MEXICO CITY – Joseph Proctor told his girlfriend he was popping out to the convenience store in the quiet Mexican beach town where the couple had just moved, intending to start a new life.
The next morning, the 32-year-old New York native was dead inside his crashed van on a road outside Acapulco. He had multiple bullet wounds. An AR-15 rifle lay in his hands.
His distraught girlfriend, Liliana Gil Vargas, was summoned to police headquarters, where she was told Proctor had died in a gunbattle with an army patrol. They claimed Proctor — whose green van had a for-sale sign and his cell phone number spray-painted on the windows — had attacked the troops. They showed her the gun.
His mother, Donna Proctor, devastated and incredulous, has been fighting through Mexico's secretive military justice system ever since to learn what really happened on the night of Aug. 22.
It took weeks of pressuring U.S. diplomats and congressmen for help, but she finally got an answer, which she shared with The Associated Press.
Three soldiers have been charged with killing her son. Two have been charged with planting the assault rifle in his hands and claiming falsely that he fired first, according to a Mexican Defense Department document sent to her through the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.
It is at least the third case this year in which soldiers, locked in a brutal battle with drug cartels, have been accused of killing innocent civilians and faking evidence in cover-ups.
Such scandals are driving calls for civilian investigators to take over cases that are almost exclusively handled by military prosecutors and judges who rarely convict one of their own.
"I hate the fact that he died alone and in pain an in such an unjust way," Donna Proctor, a Queens court bailiff, said in a telephone interview with the AP. "I want him to be remembered as a hardworking person. He would never pick up a gun and shoot someone."
President Felipe Calderon has proposed a bill that would require civilian investigations in all torture, disappearance and rape cases against the military. But other abuses, including homicides committed by on-duty soldiers, would mostly remain under military jurisdiction. That would include the Proctor case and two others this year in which soldiers were accused of even more elaborate cover-ups.
The first involved two university students killed in March during a gunbattle between soldiers and cartel suspects that spilled into their campus in the northern city of Monterrey. Mexico's National Human Rights Commission said soldiers destroyed surveillance cameras, planted guns on the two young men and took away their backpacks in an attempt to claim they were gang members. The military admitted the two were students after university officials spoke out.
In that case, military and civilian federal prosecutors are conducting a joint investigation into the killings. The military, however, is in charge of the investigation into the allegation of crime-scene tampering.
In the second case, two brothers aged 5 and 9 were killed in April in their family's car in the northern state of Tamaulipas. The rights commission said in a report that there was no gunbattle and that soldiers fired additional rounds into the family car and planted two vehicles at the scene to make it look like a crossfire incident. The Defense Department stands by its explanation and denies there was a cover-up.
The rights commission, an autonomous government institution, has received more than 4,000 abuse complaints, including torture, rape, killings and forced disappearances, since Calderon deployed tens of thousands of soldiers in December 2006 to destroy drug cartels in their strongholds.
The commission has recommended action in 69 of those cases, and the Defense Department says it is investigating 67.
So far military courts have passed down only one conviction for an abuse committed since Calderon intensified the drug war four years ago: an officer who forced a new subordinate in his unit to drink so much alcohol in a hazing ritual that he died. He was sentenced to four months in prison.
Another officer was convicted, then cleared on appeal, in the Aug. 3, 2007 death of Fausto Murillo Flores. Soldiers arrested Murillo and two other men in the northern state of Sonora, accusing them of arms possession. However, they only presented the two other men to the media and did not immediately acknowledge ever having had Murillo in custody.
Murillo's body was later found by the side of a road and the military acknowledged having detained him.
The Defense Department has not explained why the officer was acquitted.
The military justice system operates in near total secrecy, choosing what to publicly reveal and when.
While privately informing Proctor's family about his case, Defense Department officials have publicly refused to discuss it at all. The day after his death, Guerrero state prosecutors announced to reporters that Proctor was killed after attacking a military convoy.
His mother, angry that she kept reading news reports with that version of the events, has asked Defense Department officials to reveal publicly that soldiers were charged with planting the gun on her son. The department replied, in writing, that it would only do so after the soldiers had been sentenced.
Defense Department spokesman Col. Ricardo Trevilla told the AP to file a freedom of information petition. IT DID but was rebuffed with the explanation that information on the ongoing investigation was "classified as reserved for a period of 12 years."
Proctor's family, meanwhile, still doesn't understand why he was killed.
Donna Proctor said her son hated guns so much that he rejected her suggestion that he follow in her footsteps and become a court bailiff, a job that requires carrying a sidearm.
Instead, he become a construction worker and eventually started his own business in Atlanta, Georgia. Last year, he moved to Mexico's central state of Puebla with his Mexican-born wife and their young son, Giuseppe. The marriage foundered and his wife returned to Georgia.
Proctor stayed behind with his son and eventually met and fell in love with Liliana Gil Vargas, a waitress and mother of four. After a vacation in Barra de Coyuca, the beach town outside of Acapulco, the couple decided to move there. Proctor was saving up top to open a restaurant.
According to the document sent to his mother, the soldiers tried to stop Proctor and inspect his vehicle. They claim he fled, prompting one of the soldiers to shoot at him, hitting his car. The soldiers chased down the car and fired again, "wounding the driver who nonetheless continued to drive away, fleeing, crashing the car three kilometers down that road," the document said.
A superior officer in the patrol told the battalion commander what happened. The battalion commander sent another officer to the scene with the AR-15 rifle "in order to be placed in the vehicle, using the hands of the deceased to try to simulate an attack against military personnel," the document says.
For the family, there are many unanswered questions. Did Proctor really flee? Why would he have refused to stop?
Donna Proctor said he complained about being shaken down by Mexican police and soldiers but also spoke of being friendly with soldiers on the base near the home he was building in Barra de Coyuca.
"He was 32. He loved life. He loved his son and he wanted to work hard to give him something," she said.
Donna Proctor said Mexican Defense Department officials visited her recently in Long Island and compensated her for the cost of flying her son back to the U.S. and the funeral. She said she told them she wanted justice — and for the world to know what really happened.
"I told them I had no intention of this being the end of it," she said.