A college student is found dead in Tijuana

Jayson Artis

Jayson Artis

Tijuana is one of Mexico’s most popular border towns for college students looking for fun at bargain rates. But a good time here can cost you your life.

August 1, 1998. 1:30 a.m. Steven Thomas was looking for his 20 year-old brother Jayson in the crowds of partiers. They had become separated while heading back to their car.

An hour and a half after Jayson disappeared, a Tijuana police officer discovered his battered body in the road. 

Jason’s aunt, Teena Martin-Smith, thinks she knows what happened:

“Jayson was drinking, and he was loud and obnoxious and maybe out of control. That night, I believe that Jayson was murdered by the Tijuana police.”

Jayson Artis was attending college in Los Angeles. He brought his younger brother, Steven, out for a visit and a good time south of the Border.  Saturday night, the main drag was packed. For many, the loose drinking laws here were the biggest attraction.

About 9:00 pm, Jayson, Steve, and their friend Michael Justin started bar-hopping, hitting places that offered all you could drink for less than $5.00.  Jayson was usually friendly, but he had a reputation as a rowdy drinker. That night, he was already a little intoxicated and didn’t realize that tequila cost extra—$6.00 a shot.  Jason’s friend, Michael Justin, says that Jason got into an argument with the tequila vendor:

“Jayson didn’t want to give up the money, so I just said, ‘Jayson, give him the money. Just give him the money and let’s get out of here.’”

Jason’s aunt identified his body

Jason’s aunt identified his body

Jayson and Steven left Michael at the bar and went back to the strip.  Jayson’s brother, Steven, recalls what happened next:

“My strategy was to hurry up and find the car so we can go sit down. We’re kind of drunk, you know what I’m saying? Walking around Tijuana. We were walking down the street, and that’s when my brother accidentally bumped into a female officer.”

The officer seemed to be offended and made Jayson get on his knees. Eventually, the police let him go. Steven says he tried to get his brother to move on as quickly as possible:

“I told him, ‘Walk behind me. Come on. Let’s hurry up and try to find this car.’ He was, like, three or four yards behind me at first. That’s when I walked up some more to another block. I looked to the right, and I looked behind me and my brother wasn’t there. My first reaction was probably that he’s sitting down on a curb somewhere or sitting up against a building, anything like that…”

Soon after Steven lost sight of Jayson, Michael claims that he spotted him in the back of  a police car:

“I looked, and I said, ‘What is he doing in the back of a police car?’ They were the last people I saw Jayson with. I saw Jayson with my own eyes in the back of a police car, like I know my hand.”

Michael and Steven never saw Jayson again. Jayson’s family was shocked when two days later, the American consulate sent word that he was dead. Tijuana authorities told Jayson’s family that he must have gotten lost trying to get back to the border. They called it a tragic hit-and-run accident. But Steven doubts that story:

“I believe that it had something to do with the police. I feel that for a fact. After Michael told me that he’d seen my brother in the back of a police car, there’s gotta be something up there.”

Photos were taken during the autopsy

Photos were taken during the autopsy

Tijuana police deny the allegation. Roberto Sanchez, from the Public Safety Dept. of Tijuana, claims Jayson was never in custody:

“We check and double-check almost the whole month of August, and there is no detention with that name. Sometimes it happens that they mis-write the name in our computer, so we run it with the three names. We found nothing.”

Jayson’s family obtained a copy of the autopsy report through the American consulate and had it translated into English. Jayson’s aunt, Teena Martin-Smith, was not  convinced:

“Nothing was adding up. First of all, they stated that Jayson was hit by a car, and we had these conflicting things. We had the photos of him with no injuries to his lower extremities, with these unexplained five-inch marks all over his body and chest area and in his face.”

unsolved Mysteries asked three forensic pathologists to review the report. One agreed with the hit-and-run finding. The other two, however, questioned the official results.

Dr. Jacob Turner was one of the pathologists:

“I would be very skeptical of the autopsy findings, and the assertion that this was simply a hit-and-run accident. One has to apply a high degree of skepticism to the entire autopsy, in my view.”

For instance, the Tijuana coroner claimed the car had hit Jayson so hard in the chest that it ruptured his heart. Dr. Turner doesn’t think this was the case:

“In order for a blunt blow to get through the sternum and rupture the heart, it would have to virtually crush the chest, and it’s quite evident from the autopsy that chest is not badly mashed.  There are no bruises on it, there are no big hematomas.  So that becomes incredible, the autopsy report becomes incredible.”

Dr. Turner is also of the opinion that Jayson’s head wounds were similar to those caused by a beating:

“Certainly the lesions around the head and the skull, which were severe, are certainly consistent with the butt of a rifle or any other sharp or even blunt object that could be used on an individual.”

Jayson’s aunt, Teena, agrees with Dr. Turner’s assessment:

“I believe that he was beaten, and after he was beaten, perhaps in an attempt to destroy the evidence, that they perhaps ran over and/or drug him.  And I believe that when he was run over, that he was already dead.”

Tijuana authorities say the case is still under investigation.  But they also say, they believe that Jayson’s family may be overreacting. According to Roberto Sanchez of the Public Safety Dept. of Tijuana:

“We have had responses from the families in conflict with the autopsy and the statement from our department. Even sometimes where there are witnesses of an accident and there is a driver responsible for the accident, there have been some families stating that they are not accepting that was an accident.”