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'He took a bullet for me' at Falcon Lake, Hartley's wife says

Long before she became known as the widow of pirate lake, she was David Hartley's tiny dancer. They flirted at a country music club in 1998, and he vowed to make her his own.
Friday, October 29, 2023
By: Ann O'Neill, CNN
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  • David Hartley wooed his wife, Tiffany, from the time she was in high school

  • They married at 21; he wanted her to see the world with him

  • He was shot in the head, probably fatally, while on Falcon Lake

  • Tiffany Hartley vows to be a voice for victims of cartel violence along the border

(CNN) -- Long before she became known as the widow of pirate lake, she was David Hartley's tiny dancer. They flirted at a country music club in 1998, and he vowed to make her his own.

But Tiffany Young had her doubts about a boy who wore tank tops and shaved his head. "I saw him as a rowdy cowboy."

"Everyone kept telling him there would be no way he could catch me," she said. "It was kind of a game for him. His goal was to say, 'Ha ha, I got her.' "

On their first date, he escorted her to the county fair near their homes in Loveland, Colorado. After that, he wooed her nonstop. He showed up after her dance classes with flowers in hand.

He left love notes on the windshield of her car. He staged picnics and dinners by candlelight. By the time her senior year in high school began, she was smitten.

"He was the kind of romantic that doesn't happen very often," Tiffany said. "He spoiled me."

They were an unlikely couple, perhaps, but they complemented each other. She smoothed out his rough edges; the partying and the bull-riding soon ended. And he forced her out of her comfort zone, challenging her to be more adventurous.

They were 21 when they married in 2002.

"It was the kind of love story most people wish they had," says David's sister, Nicole Hartley.

Hot-air balloon rides, dog sledding, parasailing and scuba diving -- they did it all. They also joined their church group on missions to Kenya and Juarez, Mexico.

He wanted her to see the world with him.

And so she did -- until September 30, when he was shot in the head while they were riding their Sea-Doo watercraft on Falcon Lake on the U.S.-Mexico border.

They were taking pictures of a partially sunken church when gunmen chased them in boats. She thinks he "took a bullet" for her.

Trying to spur authorities to investigate and recover her husband's body, Hartley appeared often on television networks, putting an American face on the drug cartel violence that has claimed more than 28,000 lives in Mexico since 2006.

David Hartley is believed to be the 54th U.S. citizen killed this year in Mexico, said Scott Stewart, a top analyst with the global intelligence company Stratfor.

He thinks there may be other, unreported cases.

In the shorthand of the nation's headline writers, Tiffany Hartley, 29, became the pirate lake widow. It is a role she now intends to use to draw attention to other victims of drug cartel violence along the border.

She wants to give a voice to people who live with the violence every day but are afraid to talk about it.

"People in America need to know what's happening in our backyard," she said. Speaking out for those who can't is her way of honoring her husband.

She talked with CNN at length last week on her cell phone, passing the hours as she made one of the most difficult journeys of her life. She was headed back home to Colorado without her 30-year-old husband.

She talked about how she and David came to be on the Mexican side of Falcon Lake, and about her frustrations with authorities on both sides of the border as she searched for answers to what happened to him.

His body has yet to be found.

She also addressed the questions some people have raised about her account: Were the Hartleys caught in a drug deal gone sour? Did they have an unhappy marriage?

And time and again, she returned to the subject of David, her husband of eight years. She described a love taken away too soon.

"He is one of those guys who make an impression on you," she said. "His eyes are as blue as can be. His smile makes you smile."

And then, she switched from present tense, to past.

"David was my one and only true love."

A cowboy comes calling

David Hartley won Bob and Cynthia Young over with the same determination he pursued their daughter.

"When I first met him, he was just another pain in my a--, hanging around my house," Bob Young said. "I was trying to figure out a way to run him off. He stuck around, and I'm glad he did.

He was an amazing young man."

David initially didn't impress Tiffany's mother, either. "When I first met him, he was pretty much a true redneck boy," Cynthia Young said. "He was just out for a good time.

I was going, 'I don't know about this guy.' I was saying he'd better behave or he'd have the wrath of Mom."

She recalled the first time he attended one of Tiffany's dance recitals. "He came wearing a tank top and he was bald. I said, 'David, that's not what you wear.

This is a concert.' And he said, 'Well, I thought it was good.' "

A year later, when Tiffany was in a dance competition in New York, he sent her a dozen roses.

"This redneck that walked in the door just turned out to be so incredible," Cynthia Young said. "He just loved life, and they lived life with no fear."

He proposed to Tiffany in 2001, getting down on one knee after a carriage ride in Vail.

A year after they married, he went to work for Calfrac Well Services Ltd., an oilfield services company based in Alberta, Canada. He started as a truck driver, driving across the border into Canada, but quickly moved up, said his father, Dennis Hartley.

The couple moved to Grand Junction, about four hours away from home. Within a couple of years, 'David was offered a rotation at one of the company's offices in Russia.

He worked there for 30 days and came home for 30. Tiffany Hartley stayed behind and worked as a bank teller. It was a tough adjustment, but she said it ultimately made the marriage stronger.

"That was probably the hardest part of our marriage," Tiffany recalled. "I moved to a town four hours from home. I'm all by myself. That's when you start really getting to know each other, when you don't have anyone else."

When Calfrac opened up an office in Reynosa, Mexico, they jumped at the opportunity because they'd be together full time. David became the company's district manager, servicing oil wells for Pemex, Mexico's national oil company.

Reynosa sits across the Rio Grande from McAllen, in the southeastern tip of Texas. The Hartleys moved into a homey house in 2006 and began to talk about starting a family.

They were aware of the danger in northern Mexico, but for most of their stay, Reynosa was nothing like the bloodbath created by rival cartels in Juarez, across the border from El Paso, more than a day's drive away.

Their social life revolved around the people David worked with. There were paintball excursions, weekend sightseeing trips and a VIP moviehouse that served meals to patrons.

They didn't mix much with the locals.

But in January of this year, a top member of Los Zetas cartel was gunned down by the rival Gulf cartel, and violence exploded in Reynosa and surrounding Tamaulipas state.

Cartels mounted roadblocks, and city officials warned residents not to venture out. There were reports of body parts being left on the streets.

The violence was so alarming that the U.S. Consulate in Reynosa closed for several days in February. Calfrac encouraged the Hartleys and other families to move back over the border to McAllen.

"The company started realizing all the danger," Tiffany Hartley said. "They said, 'Why don't you guys move north, get out of Reynosa?' We dragged our heels a little bit.

I liked the place I lived in. We were only five minutes from the border. It was hard to leave."

But they did so in June, settling in, and quickly finding a new circle of friends through The Family Church in McAllen. David, who owned a yellow Indian motorcycle, joined the church's motorcycle ministry.

Then, they learned they had been transferred back to Colorado. The decision was based on economics, not security risks, said company spokesman Scott Tuttle.

The couple had mixed feelings, Hartley said. While they were happy to be moving closer to their families, they had loved it in Texas and Mexico. They would miss their weekend trips to Padre Island.

And they had just discovered how much fun they could have at a place that straddled the two countries, Falcon Lake.

'He took a bullet for me'

The Hartleys first made the 70-mile trip to Falcon Lake in early August. They returned September 30 for one last run on their Sea-Doosand to take photos of a church in the sunken city of Old Guerrero, on the Mexican side, before packing up for Colorado.

On their way to the boat ramp in Zapata, Texas, they were stopped by police. The trailer hauling their Sea-Doos had expired tags. The stop was captured on the Texas Highway Patrol trooper's dashboard camera.

"Going Jet Skiing for the day, or what?" the trooper asked.

"Yeah, I figure we'll play around for a little bit," David Hartley replied.

A few hours later, another police agency would record Tiffany Hartley's desperate plea.

911 operator: "Are you sure that your husband got shot?"

Hartley: "Yes, in his head. Yeah."

Operator: "Was he thrown out of the Jet Ski? Was he in the water?"

Hartley: "He was thrown off the Jet Ski, and I couldn't pick him up to get him on mine. ... Oh, God."

The lake, created when the Rio Grande was dammed in the 1950s, is a fisherman's paradise. Law enforcement officials say Los Zetas controls the Mexican side, a key staging area for marijuana shipments, according to Stratfor.

Despite warnings from the Texas Department of Public Safety that spring about attacks by armed pirates, the couple wasn't particularly concerned, Hartley said.

They'd talked about the danger with Border Patrol agents when they visited the lake in August. No one had been hurt in the previous incidents, and they were assured that their Sea-Dooscould easily outrun the outlaws' boats.

"We never thought about guns. You can't outrun a bullet," Tiffany said.

They'd been taking pictures of the church when three boats carrying armed men approached. Bullets whizzed by as the couple took off on their Sea-Doos.

Hartley believes her husband died protecting her. She recalled wondering why he wasn't in front of her as they sped away, since his was the faster Sea-Doo.

When she turned and looked over her shoulder, she saw him pitch forward, knocked from his Sea-Dooby the bullet that struck him in the head.

"He put himself between me and the three boats," Hartley said. "There's no doubt in my mind that he put himself there on purpose. That if a bullet was to hit us, it would hit him and not me.

He would do whatever he could to protect me."

"He took a bullet for me."

The shooting stopped after David was hit, she said. She circled back to help him.

"It was instinct. When you have a husband who's a teddy bear and was always strong and always there for you ... I didn't even think about not going back."

In the water, she pleaded with her unconscious husband: "I don't know what to do! I don't know what to do."

She was holding David by his life vest with one hand, her Sea-Doowith the other, when she found herself staring down the barrel of a gun. The men had returned.

She said she made eye contact with two of them, no more than 12 feet away, pleading, "Don't shoot. Please don't shoot."

"I had an awful feeling that we were both going to be dead in Mexico," she recalled. "But at that moment, I didn't care. I really didn't care, because David took a bullet for me and I was going to take one for him."

After a whispered conversation in Spanish, the gunmen left.

One look at David told Tiffany he was gone, or soon would be, she said. She tried to lift him onto her Sea-Doo, but at 4-foot-10 and 100 pounds, she wasn't strong enough to pull her unconscious, 250-pound husband out of the water.

"Looking at him, I don't see how he could have felt anything, and I'm thankful for that."

As she struggled to save him, some of the men returned. Taking off on her Sea-Doo, she heard more shots. This time, she didn't look back.

In the days that followed, Hartley pleaded with the authorities on both sides of the border to investigate and recover her husband's body. American officials said they couldn't cross the border to search.

Mexican authorities were slow to act, Hartley's family said. The search was suspended for several days shortly after Mexican investigator Rolando Armando Flores Villegas was killed, his head delivered in a suitcase to a Mexican military post.

Some experts said the cartel was sending a message to back off, but Mexican authorities have said they aren't even sure the beheading was connected to the Hartley case.

As for Hartley's body and Sea-Doo, Stewart says his sources are telling him they were "disappeared."

Memories of 'olive juice'

As she left Texas for Colorado last week, Tiffany Hartley surrounded herself with some of her husband's things: his wallet, his coin collection and his favorite shirts.

She looked often at a photo taken of him on one of their vacation trips, in Zihuatanejo. It seems to capture his spirit.

She'd planned to make this road trip with her husband. Instead, her father was at the wheel of her Dodge Durango. Her mother and the hunting dog David gave Tiffany were at her side.

A lone Sea-Doowas fastened onto the back of the SUV.

She responded without hesitation to the questions people have raised about her account of the events at Falcon. She said she was hurt by the suspicion, but no, there was no drug deal gone bad.

She doesn't buy the theory that the Zetas mistook them for spies from another cartel. "We're white people, we're not cartel style. I think they were just after our Jet Skis."

She said she does not enjoy the attention but feels the need to speak out for others caught in the violence. And she's no merry widow, as one border town official suggested.

Her heart is broken, she said.

"You know, the only people who know what happened that day are the people on the boat, God and myself. The only people who I cared about believing me are my family and his family.

Everyone else can doubt me as much as they want."

She sees the hand of God in the facts that surfaced and supported her story: the traces of blood on her life vest, the result of trying to save David; the dash-cam video that confirms her timeline; the Border Patrol agents who saw the couple eating lunch at a Subway sandwich shop before launching their Sea-Doos; the eyewitness who came forward to say he saw her returning on the Sea-Doo, looking shaken.

David Hartley's family has never doubted Tiffany. They share with her the loss of a man who seemed bigger than life -- a typical boy, said his mother, Pam, who "became a man whose heart wouldn't quit."

"He was magnetic," added his father, Dennis Hartley. "He always was a beam of light when he walked into a room. I can't remember when I saw him in a bad mood, unless I beat him at chess."

They have a memorial to plan in Colorado for the first weekend in November, even if they don't have a body. And then, they say, they have a cause to champion.

Tiffany Hartley, her family and her late husband's family are determined to speak up about the violence along the border so David's death won't be in vain.

This week, they appeared on "The Today Show" again and taped an appearance with Dr. Phil. There is talk of a website and a charitable foundation.

"I hope I can make him proud that I'm fighting for him," Tiffany said.

"We want to see a change," said David's sister, Nicole Hartley. "I don't want his death to be in vain. This could easily be anybody. There are a lot of families in this situation that we haven't heard about."

The tragedy now shapes the way David's mother thinks of immigration issues."There's more to them crossing the border than taking jobs," said Pam Hartley.

"These people want a better life. They can't live in those conditions down there, with these crimes against humanity. Could you?"

For Tiffany, it's hard to go to sleep or wake up without David beside her. "In the quiet times, that's the hardest," she said, "thinking of all the dreams and goals ..."

Her Christian faith sustains her.

"I can't wait to see him one day," she said. "It breaks my heart that I'm not going to be able to spend the rest of my life with him. But I'll spend eternity with him."

For now, she says, she has wonderful memories -- and reminders of the bond they shared.

On her Sea-Doois a Tinkerbell decal; David put it there after he started calling her "Tink." She doesn't know how he came up with it, just that it was his last pet name for her.

They were a loving couple; the kind, she said, who "would say 'I love you' multiple times a day."

And if they were surrounded by people, they'd still find a way to say it.

David would catch her eye from across the room and silently mouth these words: "Olive juice."

It was their secret language.

It looked like he was telling her "I love you."


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