Preparing for her first trip out of the country, Zindel Brown, 28, of Lake City, South Carolina, had more than a few nerves. Perhaps this was a foreshadowing of a trip he and several friends were taking to Mexico.
“He said, ‘Something, this doesn’t feel right,'” his older sister Zalandria Brown told The Associated Press by phone. “[That]was the last thing we talked about.”
Stuck in safety mode for a man so close to her that she called him a “hip bone,” Brown urged her brother not to make a planned trip earlier this month. As someone known for helping others, however, Brown was not surprised that his brother felt noticed and offered to drive him on a road trip to Mexico with a group of his childhood friends, where a One was scheduled for cosmetic surgery and the other had planned to celebrate her 34th birthday.
Inside the rented white van, that would be the last place Brown would see her younger brother alive. During the nearly 22-hour trip from South Carolina to Brownsville, Texas, Brown saw a video posted online of Zindel smiling at the camera.
But the group was attacked in Mexico. Around noon, a vehicle collided with the group’s van. According to Mexican police reports, several men wearing tactical vests and assault rifles arrived in another vehicle and surrounded them.
Two members of the group – Zindell Brown and Shaid Woodard – were shot and killed. Eric Williams was shot in the leg, according to video posted on social media, and he and his accomplice, Latavia McGee, were loaded into a pickup truck. The violence was attributed to the Gulf Cartel, a drug gang linked to murders and kidnappings in Matamoros, a city of half a million people that has long been a stronghold of the powerful cartel. The group reportedly apologized for the killings in a letter from a Mexican law enforcement official obtained by The Associated Press.
Zalandria Brown said that even before she saw footage of the ambush, which quickly circulated online, she began to realize that her brother was gone.
“He was another part of my soul,” she said.
She called her brother the male version of herself. Gone are his game hunting companions and “cool uncles” watched by his two (teenage) sons.
“He always put a smile on everyone’s face. He was always joking and playing and laughing,” she said.
In the days before the trip, Zindel spent time at home, playing video games—a break from the other job his hands were known for: carpentry. Zindel learned woodworking skills from his father, who wanted to train him in the family craft.
“He had a lot of skills. He could do carpentry,” she said, “he did roofing. When it came to building a house he could do everything you could think of. My father He was trained to do all this.”
Although she lives in Florence, South Carolina, Brown said she, her brother, Woodard and McGee all grew up in modest Lake City. By mid-week, the town of less than 6,000 people had been consumed by severe damage.
At the local library on Main Street, patrons talked among themselves about condolences, while a few blocks away near the police station, a stranger pressed a bouquet of purple flowers into Shaeed’s father’s arms.
According to his father, James Woodard, this month was Martyr Woodard’s 34th birthday. James Woodard said that Latavia McGee, a cousin of the martyr, had surprised him with a road trip as a birthday present. Shaid and Jindal were close; Brown said that she also considers him a brother.
By the night of March 5, Brown would get a phone call confirming her worst fears. A family friend called to say that the doctor’s office they were visiting in Mexico called to say that McGee was late and was believed to have been kidnapped. McGee said every day since then has felt like a “nightmare” to survive for the two siblings and parents. None of the families said they accepted the cartel’s apology for the violent abduction. “It’s insane to have your own child taken away from you in such a violent way,” Woodard said. “He didn’t deserve it because he was a sweetheart. He had a big heart.”