way tops 300.
After several minutes of questions, the police abruptly end the press conference. They lead the suspect to an armored van and shove him inside. He leaves without naming a single victim, and their identities remain unknown. With perhaps one exception.
Spread out across fifty-seven square miles, Burrillville is one of the largest towns in Rhode Island, and one of the most rural. It’s a blue-collar paradise free of snob pretensions. The streets are lined with millhouses, cottages, ranch homes, and here and there a regal Victorian chopped into apartments. You’ll see Harley Davidsons and fishing boats parked in driveways, and deer antlers are an accepted item for decorating a home. It’s a long way from the bloody chaos unfolding in Mexico and most folks here would likely know little about it — if Daniel LaPorte had never left town.
Ask around, though, and despite the tragedy most still smile when they hear his name. LaPorte, it seems, was a small town character straight out of Mayberry, the big kid with a wisecrack for everyone. All the same, when townies talk, their answers are usually brief, and they speak with a prickly tone that makes clear they’re not entirely comfortable with the questions.
“He was no monster,” one friend says defensively. “He loved to joke, loved to laugh. He was a ball buster, that’s for sure, but always in a good spirited way. You’d get the shirt off his back if he thought you needed it.”
At George’s Pizza, where LaPorte worked for several years, the cashier points to a computer print-out that includes his picture. “We put up this poster for a benefit for his family,” she explains. “The show was months ago, but we’ll probably never take it down.”
“He was well liked, had lots of friends,” a local merchant adds. “I guess he was just more willing to take chances than most of us.”
When Dan LaPorte disappeared while on a mysterious weekend trip to Mexico, there were big headlines on the West Coast. In New England, however, news outfits have yet to report a single word. Nor are they likely to do so, as his family and many of his friends are now refusing to be interviewed. No matter. The story has already traveled up and down the townie grapevine. Bargain Buyer, the local shopper that advertises Bob’s Rototilling and Pigs! All Sizes!, was full of notices when his twenty-eighth birthday rolled around last February. At least one friend stepped into Pascoag Tattoo to have a small remembrance etched onto his forearm. And as happens in Mexico, the local gossip has been splashed across the Internet, on MySpace and Facebook and online message forums, the true information sites for the generation that’s abandoned newsprint. Fit the pieces together, and a horrifying picture takes shape. “It’s movie stuff,” one of LaPorte’s high school buddies wrote on MySpace. “But it really happened.”
LaPorte — Big Dan to pals — stood six feet, one inch, and weighed nearly 300 pounds when he played defensive lineman for the Burrillville High football team. When he graduated in 2000 he was still casting about for some direction. In the yearbook he left a simple question mark in the spot where others listed their ambitions, and for several years that seemed to sum up his life. Former classmates left for college, joined the military, or found jobs far away from Burrillville, but he stayed put, living in his parents’ house and working at George’s Pizza, just a half mile away.
He became something of a clotheshorse. A cashier at George’s remembers the ribbing he endured over his shoe collection. And football remained a passion; he joined a flag league for adult players. Another favorite activity was smoking pot — but that hardly set him apart among his peers. In Burrillville there are other kids who ﬂaunt their appetite for weed. The same tattoo shows up on a lot of skin: a red silhouette of a dwarfish maniac wielding an axe. That’s the Hatchet Man, the logo of the white rap band Insane Clown Posse, whose lyrics celebrate drive-in movie gore and extol the consumption of marijuana.