Video: Lake shooting a case of mistaken identity?

  1. Transcript of: Lake shooting a case of mistaken identity?

    MATT LAUER, co-host: A possible explanation is emerging in the death of that American jet-skier who was allegedly murdered by Mexican pirates. Was it a case of mistaken identity ? NBC 's Janet Shamlian is in McAllen , Texas , with details on that. Janet , good morning to you.

    JANET SHAMLIAN reporting: Matt , good morning. The latest theory on this is that Tiffany and David Hartley were perhaps mistaken for members of a rival drug cartel . David Hartley had Mexico plates on his vehicle when he offloaded those Jet Skis on to Falcon Lake . That as word comes from Mexico this morning that the search for David has now been suspended indefinitely. Hours before David Hartley went jet-skiing with his wife, Tiffany , on Falcon Lake , Texas State troopers pulled him over for an expired tag. But now investigators say David 's apparent murder may have been a case of mistaken identity in a turf war between rival drug cartels because the Hartleys also had Mexican plates on their car from when they lived in Reynosa for David 's job.

    Mr. FRED BURTON (Vice President of Intelligence, Stratfor): The Hartleys had Mexican plates on their trailer from the point of departure and that might have drawn the attention of the Zeta lookouts, thinking that perhaps the Hartleys may have been lookouts or spies for the Gulf cartel , which is a rival cartel fighting over control over that geography.

    SHAMLIAN: Fred Burton is with the private intelligence agency Stratfor . He says the beheading of an investigator on the case was a sign to the Mexican military to back off. The US sheriff on the case says no one really knows what happened. Sheriff SIGIFREDO GONZALEZ, Jr. ( Zapata County , Texas ): Unless we have somebody who may have been there to tell us exactly what happened, there's speculation. We cannot go around saying the cartels did that when we have no proof.

    Ms. TIFFANY HARTLEY: I could see how the mistaken identity happened.

    SHAMLIAN: Mm-hmm.

    Ms. HARTLEY: I mean, I can see how that happened.

    SHAMLIAN: The development comes as Tiffany Hartley faces an unimaginable job.

    Ms. HARTLEY: These are shells that we've collected every vacation we've gone.

    SHAMLIAN: Packing away the memories of a marriage, something they'd been planning to do together for their move to Colorado .

    Ms. HARTLEY: I miss him and I just want him back and I can't. Now I have to move forward and see how I'm going to live and what I'm going to do without him.

    SHAMLIAN: As of today , she'll also have to do without David 's mom, Pam , who left South Texas for her Colorado home.

    Ms. PAM HARTLEY: This is not over. I'll fight from Colorado . I will fight to make people see what's going on down here.

    SHAMLIAN: An American family's private tragedy in the chaos of Mexico 's drug wars .

    Ms. P. HARTLEY: Love you.

    Ms. T. HARTLEY: I love you, too.

    SHAMLIAN: Tiffany Hartley will herself be moving back to Colorado within the next few weeks. The family is aware of the suspended search, but, Matt , they still hope to bring David home. Back to you.

    LAUER: All right, Janet Shamlian in Texas for us this morning. Janet , thanks so much. It's 18 after the hour. Once again, here's Meredith .

updated 10/15/2010 7:52:43 AM ET 2010-10-15T11:52:43

Authorities believe the death of an American tourist on a lake on the Texas-Mexico border may be a case of mistaken identity in a turf battle between rival drug cartels, a sheriff confirmed Thursday.

"It wouldn't be unheard of for cartels to do this and it's the way cartels work," said Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez, who is heading the investigation on the U.S. side.

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David Hartley vanished on Sept. 30 while jet skiing with his wife on Falcon Lake.

Tiffany Hartley said they were chased across the lake by men in speedboats as they returned from a trip to photograph a Mexican church. Neither David Hartley's body nor the Jet Ski has been recovered.

Hartley, of McAllen, Texas, is believed to have been shot by Zetas cartel enforcers because he was mistaken for an operative of the rival Gulf cartel, according to an independent intelligence report.

"The truck Hartley and his wife used to put their Jet Skis in the water at the lake had Tamaulipas state plates, and the Hartleys drove the Jet Skis to the Old Guerrero area of the lake, a known battleground in the ongoing war the Los Zetas and Gulf cartels," according to STRATFOR, a Texas-based think tank on intelligence and international issues.

"Given the couple’s license plate and method and direction of travel, it is possible that Zetas scouts identified them as a Gulf cartel surveillance team," STRATFOR said in its report.

"A damage control campaign is currently under way, led by Los Zetas No. 2, Miguel 'Z-40' Trevino Morales, to identify and eliminate those who engaged the Hartleys without proper authorization," according to the report.

It said Hartley's body had been destroyed as part of that effort.

The war between the Zetas and Gulf cartels erupted earlier this year over a fatal shooting and has spread through the Tamaulipas border region, Gonzalez said.

On Tuesday, the beheading of Rolando Armando Flores Villegas, the lead Mexican investigator in the Hartley case, was a chilling reminder of the cartel's brutal intimidation tactics.

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

Texas officials have long warned boaters and fisherman that pirates frequent the Mexican side of the lake, a 30-mile by 3-mile dammed section of the Rio Grande, Gonzalez said.

"The cartels do not normally target American citizens not involved in the narcotics trade, but cases of mistaken identity have occurred in the past," STRATFOR said.

Nonetheless, the lake can be treacherous, Gonzalez said.

"Anyone going into the area is going to get stopped and checked by the cartels," he said. "They have machine guns. They will pull you aside, grab you, put you on their boat face down, and with their knees into your back and a machine gun into your head, they will ask you who you are."

Gonzalez said the Hartleys tried to flee after they were stopped "and the shooting started. One unlucky shot hit in the man in the head."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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