Caught in the Crossfire: Jet Ski Murder Mystery

updated 11/01/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 11/01/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Even as the sound of gunfire between rival drug cartels echoed through the Mexican border city of Reynosa, where Americans David and Tiffany Hartley lived for nearly three years, the couple always figured they were safe as long as they slowed down and turned on the lights inside their car when they drove through cartel checkpoints. In the summer the Hartleys had even invited David's mom from Colorado for a shopping trip. Tiffany recalls thinking they wouldn't become a casualty of the drug war because "those things only happen to other people."

But now Tiffany has found herself at the center of a violent mystery involving a vanishing corpse and a severed head, smack in the middle of those "other people's" drug war, which has claimed more than 22,000 lives in the past four years. Because of the escalating violence, Tiffany, 29, and David, 30-a district manager for an oil-field-services company-had moved from Reynosa to McAllen, Texas. On Sept. 30, only a few days before they planned to move back to their home state of Colorado, they set out for one last Mexican adventure, hopping on their jet skis to photograph a semi-submerged church on the Mexican side of Falcon Lake-a decision with fatal consequences. While they were out on the water, David was shot by Mexican pirates, Tiffany says. Unable to pull David onto her jet ski, she says she fled to the Texas side of the lake while her attackers fired at her. "I had to make the hardest decision in my entire life of leaving him back there and having to say goodbye," she tells PEOPLE.

Mexican officials have questioned Tiffany's story and said that without a body, they can't acknowledge that David was murdered. "We actually don't know if this person is dead," says Ruben Dario Rios Lopez, spokesman for the Tamaulipas State Attorney General's office. But Sigifredo Gonzalez Jr., sheriff of Zapata County in Texas, says there's ample evidence: including a Texas man who dialed 911 after seeing Tiffany being chased by a boat. "I have no reason to do this to my husband," says Tiffany. "I think they [the Mexican police] were just trying to see if they could get us to go away, because it's ridiculous that they wouldn't believe me."

Others who knew the couple, including David's own mother, are shocked at any suggestion that Tiffany might have murdered her husband. The couple met at Thompson Valley High School in Loveland, Colo., and married in 2002 after David flew them to Vail and proposed in a horse-drawn carriage. "He just loved her to death, and she loved him back the exact same way," recalls David's cousin Melanie Hood, 31. The couple became closer after a 2005 trip to Kenya to build an orphanage, said Tiffany's dad, Bob Young. "Neither lived in fear. They were adventurous," he says.

On the last day David was seen alive, they had passed an area where cartel "pirates" guard tons of hidden marijuana and in recent months had put machine guns to the heads of fishermen, says Sheriff Gonzalez. According to Tiffany, David spotted three boats moving toward them and motioned Tiffany to speed up and get in front of him. "Once the gunfire started, there were warning shots to say stop," says Tiffany, who believes their attackers thought they were spies. "And when we didn't, they kept firing." The gunmen "were shooting at them to scare them away," Gonzalez speculates. Tiffany, who is 4'10" and 100 lbs., says she struggled in vain to lift David's 250-lb. body out of the water. One of the pirates came within 10 feet and pointed his gun at her. "Please don't shoot," she pleaded. The gunman briefly left to converse with the men on the other boats, but soon all three boats started toward her. "I didn't have time to hold him and kiss him and tell him I loved him. I just had to go."

On the Mexican side of Falcon Lake, the search for David's body ground to a halt after the severed head of Rolando Flores Villegas, a Mexican police commander assigned to the Hartley case, was left near a Mexican Army base. Sheriff Gonzalez says he's heard the cartel may never allow David's body to be found, but Tiffany says she is keeping faith. "God is going to touch the right heart of somebody who's going to bring him back,'' she says.

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