Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Saved from Hell in a Jail Cell at Cozumel

Rachelle and I and the four kids are on a cruise of the Caribbean (March 13-20, 2011) with Rachelle´s parents, several extended family members and a few close friends to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of Rachelle´s mom and dad. We departed Galveston early Sunday morning and had a wonderful time at sea Sunday and Monday, including Monday night when Rachelle and her sister put on an exceptional reception in the conference room of The Voyager of the Seas to honor their parents. Rachelle and I have looked forward to this cruise for a couple of years, not the least reason being it marks the first time in many years that all four of our children have been able to accompany us on a family vacation. Tuesday morning, March 15, we docked at Cozumel, Mexico, an island off the Mexican mainland. We decided to be a little adventuresome and rent a jeep to cruise the island. We six Burlesons had a tremendous time in the morning while doing some shopping in downtown Cozumel, then shared lunch together, and followed that up with a trip to the south side of the island to try out a beach that had been recommended to us. That´s when things took a turn for the worse for me.

While mom and the kids enjoyed the sun, I took the jeep and went back north about five miles to pick up a map to identify a beach we could enjoy as a family the next day when our ship would dock at Grand Cayman. On the way back to the beach I saw a family of four in a broken down jeep. I spent the next forty minutes getting them to their hotel, and received profuse gratitude from the entire family which consisted of a family physician from Victoria, his wife, and two teenage daughters. I still had plenty of time to get the Burleson crew and head back to the ship for departure. I got back on the Coastal Highway and headed south. As I was turning right off of the highway into the entrance of Sanchez Beach, I noticed two jeeps full of people parked beside each other on the shoulder. I thought to myself "I sure hope they are not broken down too!"  Unbeknown to me, a small unmarked road runs parallel to the highway I was on.  I looked at the two jeeps as I passed them and turned right into the entrance of the beach. A motorcycle heading north on the small unmarked road crossed my path just as I reached the beach entrance. There were no yield signs for either the motorcycle or me. In the United States, the yield would be for the motorcycle on the access road, but in Mexico the yield is for me as I turn right off of the main highway.


I broadsided the motorcycle. The driver and the passenger flew off their bike into a culvert next to the access road. I stopped horrified. I had not seen the bike until impact. I immediately got out and checked on the two persons that I hit. Both the driver and passenger of the bike were hurt, but conscious. I tried to comfort both men while the people in the two parked jeeps called the ambulances. As soon as the ambulances arrived I went on into the park and picked up my family and came back to the entrance to wait for the police. The ambulance attendants told me that both men would be okay, but at least one had a broken leg. After about ten minutes of waiting the tourist police of Cozumel arrived.

The tourist police were very friendly. I was told that my family should go back to the ship, but that I needed to head to the Cozumel tourist police station. Carlos, the English speaking tourist police officer, informed me that after about forty minutes to verify insurance and do some paperwork that I too would be on my way in plenty of time to make departure. My older two boys, Kade and Boe insisted on going with me, so we sent Mom, Charis, and Logan to the ship and told them we would make it just before departure. The jeep rented for $60.00 and I had purchased the premium insurance policy for $35.00, something I hardly ever do. Carlos told me that it was good I had the excellent premium insurance that came with the rental. I drove the jeep with Carlos in the passenger seat and the two boys in the back. The jeep had suffered minimal damage, but obviously my thoughts were with the two Mexican men whom I had hit.


When we arrived at the tourist police station the scene was chaotic. Very few officers spoke English. They were friendly, but the entire station looked like disorganized mayhem. I knew instinctively that we would not make departure on the ship, but my feelings were confirmed when we met a lady who had run into two motorcycles that morning and had been at the station going on six hours. The port authority arrived forty minutes later at the police station and informed me that we needed to leave immediately. The police said that my boys were free to go, but that I would be missing departure. Both Boe and Kade insisted that they stay behind in Mexico with me, but I told them that the others needed them on the ship. The two boys discussed it and decided that Boe should stay with me, and  Kade would return to the ship. I tried to dissuade Boe from staying with me, but he steadfastly refused to leave. I later would reflect on how fortunate I am to have a son as stubborn as I. Rachelle later told me when she, Charis and Logan saw Kade running to catch the ship, making it on board just seconds before departure, she felt incredible sadness and knew I would be in for some trouble.

Boe and I waited at the tourist police station for a couple of hours. Carlos eventually told me that due to the broken bones in the two men I hit, I might be in for a longer stay. Mexico law is different than in the United States. I would remain in custody at the tourist police station until a representative from the car rental company had made his evaluation at the hospital of the two victims. The insurance would cover all medical costs and vehicle damage, but it was practice in Mexico that the person responsible for the accident would provide a cash payment for "lost wages." This little tidbit of information startled me. I asked how much was customary, and the answer given was "It depends on the amount of money the two men made during the week, how many weeks they would be off work, and whether or not the family members of the two men would sign off on the agreement."

I knew that I might need some help. I asked that the American Consulate be called. A few minutes later I was speaking with Ann, the Consulate representative, the first of many people who would become literal life savers to me in the next twenty four hours. Ann said she would make her way to the tourist police station. After about thirty minutes she arrived, just shortly after the family members of the two victims had arrived. The negotiations began. The car rental agent informed Ann that the two Mexican workers made about $10 a day, six days a week, and would be off a month. I thought the month extremely optimistic, so I suggested to Ann we pay them both for three months. I also told her if that was not acceptable that I would be willing to pay $1,000 a person. Ann said she thought that offer to be generous and asked if I had that much cash on me, for the families could not take credit cards. I told her that I did not and she suggested that I contact someone who could wire me the cash. I called Faye in our Finance Office, using the Consulate cell phone, and put her on notice that I might need some help in getting money to Mexico. I told Faye I was going to try to first get money myself wired by my own credit cards, a prospect that ended after a couple of minutes on the phone when the Western Union representative told me that I would have to purchase the wire transfer in person. I called Faye back and she and her husband (both true friends) spent the next several hours ensuring that my son Boe could pick up thousands of dollars in cash in order to bail his dad out of custody.

But things quickly got worse. The families called for an attorney and made their first counter offer. They wanted $6,500 in cash. The American Consulate thought that number exorbitant, but I found it impossible. It was now dark and there was no way I could get that amount of cash money, even by wire transfers which had a limit of $1,500 and must be from a debit card. I could not be released from custody until the families signed off on the lost wages settlement. Boe volunteered to go outside with the car rental representative, the port authority, and a translator to negotiate. If we could not reach an agreement within thirty minutes I would be transferred from the tourist police to the Mexican state police. The families would not budge off their number. What the families did not seem to know, because their attorney was keeping the information from them, was that if I went to Mexican jail, there would be a hearing before a judge in a few days,  the car rental company would post my bond at the hearing, and I would be free to leave the country ... without paying them a cent. However, my intention was to be fair and to do what was customary, but I frankly could not afford $6,500 cash and my counsel thought the sum exorbitant compared to other situations. On top of all the additional fines, fees and bribes that were required to get me out of jail, we were in a severe cash crises. Boe informed both families that we could not get the $6,500 in cash, but we would do what we could to pay for three to four weeks of work missed. By that time we had been told the two victims would fully recover, for which we were very grateful.


But at 6:00 p.m., Tuesday night, March 15, three hours after our ship left the dock, the Mexican police walked into the tourist police station and the entire mood changed. I had been told before that the one country in which you did not want to have an injury accident while driving a vehicle was Mexico. I was about to learn why. The set time for the tourist police to settle the incident had ended. Now it went to the regular police. I was ordered to remove my wedding ring, my hat, my watch, my billfold, and any other valuables to my son. A very big young man was brought out of a holding room in handcuffs and the police removed one of his handcuffs and ordered me to place my wrist in it. Handcuffed to this behemoth of a man, I was ordered to walk out of the police station into a waiting transport car where I would be taken to the Mexican jail where I would be held for three days until my preliminary hearing before a Mexican judge. The rental car insurance company would represent me. I was not allowed to say anything and over the very loud verbal protests of my son Boe, I was escorted out. I later learned the Port Authority officers were arguing in Spanish that I was not a criminal and the treatment I was receiving was out of line.

I was stunned. All I could think about was my wife´s warnings not to rent a car in Mexico, warnings unheeded, but very productive because they became the incentive for me to by the premium insurance. Without that insurance, I would have been responsible for all medical and vehicle bills in addition to the cash the Mexican authorities were already demanding. American insurance is not accepted in Mexico, only cash. If you are without Mexican car insurance and have an accident you must pay cash and settle up with your insurance company later.  I had the best possible Mexican insurance, but I had not been informed that in an injury accident, no insurance in Mexico will pay "lost wages," and you can´t get out of jail until the injured victim´s family agrees to a settlement on lost wages and the officials are satisfied with the payments to them.

I have never been handcuffed before. I have never been to jail. I had seen enough television shows about Mexican prisons, like Prison Break and others, to know that Mexico is notorious for its horrible jail system. When we arrived at the jail, the young man and I were escorted to a jail cell where no amount of words would be adequate to describe the scene. It was worse than I ever could have imagined. One concrete bed for two men, one concrete toilet in the center, ants and spiders crawling over the walls, feces and urine staining the floor and bed, no lights and only a small window that let an outside street lamp light shine through. I was not offered a pillow or a blanket, nor was I given any water. I would not eat or drink for the next 24 hours. In short, I moved from cruise luxury to prison hell in six hours. My son would later tell me that the image of me being handcuffed to this imposing Mexican man and led away to an unknown place was indelibly burned into his mind. I know the last thing I heard entering the car were Boe´s loud protests to the police.

After a few minutes orienting myself, I couldn´t help but thank God that my family lives in America. If there is an accident in our country, insurance verification is exchanged, and people move on, with cash settlements coming weeks later. I felt like a murderer, had no clue where my son was, and knew my family on the cruise ship would be worried sick about me. I breathed a silent prayer and asked God to turn the situation I was in into a Paul and Silas moment, later finding out this is exactly the prayer being prayed by my own family at home in the states and on the ship. I then turned my attention to my cell mate. I struck up a conversation with him and learned a few facts.

His name is Alan H______.  I will not disclose the details of his alleged crime for his own safety. He is from Mexico and works as a personal trainer. The day he and I sat in the cell was his 26th birthday. He could speak English fairly well and he asked me what I did. I told him I was a pastor. He asked, "Christian?" and I said yes. He said that his mother was a Christian, but he was not. When I asked him details of his alleged crime, he was very honest and transparent. I felt the opportunity had arisen for me to explain to Alan the gospel, and for the next couple of hours I shared with him the good news of Jesus Christ. It would be difficult even in this long narrative for me to articulate all that was said, but it is sufficient for you to know that before Alan´s 26th birthday had ended, he had been born again. The unbelievable sensation of kneeling in that filthy, insect infested jail cell in Cozumel beside this huge man that I had been handcuffed to only hours before as he prayed to receive Christ into his life is beyond description. I am not much of a singer, but after tears of joy were streaming down this young man´s face as he realized for the first time that God loved sinners like him enough to give him His Son to pay for the penalty of his sins, and that the blessings of God are all his through Christ, I felt led to sing Amazing Grace. Either the reverberation of the walls or the empowerment of the Spirit caused the song to be sung with a beauty that was outside of me. It was a moment I shall never forget, nor will Alan. He was saved from hell in a jail cell at Cozumel.

Alan´s crime story is all over the newspapers, radio and television in Cozumel. Reporters came to interview Alan in the jail cell and snapped a few pictures with me sitting behind him on the one concrete bed. I don´t understand Spanish but Alan later told me that he told the reporters that he now knows why he is in jail. The allegations against him are devastating to him and his family, but God intended for him to be in jail in order to be saved. He said that 26 years ago he was born to his mother, but he told the reporters that yesterday he was born again by God. God had sent him an angel to tell him the good news of how his life could be transformed. I figured if it took me feeling like a lowly criminal for Alan to consider me a heavenly angel, it was worth it. Before Alan was transferred to another jail late in the afternoon, we knelt and prayed for his future. A life long friendship has been formed. Boe had the privilege of meeting Alan with the Consulate representative before Alan was released from jail and he marveled that the man that caused him to fear for his father was probably the very reason why the Lord had me sent to jail. God works in mysterious ways.


After 30 LONG, sleepless hours, I was finally released after the cash arrived from the United States. I´ve never tried to keep time without a watch, but I can assure you that being in the jail cell made me very grateful for reading the book Unbroken and watching shows like Survivor. It also gave me a knew appreciation for people in jails and what it is like to feel like you are all alone in the world. I would like to thank a host of extraordinary individuals who were energetic and tireless in getting me out of a Mexican jail. Faye K. and her husband Willie were relentless in sending me some cash when I had no access to no money. Tony V. and his son Seth, who miraculously made it from Enid, Oklahoma to Cozumel in 12 short hours, provided support and translation services for my son Boe in his efforts to get me out. To the American Consulate and the extraordinary efforts of agent Ann, I owe more than I could ever repay. To my friends Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb, Representative James Langford, and Senator Jim Inhoffe who have been very influential in helping get me and my son out of Mexico tomorrow and back into the United States without passports, I give a heartfelt thanks. The staff of the Royal Caribbean ship Voyager of the Seas went the extra mile to ensure my wife was kept informed while at sea. Dan Heath back in Enid kept my parents informed of events and provided great encouragement with a private plane if needed.

To my children, Charis, Kade, Boe, and Logan, I owe the deepest gratitude. I feel like I´ve ruined our family vacation, but you have expressed your love for me in ways I will never forget. Boe, to you my 21 year old, just an added word of appreciation. The Port Authority in Cozumel told me you are the most extraordinary person they´ve ever met. You were on your own in a strange city, no vehicle, no Spanish speaking ability, and not knowing where your dad was, yet you somehow coordinated all the efforts to get me out of jail, and you did the impossible in record time. We have long talked about being on the Amazing Race, and by golly, I think I´d win it with you on my team. Most of all, to my wife, Rachelle, thanks sweetheart for your unconditional love. I promise, I will never again rent a vehicle in Mexico.

Before Alan left me in the jail cell I told him that my wife and I were out thousands of dollars for a family cruise that was messed up by a tragic accident. We were also out thousands of more dollars through fines and payment to the families of injured victims for lost wages because of the accident. But I told him that there was no amount of money that comes even close to reaching the price of his soul. I believe God had a divine appointment for me in that jail cell at Cozumel.

To my family at Emmanuel, Boe and I couldn´t catch up with the family cruise. There were no flight connections from Cozumel. Boe and I are flying back to Houston tomorrow with Tony V. and Seth where Boe and I will wait until we meet our family as they dock at Galveston on Sunday. We missed five of the seven cruise days. I would ask you to pray that Rachelle and the three Burleson kids will at least be able to enjoy Jamaica tomorrow and the cruise home to Galveston. That would make their dad very happy. I look forward to giving them all the biggest hug they´ve ever received this Sunday.

I don´t normally blog about such personal stuff, but I felt this the best way to get information out to people who love the Burlesons.

God bless you all.