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Professor Encourages Spring Break Safety On Anniversary Of Life-Altering Event

Feb. 24, 2014
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt
Story By: Amy Barnett

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Ryan Fenley
In many ways, Ryan Fenley's life's work has been driven by the experience of losing a friend who was kidnapped in Mexico 25 years ago. He minored in criminal justice at SHSU and now works in the hospitality and tourism industry; he has also dedicated a portion of his life to educating students on the dangers of traveling in Mexico. —Photo by Brian Blalock

As college students across the country and Sam Houston look forward to spring break, many are making plans for a weeklong getaway. It’s a chance to leave studies behind, hang out with friends and possibly visit a new destination.

It’s no secret that for Texas college students and others, Mexico has been a hotspot for spring breakers, whether it’s a trip to a resort location such as Cancun or Cozumel or a trek across the border to experience the nightlife of Mexico. United States law enforcement agencies, however, warn Americans—you cannot be too careful when you leave U.S. soil.

The U.S. Department of State warns citizens about the risk of traveling in Mexico due to the threat to safety and security posed by Transnational Criminal Organizations. While millions of Americans safely visit Mexico each year for study, tourism and business—including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day—the dangers are real, according to these staggering statistics provided by this federal agency:

  • Almost 90 kidnappings of American citizens were reported to the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Mexico between April and November of 2013.
  • Kidnapping of American citizens in Mexico was up 32 percent in 2013, compared to 2012.
  • 81 Americans were reported murdered in Mexico in 2013; 71 were reported murdered in 2012.

If these statistics aren’t convincing enough, a conversation with Sam Houston State University instructor Ryan Fenley may do the trick.

Fenley, a lecturer in the family and consumer sciences department and a 27-year veteran of the hospitality and tourism industry, has more than statistics to draw from.

“At 20 years old you are very naïve. I was in college, then all of a sudden, I had the media in front of me; everything from Texas Monthly to Time to People. I mean, my life changed overnight,” said Fenley, as he talked about the aftermath of a trip to Mexico several of his friends took in March 1989.

Fenley was attending Galveston Community College that year when he and a few friends made plans to travel to South Padre Island for spring break.

“We were planning this big spring break extravaganza. We were going to meet new people, go drinking across the border, flirt and have a good time,” Fenley said. “About two weeks before the trip, I was invited to go on an all-expenses-paid ski vacation to New Mexico, so I decided not to go to South Padre with my friends.”

His buddies went, however, and what was supposed to be an exciting vacation turned into anyone’s worst nightmare—a horrific tragedy that got worldwide media attention and changed the way Americans view traveling across the Mexican border.

Fenley’s friends, including University of Texas pre-med student Mark Kilroy, crossed the Mexican border at Brownsville to experience the bar scene. While on a crowded street of Matamoros, Mexico, Kilroy turned up missing and was never seen again by his friends.

“Mark was hand-picked off the street and thrown into a van and taken away. Keep in mind in 1989 there were no cell phones or internet or social media,” Fenley said. “Mark was the first known American college student to disappear in Mexico.”

American and Mexican law enforcement agencies searched for Kilroy for nearly a month before learning the devastating truth—Kilroy had been taken to a secluded ranch known as Rancho Santa Elena where he was offered as a human sacrifice during a satanic ritual.

On April 11, 1989, investigators found Kilroy’s mutilated, decapitated body and 13 others in shallow graves at the ranch.

The kidnapping that shocked the nation

Those who traveled with Mark Kilroy appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show as the nation discussed the first American college student to disappear in Mexico. Twenty-five years later, many areas of Mexico are still deemed dangerous for U.S. travelers.

The victims had been murdered by leaders of a cult who believed human sacrifices would feed their spirits and protect cult members as they operated a massive drug ring.

“They were involved in a religion called Palo Mayombe and they believed sacrificing human beings and animals would bring them power and protect them from police as they shipped thousands of pounds of marijuana; Mark was pretty much sacrificed for a good drug transaction,” Fenley said.

Although a difficult year for Fenley and his friends, he completed his associate’s degree at Galveston Community College and transferred to SHSU, where he studied vocational education and minored in criminal justice.

“I decided to choose a minor in criminal justice because I had a lot of questions about what happened,” he said. “It was during that time when God came to me during a lecture and told me that he had a plan for me.”

Fenley spoke about the kidnapping and murder to fellow criminal justice students that semester, but knew he needed to do more.

After graduating from SHSU in 1991, Fenley began pursuing a career in hospitality and tourism and continued educating college students about tourism safety—especially spring break safety.

He began speaking to other universities about the dos and don’ts of traveling outside of the U.S. It is something he continues to do today.

“College students today weren’t born at that time, so they don’t know about this case. But, they need to know the severity of it—how big it was. I shock them to their knees,” Fenley said.
He paints the picture of the horrific scene of a spring break 25 years ago and emphasizes that what happened to his friend was just the beginning of violent, criminal activity that is no longer rare in the drug ridden country.

“The generation we live in now has become more drug-infested and more evil. I cannot tell someone not to go to Mexico; that’s a decision you have to make. But you need to know what you are walking into,” Fenley said. “In some places, if you are American, they will kill you for $20. It’s a different culture there. You have to know your surroundings or you could put yourself in grave danger.”

Fenley believes Cancun and Cozumel have been protected from the drug cartel but destinations such as Acapulco and Mexico City have been greatly impacted and are now “rough and dangerous.”

He offers tips to anyone traveling to Mexico or anywhere outside the United States:

  • Travel with a group and stay together
  • Know your surroundings
  • Don’t drive at night
  • Be careful who you talk to
  • Don’t accept rides from people you don’t know
  • Don’t wear jewelry or flaunt money
  • Don’t get irresponsibly intoxicated
  • Don’t wear clothing with American logos
  • Don’t wear sunglasses—it makes you look like you are part of the cartel and you will become an instant target

Fenley also recommends students watch the 2007 horror film Borderland, loosely based on the facts of the disappearance and Kilroy’s murder case.

“I want students to feel the impact I felt in 1989,” Fenley said. “If you can see it, it will shake you to your core.”

As Fenley continues his career in hospitality and tourism as an assistant director of Crown Plaza Reliant in Houston, he is also working on his doctorate at Columbia Southern University in Orange Beach, Ala. He’s doing his dissertation on “How American travelers’ and tourists’ perceptions and attitudes have changed drastically since the drug violence has impacted Mexico’s tourism market.”

“My life has come full circle; it’s happening all for a reason, and it’s so much bigger than I could have ever imagined,” he said. “It’s something I’m very passionate about. If I can save a life, then I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and I’m honoring Mark at the same time.”

Fenley also stays in close contact with Kilroy’s family and volunteers with the Mark Kilroy Foundation, which provides drug awareness and prevention programs for Galveston County school districts. The Kilroys believe that since drug trafficking was the underlying reason the satanic cult murdered their son, their mission should be to educate young people about the dangers of drug use.



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