Published February 08, 2013
JACKSON, Mont. – Scrambling across a river embankment, over loose rocks and gravel, Jenny Wolfrom thought she was facing death.
A mob of about 30 people was chasing her through a small village outside Cuzco, Peru. They were hurling softball-sized rocks from a ridge directly above her and blowing whistles to signal to others where she was headed.
"I was just thinking, 'I'm going to die on my birthday,' " Wolfrom said. "I was more in disbelief than anything."
Her brother Jed and his wife, Meghan Doherty, were huddled on the other side of the river, about 50 feet from Wolfrom. They had stopped because Doherty was bleeding badly from being hit with rocks and couldn't see.
They were yelling to one another, trying to stay together during the chaos that had ensued since they arrived in the village a few hours earlier looking for a place to camp.
Badly injured from being pelted with rocks, the bloodied travelers were marched back to the village. It was the beginning of a violent, traumatic night, during which the Jackson residents were robbed, beaten and whipped.
"We begged for mercy," Jed Wolfrom said in an interview with NBC's "Today" show. "We thought we were going to die for 11 hours."
Jenny Wolfrom returned to Jackson on Jan. 10 to a warm reception at Jackson Hole Airport. Though Jed and Meghan made it safely out of Peru, they still are traveling in South America and have had limited Internet access. Jenny Wolfrom recounted the harrowing events of the group's attack during an interview Jan. 16 with the Jackson Hole News & Guide.
The three travelers met in Cuzco a week before the attack. Jenny Wolfrom met the other two, who left Jackson in April to travel through Central and South America.
When they pulled into the village of Palca on Dec. 29, they were looking for a place to camp. It was about 6:30 p.m. when they arrived cold and wet from hiking in the rain all day.
They had come down from hiking part of the Asungate trek and were exhausted, Wolfrom said. The three wanted to get a head start on their drive towards Machu Picchu, which meant trying to knock out some miles before turning in for the night. They drove an hour and a half south from Cuzco, which brought them to the small village.
They drove on a winding dirt road down the backside of a small hill. A valley that resembled Spring Gulch opened before them, Wolfrom said. They found an open area they thought would make for a good campsite. They opened two beers they picked up in Cuzco to celebrate Wolfrom's birthday.
While they were passing around the beers, two men in their 30s pulled up on motorbikes. They talked about the village, telling the travelers quirky facts about the area and its history.
"They seemed excited," Wolfrom said.
After chatting with the two men, the group started to see small lights descending a nearby hillside. About 25 villagers were headed toward the group with flashlights.
They gathered around the group's rusted, beat up truck that Jed had fixed up, and started looking through the vehicle. But the Americans started to feel uncomfortable when the villagers asked for their documents.
They refused to show their passports and started driving away. People starting throwing small rocks at the truck.
No more than 10 minutes after leaving the village, the group reached a school. They asked the headmaster if they could camp. He denied their request and turned them away.
Villagers had created a small roadblock with boulders, Wolfrom said. Attempts to talk failed and they decided to simply drive over the roadblock.
As they were driving, someone threw a large rock through the passenger side window, striking Jenny Wolfrom in the jaw. Others cracked the windshield.
Down the road, they came to a larger roadblock of boulders about 2 feet tall, Wolfrom said. On one side of the road was a cliff. The other side was an irrigation ditch.
Jed Wolfrom aimed for the canal and gunned it, trying to make it through. The truck flipped on its side.
Villagers had broken the truck's windows and were crowding around. The Wolframs pulled two cans of bear spray out of their packs and crawled out. They tried to plead but didn't think they were getting any response. They sprayed the bear spray and ran.
"We thought they would just let us run off," Wolfrom said, "but they didn't stop."
Villagers ran behind the group, staying as close as 15 feet. Others used cellphones to summon other villagers.
"There was a constant flow of people coming down with rocks," Wolfrom said.
The three travelers sustained serious injuries from rocks raining down on them. Meghan had to stop because of blood pouring down her face. Jenny Wolfrom kept running and ended up on a river embankment, not realizing that the other two had stopped. She heard a crack.
"I heard Jed get hit in the head," she said. "There was just this sound, a big crack. I hadn't heard from Meghan in 30 seconds. I figured they were dead."
Wolfrom ran back across the river and found Jed and Meghan. Jed's eye was swollen shut. He had teeth missing. About 30 villagers surrounded them.
"I thought, 'This is it, we're going to die,'" she said.
Villagers marched the three Jackson residents back to a gathering area. Some villagers were apologizing and saying everything would be OK. Others ran up to the travelers and hit them or threw rocks at them. They were trying to talk about what they wanted to do with them, speaking in Spanish at times and in their indigenous language at others.
"We weren't sure what we were sorry for, but we didn't know what else to say," Wolfrom said. "We offered them all of our belongings."
Some villagers smelled of alcohol, Wolfrom said.
The group was marched to the school where they had tried to camp earlier. It was almost 9 p.m., three hours after they arrived.
Villagers had collected whips. They were made of thick, rough rope and likely used for tending livestock, Wolfrom said.
"They would run up and hit us in the head and back," she said. "Jed would try to shield us and would get hit in the back."
Villagers were discussing what to do with the three travelers. They overheard people yelling "muerte." Others seemed to be talking about how they could make it look like an accident. They were put in the school while villagers deliberated.
"When we were in the school we were saying, 'Thank God they don't have guns,' " she said. "Then we came out and they had guns."
The group tried to run but was pushed back into the center of the crowd. They were lined up against the church. It was nearly 5 a.m. They were cold and hurt. They thought they were going to be executed.
"Someone shouted 'arriba' and fired a gun in the air," Wolfrom said.
Villagers, led by an armed man in a red and white varsity jacket, came up with a plan to pass off the incident as an accident. The travelers got drunk and crashed, Wolfrom said, summarizing the explanation they eventually signed and agreed to repeat to police.
"I think the truck saved us," she said. "They couldn't get rid of it."
Villagers tested the group with a man who impersonated a police officer. A man wearing a plastic badge on his hat that said "sheriff" asked them what happened, and they dutifully repeated the villagers' story.
Real police eventually showed up. They escorted the group to a medical clinic in a nearby village. They spent most the day telling their story.
"We didn't stop shaking for days," Wolfrom said.
They spent the next few days trying to find medical care. They talked to embassy staff and their families.
Friends and family rallied support. Some organized fundraising to pay for medical and travel expenses. Others started lobbying federal and state politicians from across the county to put pressure on Peruvian officials and embassy staffers.
"I was getting calls from senators, asking if I was OK," Jenny Wolfrom said.
It took several days for the agencies to start responding, she said. Then a crew from NBC flew down, and congressional members started making calls. That's when they saw a response, Wolfrom said.
Fundraising efforts netted more than $12,000 in less than a week, helping to pay the cost of flights out of the country, towing for the truck and medical care. Jed Wolfrom and Doherty stayed to coordinate legal efforts and take care of their truck, which they plan to ship from Argentina.
Wolfrom and Doherty met with Peruvian police to review photos of the suspects. The two were able to pick out some of the major players in the attack, Wolfrom said. Peruvian police said the two couldn't identify suspects, a statement that the Jacksonites are now disputing.
"Obviously we are all very upset by this and are unwilling to let the Peruvian police sweep this under the rug now that we are out of the country," Wolfrom said Monday.
She said they're gathering evidence.
"We are doing what we can to ensure that this case does not get dropped," Wolfrom said. "However the police in Ocongate are not taking this seriously and seem to believe that the village's alleged assumption that we were 'cattle rustlers' justifies the violent attack that occurred," she said.
State department officials said they were assisting in the investigation but directed questions to Peruvian officials. Peruvian tourism officials apologized for the attack and said it was not typical of residents of their country.