Death on the Cheap: The Agony of Ruth

By Jake Strickler, Editor-in-Chief

This is the second installment in a series of articles investigating the 1982 murder of Thunderbird professor Nicholas Schrock. The first can be found here. The story will be concluded over the next two weeks.

A Note on Violence

There are many types and degrees of violence which can be met with or dealt out. The kind we’re most familiar with is physical violence: the actions that brought Nicholas Schrock’s life to an end. There’s also psychological violence, which is far more difficult to comprehend because of its intangibility.  The latter tends to ripple out from instances of the former. These are the mechanics of terror. When a mass tragedy occurs, the true number of casualties far outnumbers the tally of dead and injured. These figures don’t account for the people who have known and loved those killed or maimed. It’s impossible to quantify the psychological trauma they experience; there’s no pain-scale of one-to-ten to apply. It’s also highly difficult to treat its effects, to offer the same sort of comfort that modern medicine can to the sick and wounded. Death and grief are natural parts of human existence, but under these circumstances, they’re vile, insidious, and wholly unnatural.

Mexican pulp art, circa 1970s. Artist unknown.
Mexican pulp art, circa 1970s. Artist unknown.

There’s an essential truth to this dynamic that allows us to unravel the mystery at the heart of the Schrock case. While this is a summary of the events surrounding Nick’s death, the truth is, it’s not his story. The story is Ruth’s. It may sound callous, but Nick’s pain was over quickly. Brutally and unimaginably, but quickly. Ruth’s went on for the rest of her life, with only the faintest salve of closure, which, itself, almost served as the punchline to the morbid joke; another heaping of salt rubbed into the wound. It’s the thought of her lying awake and alone at night for years and just not knowing that disturbs me endlessly, far more than the blood and guts.

Telling the story from this point on is very difficult for me. The violence is severe. There will be details that make me highly uncomfortable to put into writing. I feel voyeuristic and sleazy; unable to confront these facts or write a word of this during the daylight for fear of being seen digging up the bloody ground of the past. These are things best left for the witching hour; the darkest hours of the night when the barrier between the living and the dead, the past and the present, weakens and becomes permeable.

Ruth’s pain has been made tangible to me during this process. I can grasp it and understand it. The difficulty has been in maintaining a distance; something that, admittedly, I haven’t at all times been able to do, and that has prevented me from sitting down and writing this story until now, even though I’ve been living within its boundaries for some time.

The strength that Ruth displayed throughout, however, and the force with which she fought to see those responsible for the death of the man she loved brought to justice, require that the whole truth be told, down to the last detail. Ruth Schrock never pulled a punch, and I can’t either. I owe her that.

Ruth

There’s far less to go on in painting a picture of Ruth Schrock than there is in doing the same of Nick. I have no obituaries to pull information from; no “Meet your Professor” columns. I don’t even know if the proper tense to use when referring to her is “is” or “was;” whether she’s alive or dead.

A copy of a copy of a copy. As clear of a depiction of Ruth as I can provide.
A copy of a copy of a copy. As clear of a depiction of Ruth as I can provide.

I do know that she was born in 1940, which would make her 77 today, and that she met Nick in the ‘60s at San Diego State, where he was getting his Master’s in economics, and she hers in English. They were married, and she followed Nick to Eugene while he did his doctoral work. This is where their friendship with Marshall Geer began. I know that both the Schrocks and Geer’s family moved to Boulder in the early 1970s. The Schrocks purchased a house in the University Hill District that I used to live just a few blocks away from. This house, as described by Patty Burnett in an undated Daily Camera article that I can place as having been published in the latter-third of June 1982, was (is?) “modestly furnished except for the books they both love and the cellar of wines Schrock methodically stores and reviews in a personal ledger.”

I know that the two never had children (but owned two dogs, who kept Ruth company throughout the ordeal) because, as Geer relates, “Nick has always said he didn’t want the responsibility of children, but my kids have always loved him.”  I know that Geer’s children referred to Nick as “Mustard” and Ruth as “Custard.” Geer and his family appear to have been members of a small group; I’ve found no evidence of Nick and Ruth having many close friends, or at least ones close enough to have children on a pet-name-basis with them.

I know that Nick and Ruth both had siblings, but they don’t appear to have been close with them, either. When quoted in reports, these individuals are referred to as “Ruth’s sister,” or “Nick’s brother-in-law.” As Burnett writes in the article mentioned above: “Of [their] marriage and family, Ruth Schrock has been firm: Since her husband’s disappearance, she has said nothing. It’s her defense mechanism, a friend said, and like her husband, she’s a very private person.” A friend. Ruth’s sister. A very private person. For someone trying to sniff out a trail, these are not ideal clues to work with.

ruth 3I have spoken to one person who was on the C.U. campus at the time and saw Ruth. She did hold at least one rally on its grounds, hoping to draw attention to the case. She was described to me as looking like she’d “walked out of 1968.” The few photos that I have of her bear this out. Even for the early ‘80s, she looks like a relic of decades past; not quite beatnik and not quite hippie. But, while fashion has long played the role of being an outward expression of one’s personal beliefs about politics or lifestyle choice, I don’t believe that such a characterization applies here. Nothing that touches the Schrock murder could possibly be so straightforward.

Wesley Yordon, Chairman of the C.U. Economics Department at the time, told the Camera that, “Politically, [Nick] is hard to place…You could say middle-of-the-road, but it’s a funny middle-of-the-road because he might criticize any particular direction for which he thought criticism was called for.” Similarly, one Daniel Singer, a C.U. alum who studied under Schrock and embarked upon his own career teaching economics at, among other schools, Johns Hopkins and Maryland’s Towson University, told the C.U. alumni magazine in 2009 that Nick was “the most profound of all [his] teachers.”

Nick and Ruth, I think, simply can’t be pegged down. They refused to see things in terms of black-and-white. They refused to give themselves over to one mode or ideology for the sake of dogma or membership. Their relative isolation, and the sense I get that their friends and family members never really knew them, tells me that they were two immensely complex and intelligent individuals who managed to understand one another and rarely wanted for the company of others. They were outsiders; different. Nick climbed mountains while sucking down Pall Malls. Ruth held campus rallies in rounded John Lennon glasses, exuding the peace-and-love vibe, while tunneling through every political sewer and back alley she could find in hopes of locating the right pressure point to drive her thumb into, the right place to stick the knife, to get somebody to do something. I would have gotten along with them fantastically.

nick and ruthThis dearth of clues is not for lack of searching. I’ve obtained a copy of Ruth’s nursing license, which she received 12/15/81 (coincidentally, the start date of the winter-spring unit being taught by Nick in Japan and China for AGSIM). I know that it was renewed in March of ’86, October of ’03, and expired in September of ‘05. The name on all of the documentation is Ruth Schrock, indicating that she likely didn’t remarry. I’ve contacted the Human Resources department of Boulder Community Health. I’ve spent hours upon hours digging through public records and contacting other area Schrocks. These attempts have all yielded the same result: absolutamente nada.

But I do have an address. It’s that of a single-family home built in 1922, small and with an enormous backyard (which I bet the dogs loved). I’ve found record of the sale to Nick and Ruth, but no indication that the property has undergone a transfer of ownership since that point. Due to this, and the fact that I’ve found no death notice, either (surely a cross-reference at the Camera would have turned up their stories about the events of the early ‘80s and resulted in some sort of article), I feel that Ruth is still alive and in Boulder. I believe that she retired from nursing at the end of 2005 and his since lived a life of privacy and solitude. I believe that she, myself, and a handful of others who were close to the investigation and are still living are the only ones who know the full story. I doubt that even her neighbors know about her past, and think that it’s a small nexus of Boulder-Thunderbird economics students and professors who even remember the events as something like myth or legend. This was 35 years ago. Ancient history.

As previously mentioned, I sent a letter to this address early last summer, nearly a year ago. It read, in part:

“I believe that your story is as relevant today as it was 34 years ago, and that it deserves to be brought to the broader attention of the public. Your tenacity and courage in the face of a seemingly impossible to resolve situation, your perseverance in your search for answers within a fog of obfuscation, have been a constant motivation for me to keep investigating. You left no stone unturned in fighting to secure justice for your husband, and you deserve respect and commendation for that. I would be honored to obtain your blessing in the telling of your story.”

But then, there’s also the interview that Ruth gave to the New York Times’ William E. Schmidt, published August 13, 1982:

“It has been more than two months since Nicholas Schrock, an economics professor at the University of Colorado, disappeared while driving through Mexico on his way to a summer teaching assignment in Guadalajara. But his wife, Ruth, says she will not cry out of grief.

‘There are a lot of things I have to do, and crying is not important,’ said Mrs. Schrock, whose husband’s body has not been found. ‘I decided some time ago that if I was going to cry, I would only do so in front of a television camera.’

For Mrs. Schrock, tears, like anger, are weapons to be used in an insistent campaign to press both American and Mexican officials to conduct a more thorough investigation into the disappearance not only of her husband, but also of other Americans who have turned up missing or murdered on trips to Mexico…

Although Mrs. Schrock has raised a public clamor over her husband’s disappearance, she has sought to keep the rest of her life as private as possible. She refuses to disclose her current job, will not discuss her marriage and, until recently, would not permit her photograph to be taken.

‘These things are irrelevant,’ she says.”

As much as I do believe that Ruth is still alive, and that she did receive and read my letter, I believe that this book is now closed for her. Opening it back up would only be “irrelevant.” But, considering all of the dead-ends I’ve walked down, all the failed attempts I’ve made, I know the only way I’ll know for sure is to knock on a 77-year-old woman’s door and ask her to talk about her husband’s murder. And I simply haven’t been able to find the indecency to do that.

This story is, in my opinion, highly relevant, and has a purpose far beyond the recitation of lurid details that this genre is known for: truth. Re-opening the book is the only way that anything like justice can be served in what was an atrocious parody of it. It’s to this task that we’ll now return.

What I've been staring at for days on end.
What I’ve been staring at for days on end.

First, briefly, I’ve noticed something odd that I feel compelled to make note of. I hadn’t read my letter to Ruth since dropping it in the mailbox last summer. I only dug it up, in fact, after writing the lines immediately preceding its quotation here, about 2,000 words into this chapter. When I wrote the letter, I’d barely scratched the surface. I’ve spent the interim poring over documents, pinning up cork boards in the Das Tor office and drawing lines between notecards like an obsessed movie detective. I hadn’t yet done the work. But I’ve come full circle: I didn’t tell Ruth that her husband’s story needs to be told; I said that it was her story that needed to be told. I had no recollection of the emphasis I placed on this framing. The lesson, I think, is that your gut might, at times, be the best source of information there is.

Disappointment in Mazatlán

When Ruth Schrock and Marty Geer stepped off the plane in Mazatlán on the morning of 7/3/82, Nick’s dental records were clutched in her hand. She was prepared to identify his corpse, as John Gavin’s phone call to Joaquim Duarte had intimated. They were met by the two consular officials who had discovered Nick’s truck, Bob Downes and Michael Oreste. They reported that two elements of Gavin’s call were borne out: the truck had been found, and a suspect was in custody. But the most crucial bit of news Gavin had delivered missed the mark by a distance: Nick’s body had not been found. When Gavin and Duarte had spoken on June 30, the Ambassador had stressed that this bit of information was unconfirmed.

But by the point of Ruth and Geer’s arrival, even local papers were reporting that “A body resembling that of Nicholas Schrock was found late Friday at a site north of here, where his truck was found,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs. The pieces don’t fit together here. July 2 was a Friday, meaning that this piece of information could not have made it into print until at least July 3, by which time it was known that there was no body. The previous Friday was June 25, three days before Schrock’s truck would be discovered by Downes and Oreste. Prior to the truck’s discovery, the case was being treated as a disappearance, rather than a potential homicide. On which Friday were these papers reporting that a body had been found? Was the report deliberate obfuscation, or was it the result of rumor and incompetence? Was it another body altogether? Damnit, I don’t know.

AuH2OGavin, it bears mentioning, was under a great deal of pressure at the time of his conversation with Duarte. Over the past weeks, Ruth, AGSIM, and C.U. Boulder had gone to work enlisting the assistance of every person with political or public influence they could round up. UAG, in Guadalajara, had done the same with members of the Mexican government and media. Letters had gone out to virtually every member of the U.S. House and Senate. At least 56 congressional offices, as well as a number of senators, had directly contacted Gavin pressing him to find Schrock, according to the State Department’s timeline of the case. Particularly active in this effort were Arizona Senators Barry Goldwater (who had famously run a disastrous campaign against Lyndon Johnson for the presidency in 1964) and Dennis DeConcini, as well as House Representatives Elon Rudd and John Rhodes. Correspondence between the four, Marshall Geer, and Berger Erickson exists in the Thunderbird Archives. Rudd, in a December ’82 letter to Geer, wrote, “I am very disappointed that additional progress in the investigation has not been made to date.” Goldwater, in a letter to Erickson from the same month, expresses his distress “over this very, very sad situation.”

As Geer said of this effort, “I utilized all the political force I could. Guadalajara is a city of about three million people, and the missing persons report of a citizen in the street is going to be courteously received, but who knows what happens to that report? I wanted to leave that question moot.” At the same time, however, Embassy spokesman Tom Johnson told the press, “Some are advocating strong-arm tactics with the Mexican authorities. But this is a sovereign country. We cannot undertake a criminal case in a sovereign country.”

How Gavin's Ambassadorship was supposed to look. A Breath of Scandal (1960)
How Gavin’s Ambassadorship was supposed to look. A Breath of Scandal (1960)

John Gavin may have arrived in Mexico City with expectations of a cushy political appointment filled with glad-handing and state dinners; a gift from Ronald Reagan, who had climbed out of B-movie purgatory and into a position of incredible power that afforded him the opportunity to arrange the same for his friends. But Gavin now found himself in the middle of a political firestorm without shelter or compass. This tension between the two governments over who calls the shots in the search for Nick Schrock is something that we will continue to explore in great detail; an understanding of this dynamic is essential to comprehending these events.

But, for now, let’s take a moment to consider the mix of feelings that Ruth and Geer likely experienced when they received the news that Nick’s remains hadn’t been found. At once they would have felt disappointment at the ordeal not having been concluded, as well as a glimmer of hope that, without a body, Nick could still be alive. This hope would quickly be snuffed out.

The Scapegoat

Los Federales
Los Federales

Though many tend to think of Mexico as one large, unified country, its political and judicial structures have much similarity to those of the U.S. It consists of 31 states, each with its own capital, and a Federal District (Mexico D.F.), which is where Mexico City is located. D.F. is also the seat of political power; think of it as a combination of Washington D.C. and New York City, which is the only metropolitan area in the western hemisphere larger than D.F. The law enforcement oversight food-chain begins with the Federal Police, the Policía Federal Preventiva (P.F.), who work closely in concert with the military and are commonly referred to as Federales. They retain jurisdiction over state police forces, who, in turn, wield power over local police.

The suspect being held in the murder of Nick Schrock, it must be noted, was in the custody of the local San Ignacio police. His name was Genaro Juarez. He was a known petty criminal from Culiacan, the capital city of Sinaloa, about 130 miles north of Mazatlán. If one were to drive south on Highway 15 between the two cities, the turn-off to San Ignacio is roughly two-thirds of the way to Mazatlán. Genaro Juarez’s age at the time of his arrest, by various reports, was either 16, between 18-20, or 28 (my gut says he was no older than 20). He worked at a Pemex gas station a few miles north of the San Ignacio turn-off. He had been arrested for highway robbery on 6/9/82 and released shortly after. He was re-arrested at some point before the call between Gavin and Duarte on the night of June 30. The official charge was recorded as “Suspicious Activities on June 27, 28, and 29.”

While in custody, Genaro confessed to the murder of Nicholas Schrock, as well as to digging a grave about a foot in depth in which he concealed the remains. He had named an accomplice, who was still being sought. Additionally, he had taken the police to the spot along Highway 15 where he said that he had committed the murder and buried Schrock. He claimed to have left the truck after rifling Nick’s belongings for valuables, taking what interested him, and driving away with the accomplice in their own vehicle. A search of the area by the same 20 soldiers who had accompanied Oreste to retrieve the truck had turned up $370 in traveler’s checks, $100 in cash, Nick’s passport, the Sanborn’s auto insurance policy, Nick’s trip expense log, “several boxes, a small leather suitcase, several knapsacks, [and] some old clothes.” These items were turned over to and cataloged by the Consulate. A dark stain was found on the driver’s seat of the Datsun, but it would be some time before it could be determined whether it was blood.

Arnulfo Velarde Cruz, San Ignacio's Chief of Police
Arnulfo Velarde Cruz, San Ignacio’s Chief of Police. Note that he appears to be leaning against a white pickup truck in this photo. Could it be an ’81 Datsun?

Genaro’s story neatly matched the one given by San Ignacio Chief of Police Arnulfo Velarde Cruz who, along with Mayor Francisco Javier Palacios Sarabia, had been driving the Datsun for the past month. According to Velarde Cruz, a bus driver had alerted the San Ignacio police to the presence of a white Datsun abandoned along the side of Highway 15 on June 2. A detachment, he said, had driven down to investigate, found the truck empty with the keys in the ignition, and driven it back up to town. Mayor Palacios Sarabia, who had outfitted the truck to advertise his re-election campaign, said that he had only been driving it “to keep the battery up.” At no point was he ever considered a suspect or charged with robbery.

The Consulate booked hotel rooms for Ruth and Geer, and they retired early. They left for San Ignacio at 4:30 the next morning, Sunday, July 4, accompanied by Oreste and Ronald Cramer, another consular official. Upon arriving in San Ignacio, Oreste and Cramer had a conversation with Chief Velarde Cruz, who informed the men that the search for both Schrock’s remains and the other suspect were suspended for the day due to the election; it was Palacios Sarabia’s time to shine, after all. The men from the Consulate offered no protest. Geer, however, grew frustrated, viewing this as “basically an exchange of pleasantries.” He confronted Velarde Cruz directly, asking several pointed questions about Genaro Juarez and the missing suspect.

The party was shocked by the answers Velarde Cruz gave. None of Nick’s missing belongings, he said, had been found in Genaro’s possession at the time of his arrest. Additionally, Genaro had recanted and was now vehemently denying both the murder and the robbery. The second suspect, they were told, was possibly in Mazatlán, but had probably fled to the neighboring state of Durango. Oreste and Cramer, Geer said, were visibly “taken aback” by this news. On the drive back to Mazatlán, Geer recounts, Cramer said something to the effect of it now being an “open question as to whether or not the suspect was in fact guilty of anything more serious than having been designated by the police as a convenient scapegoat.”

Geer and Ruth returned to their respective homes the next day, July 5. Ruth is quoted in an Arizona Republic article published the same day: “The worst scenario is never to know at all. Seeing the body would enable myself, our friends, family, and [Nick’s] colleagues to have a more normal grieving.” How one defines “worst,” however, is a subjective threshold. Over the next ten days, Ruth’s would be pushed still further.

El Nene and the Gas Station Job

There wasn’t much news for Ruth and Geer over the next week. They wearily continued their efforts, with Ruth publicly denouncing the Mexican government and U.S. State Department in several interviews for their bungling of the facts that had taken her to San Ignacio. This press attention accomplished something enormous which she wouldn’t learn of that week: the investigation was taken out of the hands of the San Ignacio police by the Sinaloa state force and the Federales. When officials arrived in San Ignacio to speak to Genaro Juarez, they found him severely beaten and with one hell of a story to tell.

Prisoners at the Islas Marias Penal Colony
Prisoners at the Islas Marias Penal Colony

The confession had obviously been tortured out of Juarez, and the tune he now was singing was, in the infamous words of Lee Harvey Oswald, “I’m just a patsy.” On the night of June 1, he said, he had been working his shift at the Pemex station. Hanging outside were three off-duty members of the San Ignacio police force, as well as our mysterious accomplice, “El Nene,” or The Baby. El Nene was 25 years old at the time, and had recently been released from the Islas Marias prison colony: an Alcatraz-like four-island archipelago off the coast of the state of Nayarit, close to the city of San Blas, where the two Americans had been found dead in the ten days after Schrock’s disappearance. He’d been locked up on a “morals charge.” Built in 1905, the prison was a notorious hotbed of forced labor, communicable disease, and endemic violence. In 2003, it was announced that the complex would begin to be shut down and turned into a bio-reserve. But in 2004, the amount of inmates being held in Mexican prisons had become so overwhelming that 2,500 fresh prisoners were transferred to the islands.

I have three proper names for El Nene: Claudio Lamarque Trevino/a, Claudio Lamarque Bereda, and Maclovio Lamarque-Perrida, as well as a few more variations on those. El Nene is a ghost: his true identity is a mystery. He may have been apprehended, he may have fled to the U.S., or he may still be in Sinaloa. I have reports of all three scenarios. This is as close as I’d like to get to El Nene; shining a flashlight down these alleyways is the kind of thing that results in journalists winding up dead these days. My gut tells me baaaaaad juju here, and I’ve learned to listen to it.

gas stationNick Schrock had left Phoenix with $5,500 in traveler’s checks and $500 in cash. According to Genaro Juarez, El Nene saw Nick flash this roll when he stopped at the station to fuel up, and “invited the police to do the job,” as a 7/14/82 article published in the Mazatlán paper Noroeste phrases it. “The Job,” specifically, was catching up to the Datsun a few miles down the highway, either forcing Schrock off the road or pulling him over using one of the officers’ cruisers, and doing the garrote-bludgeon-stab act. The cash and traveler’s checks were taken, and the next day uniformed officers returned to retrieve the Datsun and divvy up the bounty. Juarez, who had witnessed the crime’s initiation and could likely make a pretty good guess at what had happened down the road a piece, was arrested when the truck was discovered and the heat turned up on the investigation. He was savagely beaten into taking responsibility.

On July 7, Geer was informed via the Secretary to the Governor of Sinaloa that Genaro Juarez was no longer a suspect, though he was not yet being released. Unbeknownst to Ruth and Geer, the Federales had rounded up seven members of the San Ignacio police force by July 8, including Velarde Cruz and Chief Inspector Roberto Velasquez Trevino. The remainder of Schrock’s possessions were discovered in all of their homes, including his prescription eyeglasses and shoes, complete with custom-made orthopedic inserts. Three were charged with the murder, and all with robbery and dereliction of official duty. The hunt for El Nene was still on.

cemeteryOn July 11, the “San Ignacio 7” led state and federal investigators to the spot where they said that they had disposed of Schrock’s remains: an abandoned cemetery. A body was exhumed. Over July 12 and 13, Ruth was in constant communication with the Mazatlán consulate. On the morning of Tuesday, July 13, Phoenix radio stations began broadcasting a story picked up from a Tucson paper that the body had been confirmed as Schrock’s. The story had originated with Sinaloa State Prosecutor Jorge Chavez Castro. At 10:30 that morning, he had informed the Mazatlán consulate and Mexican press that the body had been positively identified through dental records, blood tests, and general physical description. Arrangements began to be made for the body to be shipped to Denver for confirmation and autopsy. That same day, Geer pondered the fact that a relatively large group of police officers had been involved in both the murder and the cover-up: “If that number of police officers is involved, we have to ask ourselves if this is a first-time thing. How many other unidentified skeletons does that San Ignacio cemetery hold? I have a private suspicion they’re making a living at this, supplementing their income stream.”

The body was loaded onto a commercial flight to Denver early on the morning of Thursday, July 15. At 11:00 a.m., Ruth telephoned Geer to inform him that it had arrived and a final report would be concluded by 2:00 p.m. the next day, after which she would hold a press conference. She requested that he make no disclosures until that time.

The Agony of Ruth

Ruth, her sister, and Nick’s sister arrived at the Denver Coroner’s office that night hoping, again, to be able to identify Nick’s remains and obtain a degree of closure. Ruth, a medical professional, was acquainted with gruesomeness and gore. As she explained in a Daily Camera piece from July 5 asking why she had traveled to Mazatlán and San Ignacio in hopes of being present to identify her husband’s corpse: “I felt it was important to be close to the site in case the body was found. I’m a nurse and I don’t expect him to look pleasant, but I feel it is important for the grieving process.”

But when Ruth walked into the examination room, she was able to view what confronted her for only a brief moment before turning away against a wave of nausea. She left the room. She later described the body as a “mummified, dark brown, toothless, nude corpse, which was minus the first joint of the right thumb.” She told another reporter that “the eyes and nose were dried out and the large black hole of a gaping mouth dominated the face.” The corpse had achieved such a state of desiccation that the teeth had fallen from the gums. They accompanied the body in a Ziploc bag. What’s more, the mummy had jet-black hair and a neatly-trimmed mustache. Nick’s hair was sandy-brown and he was clean-shaven. Denver Coroner Ben Galloway said that the chances of a corpse’s hair color darkening significantly after death are extraordinarily slim and those of its growing a neat mustache nonexistent.

Despite the fact that this body obviously did not belong to Nicholas Schrock, Galloway had a job to do: produce a report and verify beyond all doubt that this was not the correct body. The gums were incised and the teeth hammered back into the mouth. This grim task was necessary to confirm that they belonged to the body. They did. The doctors had easily determined beforehand that they didn’t belong to Nick. Nick had fillings. None of the teeth in the bag did. Nick also had more teeth than the bag contained. The bloodwork wasn’t a match. After further poking, prodding, drilling, sawing, and X-raying, it was ultimately determined that the body belonged to a Mexican male at least twenty years older than Nick, who had died long before Nick’s disappearance.

IMG_0093Ruth went ahead with the press conference, and told the Denver Post beforehand, “Maybe they sent us the wrong body intentionally and destroyed his body to hide the evidence.” After the “vulgar outrage” of the misidentified corpse, the relationship between Ruth, Mexican officials, and the U.S. State Department, turned decidedly adversarial. She expressed her inability to determine whether this was all “part of some plot or simply gross incompetence.” This incident solidified her determination to avoid giving anybody the impression that she was a victim. As Patty Burnett writes in the Camera: “The only emotion Ruth Schrock allows a stranger to see is a clenched jaw and a bitter stare as she speaks of the Mexican government’s failure to solve her husband’s disappearance.” Ruth, in her John Lennon glasses and love-child clothing, was now at war.

Who did the mummified corpse belong to? How could such an egregious mistake have been made by Mexican officials? Was it “gross incompetence,” or was there something more organized and nefarious at work? Who knew where Nick Schrock’s body was and why weren’t they talking? Why was El Nene, a man with a rap sheet, loitering outside a Pemex station with three police officers? To answer these questions, we have go deeper. We have to immerse ourselves in a world of torture and murder and drugs and mass graves and corruption and the absolute extremities of pain and despair. Welcome to San Ignacio.

Check back next week for the third installment of Death on the Cheap.

4 Comments

  1. Dear Jake Strickler,
    Thank you for shining a light on this incredible piece of Thunderbird history. Your writing style, and the story itself, have grabbed me as I look back on that time in the early 80’s.

    Although few things surprise me these days, I was taken aback that although I graduated from Thunderbird in December of 1987, I had never heard anything about Nick Schrock nor of his untimely death. I had plenty of classmates who went to the program in Guadalajara and considered going myself, however I do not recall any mention of this tragedy. My career has taken me to many areas of Latin America to live and work, including the backstreets of Mexico, and I can picture these events unfolding in my mind.

    I await the next chapter in the story. Is there any plaque, or any type of remembrance of Nick Schrock on campus, or in a local Glendale Thunderbird cemetery?

    Regards,
    Charles Harrison
    1charlesharrison@gmail.com

    • Charles,

      I’m so happy to hear that I’m bringing this story back to life. I’ve received such incredible feedback from those who either remember these events and never knew the full story or who graduated a few years earlier than you and remember this as little more than “the story of the professor who went missing in Mexico.” I feel that life goes on, and this story doesn’t resolve for years. By the time it did, people had moved on.

      It’s for this reason, I think, that there is no physical remembrance for Nick Schrock anywhere on campus. We’re only halfway through the story at this point, and when all was said and done, everybody involved had been so fatigued by the trauma that no effort was undertaken to memorialize him. It’s not something that Ruth would have pushed for, either. Throughout the ordeal, she asks Geer to instruct Nick’s coworkers to not send flowers. She wanted justice and answers, not a plaque.

      That’s my goal here; to tell the story in its totality and honor those people who were involved in the search. Nick Schrock died violently while in the employ of Thunderbird, and until now, the story hasn’t existed outside of a box in the archives and the memories of the few remaining faculty members and students who remember. This is his plaque. If you’d like to talk further about the backstreets of Mexico, I’d love to. That’s where the story’s headed now.

      Jake Strickler
      jake.strickler@tbird.asu.edu

  2. Ruth Schrock was alive and well, living in Boulder. Many other people to which you refer, are also alive and well — me, Duarte, Stickland.

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  1. Death on the Cheap: The Disappearance of Nick Schrock - Das Tor
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