Image: Pharr Police Sgt. Ray Lara drives across International Bridge
Eric Gay  /  AP
Pharr Police Sgt. Ray Lara drives across the Pharr International Bridge, Thursday, in Pharr, Texas. A U.S. missionary working in Mexico who brought his mortally wounded wife, Nancy Davis, 59, to the border bridge told authorities in the United States that gunmen in a pickup truck shot her in the head, according to police.
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updated 1/27/2011 9:45:14 PM ET 2011-01-28T02:45:14

A Texas couple who were attacked at an illegal roadblock in one of Mexico's most violent areas had been delivering babies and doing missionary work in the country for three decades, and they had come to expect such confrontations, the couple's son said Thursday.

Nancy Davis, 59, was shot in the head Wednesday while her husband, Sam, was trying to speed away from suspected drug cartel gunmen who may have wanted to steal their pickup truck, authorities said. Sam Davis frantically raced to the Pharr International Bridge border checkpoint with his wife bleeding beside him, but she was declared dead at a McAllen hospital.

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"It would be easier to count the times they weren't chased," the couple's son, Joseph Davis, told The Associated Press outside his family's home the remote South Texas town of Monte Alto.

Sam Davis' mother, Francille Davis, told the AP that her son and daughter-in-law were in Mexico Wednesday to pay pastors in some of the village churches the family had established, but that they had recently put off trips to Mexico because of the spiraling violence.

She said the drug war had prevented Sam from reaching the churches earlier in the month. "Sam had gone in and there were dead bodies all over the place," Francille recalled, explaining that Nancy had stopped making some of those trips because of the risks.

"But for some reason Nancy went in (on Wednesday) and did not come out" alive, she said.

Gunmen gave chase
The Davises were driving along the two-lane road that connects the city of San Fernando with the border city of Reynosa, about 70 miles north, when they came upon the roadblock, an official in Mexico's Tamaulipas state attorney general's office who would not be identified because he is not authorized to discuss the case told the AP.

The area where couple were attacked is dominated by the Gulf Cartel, which has been waging a fierce turf war in northeastern Tamaulipas with the Zetas cartel for control of lucrative smuggling routes to the U.S. The area has had 40 violent car thefts in the last two months, the official said.

Sam Davis told U.S. investigators that he tried to speed away from the gunmen, and that they gave chase in a pickup truck and opened fire, hitting his wife.

Pharr police said Thursday that the couple's 2008 Chevrolet pickup is the kind of heavy-duty, high-profile truck prized by cartels, and that it's likely the reason the Davises were targeted. Damage to the truck's quarter-paneling suggests the gunmen tried to ram them, Pharr police Chief Ruben Villescas said.

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The Mexican Interior Ministry released a statement expressing condolences over Davis' death. It said Mexican authorities were investigating.

Story: U.S. missionary shot in Mexico, dies in Texas

Concerns about the investigation into David Hartley's death led Texas Gov. Rick Perry to call for a stronger response from Mexican authorities. His body was never found, and a Tamaulipas state police commander who was investigating was killed and his decapitated head delivered in a suitcase to a local Mexican army post.

On Thursday, Perry's spokeswoman, Katherine Cesinger, said Nancy Davis' slaying underscores the need for greater border security.

"How many Americans are going to have to die for the federal government to pay attention and realize they need to secure the border," she said.

There were conflicting reports about exactly where along the road the attack on the Davises occurred. Pharr police said it happened near San Fernando, but the Tamaulipas official said it happened about 7 miles south of Reynosa.

Joseph Davis said his parents were well aware of the risks they were taking travelling to Tamaulipas. He said his mother often text-messaged him after crossing the border to let him know they arrived safely.

Murder-plagued state
Tamaulipas is one of three Mexican states that accounted for 50 percent of the country's more than 15,000 murders last year, according to the Mexican government.

The Mexican government in November sent more troops and federal police there in what it called a major operative to control drug violence, but drug gangs still roam freely in caravans of SUVs and trucks, attacking rivals, terrorizing locals and in some cases emptying entire towns.

Merton Rundell III, a friend of the Davis' and the director of finance at Union Bible College in Indiana, said the Davises spent 80 to 90 percent of their time in Mexico and had a home in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon. He said they spent the rest of their time at their home in McAllen or traveling the U.S. raising funds for Gospel Proclaimers Missionary Association, the organization they founded.

"They've been working in Mexico for over 30 years. It was mainly establishing churches — that was their main thrust.

"They loved the work they were doing in spite of the danger," Rundell said.

Rundell described Nancy Davis as "a petite lady with a drive like you wouldn't believe. She lived life to the fullest. They were both totally given to (their work)."

Joseph Davis said his mother loved music, and could compose songs and lyrics in minutes. But he said she loved the work she did most of all.

"Time after time, what made her the happiest was seeing somebody hit their knees and come up forgiven for whatever they've done — murder, rape, the smallest sin," Joseph Davis said. "She'd come home so happy. She'd say, 'Well, we stole another one from the devil today.'"

___

Associated Press writers Terry Wallace and Linda Stewart Ball in Dallas and Alexandra Olson in Mexico City contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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