NBC News and news services
updated 10/13/2010 11:43:10 AM ET 2010-10-13T15:43:10

The wife of an American man missing after a reported shooting on a border lake said Wednesday she will not go to Mexico to meet with authorities because she is afraid of the dangers she might face there.

"We're all under agreement that that is not a wise decision," Tiffany Hartley said on NBC's TODAY show. "Who knows what would happen if I do go over there?"

Hartley appeared on TODAY one day after a Texas sheriff told NBC News that the severed head of a Mexican investigator looking into the disappearance of her husband, David Hartley, had been delivered to authorities in Mexico.

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Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez is spearheading the investigation on the U.S. side.

David Hartley vanished on Sept. 30 while on Jet Skis with his wife on Falcon Lake, which stretches into Mexico.

Rolando Flores, commander of state investigators in Ciudad Miguel Aleman, was part of a group investigating the reported shooting. A spokesman for the prosecutor's office in the Tamaulipas state confirmed that Flores had been killed, but said the death was unrelated to the Hartley investigation.

Video: Severed head of Mexican investigator found (on this page)

Tiffany Hartley described Flores as a "very sincere, very compassionate" person who "seemed like he really wanted to help" despite the challenges he faced because of the violence in Mexico.

"My heart broke," Harley said of learning of the investigator's death.

"I just grieve for his family and my heart just aches for his family because they're now having to go through what we're going through," she said during the TODAY interview. "And just like everybody says to me, there just aren't any words to explain how sorry I am and how much I hurt for his family."

Attempt at intimidation
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the death of the investigator was a message from gangsters for investigators to "stay out of their territory."

"I think their attempt is to intimidate law enforcement, no matter who they are or where they are," Perry told The Associated Press.

The beheading "is taking a page out of al-Qaida's playbook that these drug cartels have been doing for about the last three or four years now, trying to come up with the most grotesque form of murder they can to intimidate authorities and to intimidate the citizens of Mexico," former FBI profiler and NBC News analyst Clint Van Zandt said on TODAY.

U.S. officials have said threats from drug gangs who control the area around Falcon Lake have hampered the search for Hartley, though divers have been in the lake searching this week. The search for Hartley's body is expected to continue, although Gonzalez said it's becoming increasingly unlikely the body will be found.

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The part of Tamaulipas state where the lake sits is overrun by violence from a turf battle between the Gulf Cartel and the Zeta drug gang, made up of former Mexican special forces soldiers, and both are battling the Mexican military.

The Mexican Foreign Ministry says it has been using federal, state and local resources, including the military and helicopters, to search for Hartley's body and opened an investigation.

On Sunday, state investigator Juan Carlos Ballesteros, who is assigned to Ciudad Miguel Aleman, said police believe brothers Juan Pedro and Jose Manuel Zaldivar Farias might have killed Hartley.

However, authorities on Tuesday said no suspects have been identified and wouldn't comment on why the state investigator had already named two suspects. Ballesteros didn't answer calls seeking comment Tuesday.

Tiffany Hartley has said she and her husband were returning on Jet Skis to the U.S. from photographing a half-submerged church in Mexico when they were attacked by pirates on speedboats. She said her husband was shot and presumably fell into the lake.

Tiffany Hartley said she tried to retrieve her husband's body and his Jet Ski but the pirates continued firing and she fled. Gonzalez has said he has an eyewitness who corroborates her account.

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U.S. officials, particularly Perry, and Hartley's family have been pressuring Mexico to step up the search for Hartley and determine what happened.

Perry said investigators shouldn't back off because of threats such as Flores' slaying.

"The worst thing we can do is let the terrorists dictate the terms of how we're going to live." Instead, he said, the threat should be handled by increasing "the numbers of law enforcement and military."

Falcon Lake is a dammed section of the Rio Grande, 25 miles long and 3 miles across. Pirates have robbed boaters and fisherman on the Mexican side, prompting warnings to Americans by Texas state officials, but Hartley's death would mark the first violent fatality on the lake.

NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Investigator in Texas lake case decapitated

  1. Closed captioning of: Investigator in Texas lake case decapitated

    >>> interview.

    >>> the disturbing new development tied to the murder of an american tourist allegedly by mexican pirates. the mexican police commander investigating that shooting has now been murdered. janet shanlian is in mccowan, texas with more.

    >> reporter: this story has taken a very dark turn, the lead investigator in the case has been decapitated and his served head delivered in a suitcase to the mexican military . what started as one couple's personal tragedy has now turned into a sign of mexico 's escalating drug war and its spillover right here. what was supposed to be one couple's fun day on the water has turned into an international incident , shining a bright light on the escalating violence in the mexican drug war , as the investigation into the murder of david hartley grinds on for two weeks now, grim news tuesday, a local mexican police commander, the lead investigator on the case was found dead, decapitated.

    >> this officer was an innocent victim of the ongoing drug wars in mexico .

    >> reporter: and the escalating war has hampered the search for david 's body. they had to suspend the search because of threats from mexican drug cartels who have taken control of the area. david 's wife tiffany is concerned about mexico 's handling of the search for david .

    >> until we get some more footage and video or pictures that say this is what they're doing, you know, we're just kind of hoping and praying they're doing what they say they're doing.

    >> reporter: two brothers were suspected in david 's murder. and the documents reportedly came from the same mexican official that was savagely killed.

    >> again, directly involved with the supposed identification of the suspect. i believe the death of this investigator is very much linked to the death of david hartley .

    >> reporter: for david 's grieving family, it's just another horrible loss.

    >> it's just a terrible, terrible, another terrible tragedy adding to what we're going through.

    >> reporter: david and tiffany 's outing two weeks ago was supposed to be their last adventure in texas before heading to colorado. the couple seen here eight years ago at their wedding, happy moments captured on video, now all tiffany has left. mexican officials vow to continue the search, but the family's hopes are fading that david 's body will ever be found.

    >> i think he will not be found. falcon lake will more than likely be his headstone.

    >> reporter: the murdered investigator is the one who had named two suspects in the case. high ranking mexican officials said there were no suspects at all and today those same officials are saying this murder is in no way related to the jet ski murders.

    >> david hartley 's wife and his mother are with us this morning. tiffany , let's start with you, this has to be devastated news, first to lose your husband and then to find out that the led investigator on this case has been beheaded. what was your reaction when you first heard the news?

    >> my heart broke. i can't even explain. i mean i'm grieving him too, the loss of him because i mean i met him, i was sitting next to him through a translator talking to him and you know describing where david was at and i just grieve for his family and my heart just aches for his family because they're now having to go through what we're going through. and just like everybody says to me, there just aren't any words to explain how sorry i am and how much i hurt for his family.

    >> does this man's name rolando flores villaga, what are your impressions of him?

    >> he seemed like he really wanted to help and i believe he was helping us and you could just tell that he wanted to be able to serve his country and he was doing a job that isn't easy over there. especially in the field that he was in. but he seemed very sincere and compassionate.

    >> are you worried now tiffany that this will have a chilling effect an the investigation, perhaps the mexican authorities will be worrieded about continuing with it?

    >> i don't know. i don't know. but we do still, are under the impression that they are going to continue their search and that, you know, they're going to keep doing what they have been doing so as far as you know, seeing the investigation, i don't really think that that's going to happen, but i can't really speak for him, i don't know.

    >> pam , by the same token --

    >> i hope it doesn't.

    >> absolutely, but by the same token, you have to be concerned that someone else could get hurt in the course of this search for your son?

    >> yes. i mean, david , you know, wouldn't want anybody to get hurt for him. but it's -- -it has to continue that they find people that have been -- that are missing and if they need to -- they need to get control of that area. and it's like i don't want anybody to get hurt an my heart breaks for their family.

    >> david 's dad has said that he does not believe that his son's body will ever be found. pam , do you remain hopeful that they will find david ?

    >> yes. i stand strong that god will make this happen. it was -- david will come home.

    >> i think we're all in agreement with that here. we're still standing in our belief and standing in faith that, you know, he will be brought home and we can honor him the way he would want to be.

    >> tiffany , mexican authorities have said that they would like you to go to mexico to file a formal report in order to have more details about this case. is that something that you are considering? will you go to mexico ?

    >> no. no, i will not go to mexico . they -- we have filled out the paper work that they told us that we had to fill out. we spent 4 1/2 hours after their office and we were assured that they were going to get the paper work to mexico city to the authorities there and they were going to be taking them to ranosa that same day. but no, i will not go to mexico .

    >> are you worried for your own safety if you were to go to mexico ?

    >> yeah, we're all under agreement that that is not a wise decision. that who knows what would happen if i do go over there?

    >> all right, tiffany and pam hartley, thank you very much. we really appreciate you being with us this morning.

    >> thank you.

    >> thank you.

    >>> and let's turn to nbc news analyst clint van zandt who's a former fbi profiler. good morning to you. mexican authorities say there's no connection between the death of this lead investigator and the investigation into the whereabouts and possible death of david hartley ? what do you make of that.

    >> i don't know. we know that this man was the lead investigator, we know that these two cartel members that were identified, this was work by men working for him, investigators working for him. life was so challenged down there, for example, over 50 americans have been killed just the first six months of this year along the u.s.- mexican border . this is a total that may well surpass last year's total of 80 and this terrible method and way he was murdered, decapitation, meredith, this is taking a page out of al qaeda 's playbook that these drug cartels have been doing for about the last three or four years now trying to come up with the most grotesque form of murder they can to intimidate authorities and to intimidate the citizens of mexico .

    >> so is it possible authorities are saying that because they feel intimidate.

    >> yeah and i think they are. we saw just last week on the "today" show when the sheriff was interviewed, the u.s. sheriff saying that he didn't want to send people into those waters, they might get into a gun battle, now you have potentially u.s. forces , sheriff, intimidated, the message has been sent to the mexican authorities, to the police, i believe if you investigate this case, you're going to die, you know, few of the homicide of americans this year or any year for that matter are really solved. so the chances of this case being solved with these two alleged members of a drug cartel , remember, these are two main mexican cartels that are fighting each other for control of the drugs that flow into the united states and any american that gets in the way, i'm afraid could meet a similar fate.

    >> do you think that tiffany is wise not to go to mexico ? that she would be in possible danger if she were to go, even though they're asking her to go?

    >> i think she's making a personal choice right now, but with the murder, with the killing of that lead mexican police official, i think she's probably making a prudent choice. she's done everything she can, we all want to see this crime solved and her husband brought home again, but again i think the chances are pretty slim since the mexicans took a week before they really mounted an investigation to begin with.

    >> clint van zandt , appreciate your perspective this morning. thank you very much.

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