Bob and Betty Smith (not their real names) are most indicative of the retired to semi retired snow birds who flock to San Carlos to escape northern climes. They first visited Sunny San Carlos in the early 90’s. They had lived on the island of Kauai for a brief time and subsequently lived through Hurricane Iniki, the most devastating hurricane to hit the islands in recorded history. As Bob described to me, “ it was our 9/11”. Luckily the house they lived in survived total devastation and after repairs they sold out of Kauai shipped their vehicle back to the main land and decided to take their first road trip to Mexico, driving the well worn route to Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende with short travel stops in San Carlos.
It wasn’t until September 2nd of 2009 that Bob and Betty made the journey to San Carlos for more than just a sleep stop on the highway. Does that date ring a bell? Hurricane Jimena was ravaging the coast of Sonora as Bob and Betty approached Hermosillo. The subsequent drive from Hermosillo to San Carlos took them a little over 9 hours but they persevered to arrive in a town that had been devastated. They booked a cheesy hotel in Guaymas and the next day drove to the much less devastated Kino Bay.
Over the next three years they would be come regular visitors to San Carlos and rented a lovely studio apartment on a large piece of land, often refereed to as the compound, from a women they met via their daughter in law in Santa Fe. Her name was Mona Van Riper. For those who have been around the block a few times here in San Carlos, Mona and her then, and we stress the then part, husband Ronald Armstead Alexander had purchased the compound from local artist Burke Rutherfield in 1998. Burke a well known sculptor and founder of the local art gallery used the compound as his studio and it was there that he created many beautiful works of art. The small studio apartment that Bob and Betty rented covered about a quarter of the compound and they rented the studio on three different occasions starting in 2009. They became very good friends with a young man named Luis Angel Ramierz Garcia. Luis, the caretaker if you will, was living in the main house of the compound, essentially watching over the place for Mona. Luis and the Smiths hit it off quite well and Bob and Betty treated him like a son.
The Smiths became members of the local church, combed the beaches of San Carlos and frequently visited the Soldado Estuary at the end of the beach by the Pilar Condominiums. Bob complained of the cold and would have preferred a more southern clime but Betty had made a connection with San Carlos, perhaps it was the local church and congregation she enjoyed or maybe the rugged and beautiful interface of desert and sea that has defined the coast of Sonora for eons. What ever it was she loved the area. Luis and the Smiths attended church together and took pictures of Luis’s recent baptism. Luis, and how he ended up at the compound in San Carlos actually, is a complete story all on to its own and perhaps some day we will tell it but to make a long story short at the tender age of 6 Luis and his mother entered the United States illegally from Mexico. They ended up in Telluride Colorado and it was there that Luis and his mom lived until, at the age of 18, Luis was deported to Mexico. Through a stroke of luck his lawyer had a contact in San Carlos and during the 4 week detention and deportation process Kimberly Mcdonald, a local realtor, was contacted and out of the kindness of her heart agreed to give Luis a place to stay at her home while he got himself situated . Kimberly was a long time friend of Mona’s thus after about a month and a half in San Carlos Luis ended up watching the compound for Mona rent free.
On May 31st of 2012 all of the wonderful feelings and good vibes San Carlos had to offer the Smiths changed forever. I can’t say how Betty feels now about San Carlos or Mexico in general for that matter, since I never spoke with her in Person. It was her husband Bob who agreed to speak with me. Betty was so traumatized by the events that would follow she simply refused to speak on record with me about them. What happened the afternoon of May 31st of 2012 is almost unbelievable, unless of course you have lived in Mexico for any length of time that is. If you have lived here a while then you shrug your shoulders and mumble, good old Mexico all it takes is a little bit of dinero and you can get away with murder. Now it was not in fact murder that was taking place at the compound that Bob and Betty were renting but there is little doubt that it was illegal and certainly immoral. The police nor the commandante here in San Carlos intervened in any way and simply allowed it to happen. Were they paid off to not intervene? We will of course never know if they were.
Before we go into the details of May 31st we need to back track a just a bit. One week earlier Luis had come home from work and found that the compound was not quite the way it was when he left for work that morning. Unfortunately when Luis went to work he forgot to activate the Cyberco alarm system. When he walked into the house he found Ron Armstead, Monas Ex, his wife Frani and Jim Magers, Franias sisters husband in the living room. Ron explained to Luis that they had just come from the police station where they had fixed the problem with the paperwork on the house and that the police had let them into the property and that basically Luis had to hit the road. The sooner the better. By now the police, Cyberco and Kimberly Macdonald had been summoned to the property apparently by Bob and Betty. Ron told Kimberly in front of the police, Cyberco and possibly while Frania was video taping that he was just here for a few days to pick up some of his things and then he was going to leave.
The most important and telling statement Ron made that day he booted Luis is the one about fixing something with the police, since as we all know the police are not in charge of giving people titles to properties nor are they allowed to break into peoples homes. So did the police really let Ron into the house? Ron certainly wasn’t telling the truth about fixing his paper work problems on the house with the police but did the police really let him in? Maybe he did go to the police and tell them that they were about to take back a property that his ex wife legally owned and to please not interfere. I wonder if they gave the commandante a tip to not interfere? We of course will never be able to answer those questions. Luis not wanting to be in the middle of Ron and Monas now obvious battle over the property packed his belonging and left the compound he had lived in for the last 8 months within 30 minutes.
Mona & Ron were married at the Guaymas court house in October of 2000. When you tie the knot in Mexico you have two choices on the application form regarding your personal belongings. In other words once you are married every thing you ever owned before during or after the marriage is now either still yours or it is both of yours. Mona and Ron checked the separado box on the form. Mona said “Ron insisted on keeping it separado since he was in the process of acquiring valuable mineral rights claims in Sonora and when they paid off didn’t want to have to share in the profits with me”. So that meant what I purchase in my name is mine and what you purchase in your name is yours. That is how the separado box works when you check it off on the marriage certificate.
Mona had learned the fine art of silver smithing at the tender age of 15. She continues to this day to make a living as a single mom creating fine works of gold and silver at her studio in Santa Fe. Mona also became an accomplished river guide and for much of the late 80’s and early 90’s, before she hooked up with Ron, ran the rapids of Taos Box canyon of the upper Rio Grande as well as the Salt and Arkansas rivers. She also ventured to Vera Cruz to run the Rio Antigua. Ron was importing and processing turquoise from China, Korea and Indonesia during that time as well as running dope. And there in itself was the problem. In 1998 Ron and Mona fled the United States and purchased the compound in an attempt to escape Ron’s misfortunes and troubles with the law. In 1997 Ron was caught with 82 pounds of Marijuana that he was attempting to sell to a buyer. The buyer was working for the feds. Ron was actually lucky, since he might have had significantly more dope on his premisses just hours before he was caught with the 82 pounds. Suffice it to say he was convicted of felony possession of marijuana and fled to Mexico rather than surrender himself to the custody of the United States Marshal. That was June of 1998. The thought of spending years in a federal correctional institution could not hold a candle to the thought of going into the gold and silver mining business in Mexico.
Latter Mona would admit. “I was blind. He said to me, come to Mexico baby and make jewelry on the beach. I was blind and went for it. Not the best of decisions. But at least I got a beautiful son out of the deal.” For the next few years in San Carlos Ron certainly didn’t lay low. He acquired a fake FM2 work visa and went about business. He worked on acquiring mineral rights to several areas throughout Sonora and collected thousand from Investors. Mona received a 10,000 dollar grant from an NGO called Sonora Women’s Group. With that money she purchased 10 jewelry work statins from Guadalajara and started a jewelry maquiladora training local women from Santa Clara and San Jose to produce fine works of art. It all came crumbling down around the end of October 2001 on Monas 40th birthday non the less when Ron, Mona and their 3 week old son Jason were picked up by Federales. As Mona described it they were forced off the highway just east of the Fiesta hotel by a rather large SUV with dark tinted windows. After forcing them off the road two Federal agents in dark Ray Ban style sunglasses wielding automatic rifles attempted to arrest Ron. Never one to give up a fight easily Ron argued with the Feds claiming he was completely legal to be in Mexico. After hours of stalling at the office of immigration the Mexicans finally realized his paperwork was forged and off towards gringolandia he was. Suffice to say that Mona & Rons relationship ended in divorce in 2006. After extradition Ron spend most of his 2 and a half years in Prison as a guest of the Federal Correctional Institute in Safford Arizona.
The original purchase contract for the compound was in Mona’s name and she still has all the original paper work. While Ron was in Federal prison in Arizona Mona put the compound into the name of their Son to avoid the cost and bureaucratic hassle of the Mexican bank trust. This was a pretty smart thing to do actually. Over the years bank trusts and the misinformation on them has robbed more than one unsuspecting gringo of their property here in San Carlos But by putting the property into the name of their Mexican born child all of the hassles associated with a bank trust simply disappeared.
By March of 2007 Ron was off parol and could now visit Mexico again. At the time he was doing some kind of lapidary business using cheep prison labor in Nogales Sonora. After getting permission from Mona to take Jason for a week, it seems for what ever reason, Ron went off the deep end. After Ron’s week with Jason was up he refused to return him. Mona then spent the next three weeks of her life with lawyers and police trying to find were Ron had stashed their son. Apparently Jason was moved between the compound and Hermosillo during that time frame and was eventually caught at the compound here in San Carlos.
Between 2007 and 2009 Ron occupied the compound at various times with his girlfriend and then later wife Frania Jazmin Ceja. Then suddenly right before September of 09 he vacated the compound and moved to Tasco in the state of Guerrero. It was then left up to Mona to clean up the compound. She repaired the rain damaged and mold covered walls left over from hurricane Jimena, contracted Cyberco the local home security company and started trying to rent the compound to help pay for her son Jason’s education. It seems Ron was either behind on his child support or not paying.
And that brings us back to the recent past around the 15th of May Luis, Bob and Betty were dining together inside the studio apartment. They were sitting inside the apartment with the front gate to the property unlocked. Then all of a sudden a couple walked on to the property via the front gate and asked if they could check the place out. That was the first time everyone had the chance to meet. Ron and Frania then proceeded to take out a video camera and start taping. As they walked through the property, video camera rolling, they started pointing out what they claimed was their property and that they were taking inventory, that is why they had the camera out. The stuff they had apparently left years earlier when they had vacated they now seemed to want back. When it became apparent to Bob and Betty that Ron and Frania didn’t plan on leaving anytime in the near future Cyberco was called. Cyberco then called the police and both showed up at the property almost simultaneously. With Cyberco and the Police there It was some how determined that Mona Van Riper was the owner of the property that Luis was in fact the care taker of the property and in fact Bob and Betty were renters. At that point Ron and Frania were forced to leave.
Which again finally brings us full circle back to the afternoon of May 31st. Around 2:30 p.m. Bob heard the unmistakable noise of grinding metal behind his studio apartment. It was apparent that some one was cutting down the metal gate between the main house and the studio apartment and of course by now they had a pretty good idea of who was working the grinder. “When the gate finally came down a strange procession walked into the yard. There was Ron, Mona’s ex-husband then Frania and her daughter as well as Isis, Frania’s sister pushing a baby stroller with her infant in it”, said Bob. What Ron proceeded to do then was open up all the doors gates and garages to the compound in a move to intimidate Bob and Betty so they would leave. At this point Bob and Betty had locked themselves inside the studio worried that Ron might turn violent. Luis had been visiting with Bob & Betty when it all went down and had immediately called a few of his friends for moral support. Bob & Betty stayed inside the studio the whole time while Luis and a few of his friends sat on the studio porch and observed the workings of a man obviously intent on making them leave the property they had been renting on and off for the last three years. The police meanwhile were outside the wall doing nothing. Cyberco was also helpless. After all Ron did cut down the gate but he did it from within the property and no alarm ever went off.
After all doors and gates and garages had been opened Bob and Betty still remained locked inside the studio. Ron then proceeded to the circuit breakers and somehow disconnected the electricity so that it could not be easily turned back on. This was obviously the crescendo of Ron’s invitation to Bob & Betty to vacate the property. At this point the strange procession of invaders, and onlookers adults children and babies along with the police and Cyberco left. Betty decided she had had enough and slept with neighbors. Luis spent the night on the porch as moral support for Bob who slept in the apartment. The next morning Bob and Betty packed their belongings and were on the road by 9 am as Ron stalked the compound.
So what is a bit baffling is that very first time Ron and Frania showed up at the compound they were told by police and Cyberco that they had to leave and a mere two weeks later they successfully kicked out Monas renters. What had changed? In Spanish there is actually a specific term that describes when some one steals your house. It is called despojo. This most likely does not apply perfectly to this situation since Ron is actually the father of the owner of the property. As Father to the owner I am sure in Mexican Law Ron has some kind of rights to the property. But that also applies to Mona as well. Certainly Mona has a right to rent the property. Ron had been out of the picture for years and then he simply shows up out of the blue and within two weeks is back in the property. Clearly within a few weeks of Ron arriving the posture of the police changed. It is very fishy indeed.
At the end of April a half hearted but nearly successful attempt was made by Mona to retake the compound. On April 30th Mona came back to San Carlos. She had been led to believe that Ron and Frania were not in San Carlos. When Mona arrived at the compound she hopped over the fence with her son Jason to find a gal from Zacatecas who worked at the Marina Cantina staying at the studio apartment. This gal informed Mona that Frania was indeed here in San Carlos. Mona later stated, “I would have never come and taken the place back had I known she was still there”. She asked the gal to leave and then immediately called the Police to inform them that she had taken her house back. Someone from the police who spoke English came to the compound and took her statement. By the time she had given a statement to the Police she had cut off all the old chains that locked the gates and replaced them with new ones from the local hard ware store. She also made a quick trip to the phone company to have the phone turned back on so she should could call Cyberco to have the security system reactivated.
As she was returning from that trip Frania showed up with her sister and the police and Cesar the local locksmith had also been called. Here is were it gets interesting. The Police tried to get Cesar to cut the locks and let Frania back on to the property. The police had clearly taken sides. Cesar was by now well aware of the fight going on for the property. Frania had contracted him to change the locks after they kicked out Luis from the main house. Frania told Cesar that they had all their paperwork in order that a judge had returned the property to her and Ron. Ceasar didn’t believe it. He did change the locks for Frania and Ron after they had kicked out Luis but he absolutely refused to cut the bolts this time and left the Police, and Frania scratching their heads as to what they should do next. By this time Frania had cut off the power to the property. Then she left. Completely stressed out from the whole ordeal Mona, being heavily lobbied by her son Jason decided to go to the beach. By the time she returned Frania had broken back into the property and reclaimed it once again for herself.
Here it gets really weird. Last December of 2012 Frania produced a wanted poster of Mona and had it disseminated all over San Carlos. Frania even convinced the Comandante in San Carlos to allow the wanted poster to be put on the wall at the Comiseria. A clear violation of Mexican slander laws the wanted poster stated that Mona was “wanted for theft of legal documents and assault”. This is actually very common in Mexico. If you really have no case against someone and no paper work to back up your claims to ownership of a property yet you want to cause as much problems for the real owner as you can what you do is go down to the Ministerio Publico and make up a pack of lies about the person you want to harass. We have reported on this type of action before and it is right out of the Mexican Fraud 101 A hand book. Just watch our South of the Border Land of Disorder video series.
Not only do you claim that your life has been threatened you also need to throw some assault and battery in as well. And this is what Frania has done. While Mona took back the compound for those few hours Frania claims that Mona beat her robbed her and threatened to kill her and I quote her bastard daughter. I saw the legal paperwork with my own eyes. Frania also claimed that Luis, who Mona had called to the property to help her change the locks, stole diamond jewelry and 7,000 dollars in cash she had in the house. Frania’s witness for all of this is of course non other than her sister Isis. This is one of the most tried and true ways to hassle gringos that have been used by several Mexican families over the years again and again and again. I have seen the official documents from the Ministerio Public (district attorney). You just can’t make this stuff up.
There are now no less that 5 law suits laboring their way through the Mexican judicial system due to the events of May 31st 2012. When Mona arrived in San Carlos to deal with her ex, a full week before Ron intimidated Bob & Betty into leaving she showed local police officials and the Ministerio Público in Guaymas her paper work on the property. There is a clean title in the name of her Mexican born son. The local police nor the Ministerio Público were not the least bit interested in any of Mona’s paper work and simply allowed Mona’s ex husband to first intimidate her caretaker into leaving the property then her renters thus taking the property by questionable force. The Ministerio Publico even refused to take Mona’s statement unless she was accompanied by her lawyer. This is a complete violation of her rights. Contrary to what the Ministerio Público may tell Americans the truth is you do not need a lawyer to make what is called a denuncia or complaint. By law if you show up at the office of the Ministerio Público they are obligated to provide you with a lawyer if you do not have one with you. Why would the Ministerio Público do that? To us here San Carlos TV / San Carlos Wireless it reeks of corruption and that is what is very disturbing about this whole affair. Perhaps if San Carlos was incorporated into its own legal jurisdiction, with its own district attorney, there might be fewer such stories and a bit more justice. Repeated rquests have been made to interview Ron Armstead & Frania Ceja. Hopefully we will have the chance to interview them some time since as we all know there are always two sides to every story.