Backpacker Mysteriously Vanishes in Mexico
Dana Rishpy has vanished. The 24-year-old Israeli was last seen at a beach party in Tulum, Mexico, nine months ago. Dania, her mother, still hopes her child will return to the family’s home in Haifa. Dror, her father, thinks that the only place he will see his youngest daughter is in a video clip she recorded shortly before disappearing. Israeli officials involved in the case reluctantly agree with Dror, believing that Dana was likely murdered.
Answers have been hard to come by in this case. The Mexican federal authorities took the unusual step of opening their own probe a few weeks ago, but only after months of complaints from the Rishpy family about the investigation conducted by the authorities in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, along with a damning exposé of the case in a leading Mexican paper and a direct appeal by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai to Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderon.
“We got the full cooperation of the local authorities but no result, so we asked the federal authorities to step in,” said Itzhak Erez, a consul at the Israeli embassy in Mexico City. “It’s an especially difficult case because there is no evidence, no body and, as a result, no crime according to Mexican law.”
Erez added that Israel’s attorney general had opened his own probe in June and had asked for assistance from the Mexican federal authorities and the U.S. Justice Department.
Dania Rishpy places little hope in the latest Mexican gestures, given that the man whom the Israeli consulate and the Rishpy family wants for questioning — an American who was last seen with Dana — has never been interrogated by the Mexican authorities and has left the country and now lives in the United States.
Dana Rishpy grew up in a well-heeled Haifa family with three older siblings. Her father was an El Al pilot who worked for the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin during the 1960s.
After her army service Rishpy toyed with a number of artistic careers; during one stint, she helped dub children’s cartoons from Japan. Before flying to Cancun in March of this year, she had been in California, looking at potential schools where she could study computer animation.
Two days after arriving in Mexico, on March 26, Rishpy sent an e-mail to her family, saying she had met foreign tourists and was planning to take a boat trip to a nearby island. This would be her last communication with them.
The next time Dania and Dror Rishpy heard about Dana was April 7, when the phone rang at the Manhattan apartment where they live for a few weeks a year.
Dania says she answered and a man who identified himself as “Mati” told her that Dana had left her backpack with him. Dania told him to leave her daughter’s belongings at the reception of the hotel with a note for her. She then wrote her daughter an e-mail urging her to get in touch and passing on the message that Mati had called and left her bag at the hotel lobby.
After several follow-up e-mails went unanswered, Dania went into Dana’s e-mail account and saw that she had not used it in two weeks. She also came across an e-mail from “flower power.” The author was Mati, and the e-mail was sent a few hours after he had called the Rishpys in New York. In the e-mail, Mati informed Dana that he was leaving and that he had left her bags at the hotel.
The Rishpys now believe that Mati’s phone call and e-mail from April 7 were meant to serve as an alibi for Mati, whose real name, according to the Israeli consul, is Matthew Walshin. But at the time, they saw him as a helpful hand and wrote back, urging him to get in touch. He answered by e-mail that he had not heard from Dana since March 31, when she told him she was going to visit the Mayan ruins of Tulum, possibly with some young people from Quebec. The parents then asked him for the name and location of the bungalow where Dana had stayed. His April 21 answer was the last contact the Rishpys had with him.
The parents eventually called the local Mexican police, who found the hotel and Dana’s backpack April 24 with her belongings, her money and her passport. They also found her diary. The last entry was dated March 30. Dana wrote in Hebrew that she had come back to Tulum from the island with two Swiss and an American. The American, who she identified as Mati, offered to share his cabin.
“I do not know his intentions but I don’t want anything to do with him, at least until he takes a bath and cuts his hair. He seems friendly but he stinks…. What a good fortune to meet a guy like Mati, who knows this place,” she wrote. That night, she went with him to a party organized every Friday on the beach of the Mezzanine hotel in Tulum, the family determined.
It was after Dana’s backpack turned up that the Rishpys contacted Erez, who immediately flew to the area and organized a search with Israeli volunteers. On April 26, the volunteers located Walshin’s apartment. He had left a few hours earlier, taking a flight to San Francisco via Phoenix, according to Erez.
“We found his Californian driver’s license, a newspaper dated from the day before, so we know he had just left in a hurry,” Erez said.
Dana’s older brother had flown to Mexico from Spain to help in the investigation, and was told by several witnesses that Dana had left the party with Walshin. The family and the Israeli diplomats soon came to the conclusion that the investigation had been poorly handled: Evidence was not properly collected and witnesses not thoroughly questioned. In June and in October, the local district attorney, Melchor Bello Rodriguez, announced that the police had found witnesses in Belize and in Guatemala who had identified Dana and Walshin in a photograph. He declared the investigation closed.
The case was given a jolt in October, when journalist Sylvia Cherem published a six-part investigation in the Mexican newspaper La Reforma denouncing the work of the Quintana Roo authorities. Cherem posited that the negligence was due to their eagerness to protect the booming tourism business in the Cancun region.
According to Cherem, the Mexican police file contains statements about Walshin’s previous run-ins with the law. Cherem reported that a file from the international police agency, Interpol, mentions that Walshin had been convicted in California of sexual battery in 1990, serving six months in jail and five years of probation. This allegation was confirmed by Erez but could not be verified independently with the authorities of Santa Cruz County, where the incident allegedly took place.
The series in La Reforma and the pressure from the Israeli government were met by an announcement that the Mexican federal government was opening its own probe into the case.
While the Mexico investigation has dragged on, the Rishpys decided to hire a private investigator, a former San Francisco detective.
In mid-September, the detective confronted Walshin on the street in El Cerrito, a town near Berkeley, Calif. The detective told the Mexican press that he ended up in a brawl during which Walshin told him that he would never find the “girl in Mexico.” Walshin ended up spending the night in jail and was released the following day, according to police documents.
The detective, who does not work for the Rishpy family anymore, declined comment, stating that it could disrupt ongoing efforts to investigate the case.
While Walshin could not be located by the Forward, a defense of his actions has cropped up in the form of a series of anonymous comments on an English-language blog, Your Free Press, which has translated the Mexican articles. The comments argue that Walshin had helped the family by calling the parents and that he left the area because he did not trust the Mexican police. Another comment, dated October 31, claims that Rishpy had left the Mezzanine party not with Walshin but with two French Canadians. This was the second time French Canadians were mentioned, the other one being Walshin’s e-mail to Rishpy’s parents in which he said Dana went to the Tulum ruins with people from Quebec the day after the party.
Dania Rishpy has only one message for Walshin: “If you are innocent, why don’t you just tell us what you know? Why don’t you help us find our daughter?”
Both Cherem and Erez believe that the most likely scenario is that Dana was killed and the killer hid her body.
Dania says she imagines new scenarios every day. “My husband is not [an] optimist, but I still am,” she said. “I still see her coming through the door one day.”