SAN ANTONIO — Texas officials on Friday renewed warnings about pirates marauding on a U.S.-Mexico border lake after a Colorado tourist was gunned down in Mexican waters while his wife dodged bullets and raced her Jet Ski back to American soil.
Search teams combed the U.S. side of Falcon Lake for David Michael Hartley, 30, whose wife told police he was shot in the back of the head Thursday after being ambushed by gunmen on boats.
The gunmen are suspected pirates who have turned Falcon Lake, a waterskiing and bass fishing hotspot down the border from Laredo, into uneasy waters for fishermen and boaters. There have been at least five reported run-ins with pirates on the lake this year, though prior holdups had never been deadly.
The Texas Department of Public Safety said Friday that Hartley was believed to be killed, but nearly 24 hours after the shooting, there still was no word whether the oil industry worker had been found. U.S. Border Patrol spokesman Narcizo Ramos said he didn't know whether Mexican authorities were searching their side.
The shooting led Texas public safety officials to again urge boaters to stay on the U.S. side of the 60-mile lake, five months after issuing its initial advisory following three pirate attacks.
But state Rep. Aaron Pena, a south Texas lawmaker briefed on the pirates earlier this year, said it has become dangerous enough to stay off the lake altogether.
"I wouldn't do it," Pena said. "When I go out there I have all the protection Texas can provide. But the average fisherman doesn't have that."
Pena said he has no doubts the pirates are working with Mexico's drug gangsters. The cartels that control the area wouldn't let the pirates operate otherwise, he said.
While Hartley's fate remained unclear, Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez said 29-year-old Tiffany Hartley fears her husband is dead. She circled back on her Jet Ski to rescue him but had to retreat when she heard bullets whizzing by.
Some campers along Falcon Lake had taken to arming themselves following the state's first warning in May. In one incident that month, state officials said five armed men boarded a boat on the U.S. side of the boundary.
The pirates either use powerful AK-47s or AR-15s to threaten their victims, Texas public safety officials said. The agency believes the pirates use local Mexican fishermen to operate the boats to get close to American fishermen.
Falcon Lake is a dammed section of the Rio Grande that straddles the border. The border is marked by 14 partially submerged concrete towers that mark the Rio Grande's path before the lake was created in 1954.
According to Gonzalez, Tiffany Hartley told police the couple rode their Jet Skis for sightseeing and to take pictures of a famous church in Old Guerrero. They were riding back when they saw the armed gunmen on the boats, and immediately began racing back to U.S. waters.
Tiffany Hartley told authorities her husband was shot in the back in the head; Cox said one of the boats may have crossed into U.S. waters briefly while trying to run her down.
Cox said Tiffany Hartley estimated the shooting took place about five to six miles from the Texas shoreline where she parked and called for help.
In April, pirates robbed another group of boaters who also went to Old Guerrero to see the church. Cox said the most recent reported pirate sighting had been Aug. 31, when boaters saw gunmen riding a small skiff with "Game Wardin" misspelled in duct tape on the side of the vessel.
Cox said it appeared the pirates were trying to imitate state game warden boats they have seen patrolling the lake.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the shooting underscores the need for the federal government to further secure the border.
"It's really become substantially worse in the last 18 months with the drug cartels having almost free rein," Perry said Friday in Austin. "This is about our citizens', on both sides of the borders, safety."
Violence on the Mexican side of the lake has been climbing for several months, as a fractured partnership between the region's dominant Gulf Cartel and its former enforcers, the Zetas, plunged many of the area's Mexican border cities into violence.
Associated Press Writers Kelley Shannon in Austin and Schuyler Dixon in Dallas contributed to this report.