The scene at the swim-up bar at the Mexican resort where Abbey Conner was pulled listless from the pool in January was full of young tourists last month when an attorney hired by Conner’s family showed up.
It wasn’t surprising. It was a typical scene at an all-inclusive five-star resort where foreigners from both sides of the equator flock to escape their cold winters.
But as he watched, the attorney noticed something disturbing.
“They serve alcoholic drinks with alcohol of bad quality and in great amounts, mixing different types of drinks,” he wrote in his native Spanish.
That single paragraph, buried near the end of a four-page report summarizing how 20-year-old Conner drowned within a couple hours of arriving at the Iberostar Hotel & Resorts' Paraiso del Mar, offers a possible lead in the investigation into her death.
And it could shed light on the circumstances surrounding numerous reports from others who have told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel they experienced sickness, blackouts and injuries after drinking at Iberostar and other resorts around Cancun and Playa del Carmen in recent months.They told the Journal Sentinel they believe they were drugged or the alcohol may have been tainted. They questioned how they could fall into a stupor so quickly. And whether they had been targeted.
Was it robbery? In one case, two teenage brothers from Minnesota on vacation with their parents woke up covered in mud, with no shirts or shoes and their wallets and cellphones missing. They had gotten separated during the night. One had a severe rash all over his legs. Neither could remember what happened.
Sexual assault? One Wisconsin woman interviewed by the Journal Sentinel said she was assaulted while both she and her husband were unconscious — something supported by an exam done by her OB-GYN when she returned to Neenah. Her husband woke up with a broken hand — a “boxer’s break” that his doctor said likely resulted from hitting someone — but also no memory of what had happened.
Extortion? In at least three cases, travelers reported that local hospitals, part of the Hospiten chain, appeared to be gouging them, demanding large sums of cash. One man was told to take a cab to an ATM. The vacationers suspected Iberostar might be in cahoots with the medical company. The resort contracts with Hospiten and refers sick and injured guests to Hospiten's facilities. Abbey Conner's family paid about $17,000 to a small medical clinic south of Playa del Carmen and within several hours paid tens of thousands more to a hospital in Cancun, north of the resort, where Abbey and her brother were transferred.
Others can find no motive for their suspected drugging.
Could it be what the attorney for the Conner family alluded to in his report: All-inclusive resorts using cheap, bootleg booze to cut costs?
A 2015 report from Mexico’s Tax Administration Service found that 43% of all the alcohol consumed in the nationis illegal, produced under unregulated circumstances resulting in potentially dangerous concoctions.
The national health authority in Mexico has seized more than 1.4 million gallons of adulterated alcohol since 2010 — not just from small local establishments, but from hotels and other entertainment areas, according to a 2017 report by the country's Federal Commission for Protection against Health Risks.
The bootleg liquor could be infused with grain alcohol or dangerous concentrations of methanol, cheaper alternatives to producing ethanol, government reports warn.
And the mixtures are capable of making people extremely sick.
The blackouts have happened to men and women, young and old, to singles and to couples, according to interviews with nearly a dozen travelers and family members whose loved ones died or were injured at the resorts, as well as hospital records, ambulance receipts, hotel correspondence and other documents.
They have happened at Iberostar’s property in Cancun and at the company's cluster of resorts 30 miles to the south in Playa del Carmen. And they've happened to guests at other all-inclusive resorts in the region, such as Secrets and the Grand Oasis.
Often the vacationers report that they drank tequila, but in other cases it was rum, beer or another alcohol.
Some said they had only a drink or two before losing consciousness and waking up hours later — with no recollection of how they got back to their rooms or to the hospital, or how they were injured.
Those interviewed said the feeling of being drugged is far different than that of being drunk. They felt certain that whatever happened to them was caused by more than drinking too heavily.
Terrifying is a word many used to describe it.
Nearly all reported that it happened within the first two days of their stay, with several opting to leave the resorts and head home before their planned departure — without receiving refunds.
A spokeswoman for Spain-based Iberostar told the Journal Sentinel the company takes the health and safety of its guests seriously. A statement from Iberostar said the company's Mexican resorts book about 500,000 guests a year and that the company adheres to strict regulatory standards.
"We work with a host of providers not unique to IBEROSTAR who service other hotel chains and renowned brands," the statement says. "Similarly, we only purchase sealed bottles that satisfy all standards required by the designated regulatory authorities."
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It is impossible to know the scope of the problem, since many of the incidents go uninvestigated. In several cases, travelers told the Journal Sentinel that staffers at Iberostar resorts would not call the police and said the guests should take a cab to the police department if they wanted to file a report.
The U.S. Department of State tallies deaths of U.S. citizens in foreign countries, but doesn’t always have many details. The agency doesn’t track how often people are drugged or otherwise injured.
A search of the agency's data shows nearly 300 U.S. citizens have drowned in Mexico in the last decade, 39 last year alone. The database doesn't provide surrounding circumstances.
Department officials would not comment on Conner’s death other than to say they “are aware of this case,” and to extend condolences to the family.
Abbey Conner was on a family vacation with her mother, stepfather and brother in January and was found face down in the pool unconscious shortly after they arrived. She was brain dead, and a few days later was flown to Florida, where she was taken off life support.
Her older brother, Austin, nearly drowned in the pool next to her. He suffered an injury to his forehead and a severe concussion. He doesn’t remember what happened.
The last thing he recalls is that he and his sister had four or five shots of tequila, then another shot with a group of people. When he regained consciousness, he was in an ambulance. Abbey was on life support.
Abbey was later found to have a broken collar bone. It’s unclear what caused it. Experts say it’s possible it was cracked during CPR when hotel staff and a contracted doctor on site tried to resuscitate her, though such a fracture would be uncommon.
Abbey's mother and stepfather, Ginny and John McGowan of Pewaukee, and her father, Bill Conner, who lives just south of Madison, have gotten few answers about what happened and little to no cooperation from the resort, police in Mexico or authorities in the U.S.
In Mexico, they took a cab to the police station, but were discouraged from filing a report.
They said the Iberostar resort has been nothing but an obstructionist. The resort has refused to allow the bartender and other employees or guests to be interviewed.
And the U.S. State Department suggested there was nothing it could do to help.
The State Department’s latest notice on travel to Mexico, posted in December 2016, makes no mention of any concern for vacationers at all-inclusive resorts. Indeed, it suggests they are relatively safe.
“Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico generally do not see the level of drug-related violence and crime that are reported in the border region or in areas along major trafficking routes,” the notice says.
Trusted websites such as TripAdvisor, Expedia and others have strict policies limiting what is allowed to be included in online customer reviews.
So while readers might learn that a resort's seafood isn’t fresh and the beds are too hard, they won’t typically hear that guests were assaulted on the property or that they believed a bartender slipped something in their drinks.
When guests interviewed by the Journal Sentinel tried to describe what happened on those sites, they said their comments were rejected.
There is no central clearinghouse for that type of information.
It’s easy for those researching upcoming vacations to get a false sense of security, said Maureen Webster, who launched the site Mexicovacationawareness.com nearly 10 years ago, after her 22-year-old son, Nolan, drowned in the pool at a Mexican resort.
“Every time, every single time, something bad happens, they (Mexican resorts and authorities) blame the victim,” Webster said. “They say ‘They were drunk, they were drunk, they were drunk, they were drunk.’ Every single time.
“Shame on the (U.S.) government for not making this an issue,” she said. “It’s a big problem.”
In her son's case,Webster gathered statements from more than a dozen witnesses who were around the pool at the Grand Oasis in Cancun who said her son was not drunk. A Canadian nurse who was at the pool and came to his aid signed a statement saying resort officials forbid him from performing CPR on her son. Nolan was breathing at the time and hotel staff did nothing but watch him die, the nurse wrote.
Webster, who lives outside Boston, sued the resort and later reached a settlement.
Karen Smith, a long-time resident of New Jersey who now lives in Florida, has known Maureen Webster since 2013. That was the year Smith’s adult son, Brian Manucci, drowned in the same Grand Oasis pool where Nolan Webster died.
“There’s no accountability,” said Smith. “Even if it’s overserving, they promote this risky behavior, but have no means to handle it when it occurs.
“It’s just so mind boggling that something like this could occur, and it’s just like ‘Oh well.’”
Kathy and Jeff Daley and their neighbors in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, took their teenage children to the Iberostar Cancun in March 2016 for a little spring getaway. They were all in the pool around the swim-up bar.
The group had a round of tequila shots, the first drink of the day for Kathy.
She had been careful to stick with water throughout the day to stay hydrated. She didn’t care much for the shot, so when everyone else had another, she declined. The bartender offered her something else. Something special, he said. It was a mixed drink of some kind — she wasn’t sure what. She took a few sips.
She lost consciousness. The next thing she remembers is being in a hospital. Vomiting and disoriented.
Doctors declared Kathy, 53, to be very intoxicated and dehydrated.
Hospital workers told Jeff they needed to collect $2,000 cash for her visit. When he said he didn’t carry that kind of money, they said they would take a taxi with him to an ATM.
It was around 8 or 9 p.m. and Jeff refused to go out with a stranger at night to get cash. He insisted they accept his credit card if they wanted immediate payment.
Jeff, an advanced emergency medical technician, said the way the resort and hospital handled his wife's care could have killed her. He said the hotel doctor resisted calling an ambulance and charged them $139 before he would let them leave in the ambulance. The defibrillator in the ambulance had no battery and nobody seemed to know how to get oxygen hooked up.
Medical records from Hospiten Cancun show Kathy’s blood alcohol level was 0.02, well below the 0.08 considered by many states in the U.S. to be legally impaired.
Hospital workers later reported to the Daleys' travel insurance company that aside from being inebriated, they found drugs in her system — though the records they provided to the Daleys show drug tests were “in progress” and don’t include any results.
Kathy Daley said she takes two low-dose prescription medications that she’s taken for years and has never had a reaction from having a drink or two. Those would be the only drugs that should be in her system, she told them.
Credit card receipts show the hospital charged the Daleys $1,256. That didn’t include the ambulance.
When Kathy tried to post a review on TripAdvisor warning travelers about what happened, a TripAdvisor representative told her in an email that it didn't meet the guidelines. Daley's review did not contain profanity. It included a couple sentences that recounted what a bartender said to her daughter as well as what her husband and friends did when they saw her struggling.
TripAdvisor labeled it hearsay.
"If you'd be willing to edit and resubmit your review, we'd really appreciate it," the email from TripAdvisor stated.
Tara Lieberman, a TripAdvisor spokeswoman, told the Journal Sentinel the company has guidelines stating that "every review must be unbiased, family friendly, based on a first-hand experience, and relevant to other travelers."
She said about 390 million travelers consult the website and mobile app every month when scoping out travel plans.
In February, Nancy Mahowald Nelson and her family traveled from Bayport, Minn., to the Iberostar Cozumel resort, on an island east of Playa del Carmen.
It was Super Bowl Sunday and Nelson, 57, and her husband were watching their young grandchildren by the pool that morning. Her son and daughter-in-law took over and Nancy and her husband went to the swim-up bar. It was just after lunch. Two drinks. That was it.
She woke a few hours later to see blood on her bed sheets and her husband standing nearby. When she asked what had happened, he told her she had been very drunk and had fallen and scraped her knee. He and another man had to help walk her back to the room.
"I really thought 'Gosh, I’ve got a problem,'" she said. "I internalized it. I thought, 'Wow, what is wrong with me?' I was just more embarrassed, hoping my son and daughter-in-law didn't see me in that condition. I'm there looking after the kids. What the heck?
"It was really weird."
Rick and Diana Neuenschwander spent their Fourth of July at Secrets Akumal resort just south of Playa del Carmen a few weeks ago. The Cincinnati couple, both in their mid-50s, were happy to have some quiet time, since both were gearing up for new jobs.
They put some floaties in the pool and spent the afternoon sipping margaritas. Around 4 p.m. or so, Rick ordered another round. He remembers how he and Diana commented that each of the drinks were different colors. They both tasted each one.
Four hours later, they woke up in their room and found hotel staff in the room with them. No recollection of how they got there. No idea what went on during that time.
The Neuenschwanders didn’t think they were robbed or assaulted — though they weren’t certain about the latter.
Rick had some scrapes on his head and nose that he didn’t know where they came from. Diana had faint bruises on her shoulders and felt like at some point she had been held down, he said.
They left the resort the next day.
“Yes, we had been drinking at the pool, but the fact that we both blacked out at the same time and woke up at about the same time, that’s pretty crazy," Neuenschwander said. "You don’t do that, that doesn’t happen.”
He feels certain they were drugged.
“Can you go to Las Vegas and experience this same thing?" he said. "Yes, but it seems to me it’s a big cover-up; it’s swept under the rug.”
Representatives of Secrets could not be reached for comment.
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Jamie Valeri remembers trying to scream. But no sound came out of her mouth — as far as she knows.
Valeri and her husband of 13 years were not conscious. They were in their hotel room at Iberostar's Paraiso Maya, in the same array of resorts where Abbey and Austin Conner would wind up in a pool two years later.
It was 2015 and the Valeris were there to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Over the course of a couple hours, they had a few drinks on the beach — three each, to be exact.
Then they blacked out.
Jamie Valeri recalls vomiting and being on a cold tile floor. And she remembers being sexually assaulted. She couldn't see or hear anything. But she could feel what was happening. She was in pain and wanted to fight, but her body was paralyzed.
"I thought I was dying," she said. "I couldn't get out of whatever state of mind I was in ... I remember thinking, 'How are my six kids going to find out and what's going to happen to them?'"
Rick doesn't recall anything. All he knows for certain is that his hand was broken when he woke up. Not from a fall, but from hitting something, or more likely — according to his doctor — someone.
When the Wisconsin couple reported to resort officials they believed they had been drugged, they were told they would have to go to the police department themselves if they wanted to file a complaint.
Hotel staffers encouraged them to go the hospital and to take cash.
Jamie was afraid to do either. They stayed in their room until it was time to leave two days later.
“If that could happen to us inside a resort that we paid to be at, I could only imagine what could have happened to us outside,” Jamie said. “I was terrified.”
Both were seen by doctors when they returned to Neenah. Medical and other records support their story.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that in my 30s, and my husband in his 40s — he’s 6-3, 220 pounds — we would be sitting at a five-star resort, that there was ever a possibility not only that we could be drugged, but that any harm could come to me.
"How could that happen?”
John Diedrich of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.