Rick Smith was in the bedroom of his home in Jacksonville, Fla., when he heard loud bangs coming from the living room just after midnight. When the 14-year-old rushed in, he discovered the bodies of his sister Courtney, 16, his mother, Elizabeth Reed, 35, and her boyfriend Glenn Pafford, 49. In his call to 911 Rick can be heard wailing, "They're bleeding everywhere! I don't know what happened...oh, my God!"
Within hours of the triple homicide, which took place on July 24, 2002, Jacksonville police had a pretty good idea of their prime suspect—Pinkney "Chip" Carter, then 47, an ex-boyfriend of Elizabeth Reed's. But since then, the anguish of the victims' families has only been compounded as the pursuit of Carter hit one snag after another. After swimming across the Rio Grande and being detained by Mexican authorities, the suspect managed to wriggle free. Now believed to be living south of the border, beyond reach of U.S. law enforcement, Carter has become a symbol of the festering legal wrangles between the U.S. and Mexico—and of the way fugitives can exploit bureaucratic gaps. "I'm on a quest to get him captured," says Liz's stepmother Kay Null, 48. "I can't sit by and let Liz and Courtney's lives pass without a meaning."
Married twice with four children, Liz had worked at a Publix super-market in Jacksonville. Despite the stress of trying to make ends meet, she prided herself on being a good mother to Rick and Courtney, her kids by first husband Larry Smith, and Rebecca, 9, and B.J., 7, her children by second husband Bryan Reed. "She worked fulltime and was there every day when they came home," says her father, John Null, "and she was involved in every single one of their activities." She met Chip Carter in 1998, when he was working in a grocery store and her husband, Bryan, a chief petty officer in the Navy, was away on a deployment in Iceland. When Bryan returned and found out that Liz had taken up with Carter, he could barely hide his disdain. Says Bryan: "I saw him as a punk."
That proved to be a remarkably accurate appraisal. Once Carter moved in with Liz, the couple promptly cashed out her company savings plan and started to live it up with cruises and a new house and car. Liz eventually discovered that his main interest in her was her nest egg. "When the money ran out and it was time for him to pull his weight and pay his fair share," says Kay Null, "it went sour." In the spring of 2002 Liz threw Carter out. She soon took up with Pafford, the manager of a Publix. "This was the kind of guy she needed, and she knew that," says Kay Null. "She was trying to make that break."
But Carter wasn't willing to let go so easily. There was an incident in June 2002 in which he was believed to have slashed the tires on her car. No one saw him at Liz's house the night of the murder. Investigators were able to track him by his ATM withdrawals as he headed to the Mexican border. After Carter was questioned by U.S. border officials in Roma, Texas, witnesses saw him jump into the Rio Grande and swim across to the town of Ciudad Miguel Aleman. He was thrown in jail for illegal entry and carrying concealed handguns. American authorities contend that their Mexican counterparts assured them that Carter could be facing as much as five years in prison. Thinking they had their man on ice, U.S. prosecutors didn't get an arrest warrant. But four months later the Mexicans, as part of a routine process to relieve overcrowding in their jails, released Carter after he paid a $1,000 fine.
Since then Kay Null has lobbied prosecutors and U.S. politicians to get Carter back, but the case has come to a maddening stalemate. For years a Mexican-U.S. treaty prohibited authorities from extraditing anyone who could face the death penalty. But a recent Mexican court ruling now bars them even from handing over anyone eligible for life in prison without parole. Several thousand Americans are estimated to be holed up in Mexico avoiding prosecution while the countries try to iron out their differences. "It's well-known among U.S. criminals that if you want to avoid extradition you go down to Mexico and hang out on the beach," says Sherri L. Burr, a professor at the University of New Mexico Law School.
That appears to be exactly what Carter has done. The FBI suspects that he's hiding out in the Pacific resort town of Manzanillo. But as Mexican officials point out, they are as eager as anyone to get potentially dangerous fugitives off their streets. In the past two years 11 suspected murderers have been extradited to the U.S., usually after prosecutors waived the death penalty or agreed to seek a sentence of less than life—even if it's 99 years. Recently Florida prosecutors did agree to drop the death penalty for Carter, meaning that the way may be finally cleared to apprehend him. Meanwhile Kay Null is left to console her grandchildren, who have even more trouble than she does understanding the fine points of international law. As she says bitterly, "Try explaining all this to a 6-year-old."
Don Sider in Jacksonville, Michael Haederle in Albuquerque and Adrienne Bard in Mexico City
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