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Mexican 'Pirates'? -- Why We First Suspect the Spouse

Twenty-nine year-old Tiffany Hartley says her husband was shot in the head by Mexican pirates earlier this week while the couple was riding jet skis on Falcon Lake at the Texas-Mexico border.

Claiming her husband fell face first in the water and that she tried to pull him out, Tiffany blamed God for why she left him and fled to safety. "I just keep hearing God tell me 'You have to go, you have to go,'" she told one reporter.

No doubt God speaks to people in times of crisis, but it's a bit convenient that He advised her to save her own skin. Let's just say that's not necessarily the Godly thing to do.

But even if there's an ethic there that makes religious sense, there are lots of hard facts that make it very difficult to believe anything about Tiffany Hartley's story.

First, there is no evidence, other than Tiffany's word, that her husband was even on the water at all, much less in a jet ski getting shot in the head. He was reportedly wearing a life vest, which means his body should have been seen by someone by now, as it floated to shore someplace along the Lake's edge. It hasn't. And nobody heard motors or gunshots or saw anyone removing things from the water. While it's possible pirates might take a person for ransom and steal a jet ski for cash value, it takes time to lug people and heavy objects out of the water. Nobody saw any of it.

One witness said he saw Tiffany as she rode her jet ski toward shore, seemingly distraught and followed by a group of men in a boat. He also said Tiffany asked him to call 911 and told him someone had shot her husband. But this witness, who lives at the water's edge, didn't say anything about seeing pirates trying to remove a body or a jet ski out of the water.

Second, Tiffany has been a little too eager to inject herself into the media frenzy. It's fine to use the media to ask for help, but this woman is making strange statements for a lady in crisis. Aside from the "protest too much" claim about God making her leave her husband's body in the water (wouldn't it have been enough to say she left him there because she didn't want to get shot in the head? I think God would have understood, even if He didn't command her to flee), she told Gretchen Carlson on Fox News that her husband "just really loved your show. He watched it every day."  Even if it's true, who gives a damn -- and why is she even THINKING about, much less TALKING about, the guy's TV habits? I know there's no "playbook" on how a grieving wife is supposed to act after her husband is shot in the head, but if there WERE a playbook, sucking up to a TV host wouldn't even be a footnote.

Third, the so-called "pirates" in that region are nothing more than punks using old-fashioned thuggery, albeit on water, to steal money from people. Like gangs on land, punks on water don't kill randomly. They kill for money, they kill for revenge, they kill when drug deals go bad - and they sometimes kill by accident as when a kid gets caught in the crossfire of a shootout between rivals. But they don't just walk around town shooting people in the head. 

And if they DID do that in this case, which is possible in theory, it makes no sense that they managed such a precise execution in the skull of a man while he was zipping along on a jet ski, but somehow couldn't even graze the jet ski of the guy's wife even as she was stopped, as she said she was, trying to lift her husband's body from the water. 

Maybe the pirates are sharpshooters -- but they sure can't be sharpshooters ONLY if they're aiming at husbands. She says she doesn't know why she was spared. That makes two of us -- I mean -- two million of us. Random killers don't develop a conscience in the middle of an execution.

It's possible Tiffany is telling the truth, but as a matter of simple common sense it just doesn't ring true. And while lots of people are in a justifiable anti-Mexico mindset for a host of reasons related to illegal immigration, drug cartels, etc., let's not let a pretty little housewife exploit our political sentiments to dupe us into believing outright absurdities.

It certainly feels better to imagine that a young good-looking married couple was blissfully in love, and that they were simply having fun in the sun when dark forces struck.

But let's remember the Scott Peterson and Charles Stuart cases. Two men seemingly head over heels in love with their beautiful pregnant wives when they claimed an unknown killer ruined their picture-perfect lives. Lots of people bought their stories because it's hard to accept that men who look like "Dream Date Ken" could slaughter their own pregnant wives on the verge of giving birth to their first-born sons.

But the simple truth is, when a wife or husband dies or goes missing in suspicious circumstances, the spouse SHOULD be the key suspect because they're almost always responsible. Unless and until they can be ruled out -- they should be ruled in -- and Tiffany Hartley has yet to be ruled out.

Among other things, law enforcement should be figuring out whether she had a big insurance policy on the guy, and whether she was having an affair. Neither fact, alone, would make her a killer, but it matters.

Most people prefer to think that human beings are good and decent, and that they lack the capacity for brutal violence, much less the ability to lie about something so serious on national television. But we've learned this lesson many times -- and now is not the moment to forget all that we know about what "dangerous" people look like. Sometimes they look just like us. 

Remember Susan Smith? The young mom who drowned her two little boys so she could take up with her boyfriend who didn't want kids? Hardly the face of evil -- except that she was exactly that.

Our internal core as human beings needs to believe the world is fair and just, and it dies a little every time a seemingly loving spouse turns out to be a monster. But that's OK. We should gladly give up a little piece of our romanticized view of how the world works if it gives us a better understanding of the truth.

Wendy Murphy is a former prosecutor and law professor at New England Law|Boston. A former Visiting Scholar at Harvard Law School, Wendy specializes in the representation of crime victims and is the author of "And Justice For Some."

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