Slain student's accused murderer released

April 1, 2008 1:13:12 PM PDT
A Mexican police official has been suspended after one suspect in the fatal shooting of a U.S. college student last week walked out of a Puerto Vallarta jail Friday and remains on the run. David Parrish, 21, was shot in the chest while fending off a pair of assailants attempting to snatch his mother's purse, a deadly crime uncharacteristic of the popular tourist destination.

Mexican authorities consider 30-year-old Alfonso Ramirez, originally of Guadalajara, a dangerous man. He was one of two men arrested last week in connection with Parrish's murder and the attempted robbery of his mother, Janet Graaff, a business school instructor at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Parrish was killed around 4 p.m. during a spring break robbery attempt March 26, near the port in Puerto Vallarta, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City confirmed to ABC News.

"He was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead shortly after," the spokeswoman said.

Ramirez escaped from jail Friday. "[Ramirez] appears to have changed clothes with a cell mate and was released by mistake," the U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said, adding that a public safety director had been suspended as prosecutors looked into how Ramirez had walked free.

The second suspect, identified as Daniel Vargas, also 30, remains in jail.

Prosecutor Guillermo Martin Diaz did not return a phone call from ABC News, but held a news conference Monday in which he announced the public safety director's suspension and said that public officials and prison employees are under investigation for possibly helping Ramirez escape from the jail, according to Siempre Libres, a Puerto Vallarta newspaper.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy were notified by police about the fatal attempted robbery "almost immediately" and have been in touch with Graaff and her family, according to the spokeswoman.

The embassy said it would help arrange the transportation of Parrish's body to the United States. A memorial service has been scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday at a church in Boulder. The location of the student's body, as well as Janet Graaff's exactly location, were unclear.

Parrish was a Boulder native who started at the University of Kansas but transferred home to the University of Colorado in Boulder, according to an obituary provided by his family. He was a junior geography major who spent a semester during his sophomore year studying abroad in Morocco. During the fall semester, Parrish achieved a 4.0 grade point average.

"David had a wry sense of humor, which continually entertained his many, many friends and a keen sense of aesthetics, which lives on in the many photographs he has left us," the family wrote. Relatives described the college student as an impeccable dresser who collected "unusual" shoes and traveled to Europe, southern Africa, Japan and Thailand in addition to his semester in Morocco. He was also a sports fan and an enthusiastic athlete.

"Truth with humor and kindness, justice with love and fairness, and beauty in all things," the family wrote, "these were David's principles and how his family will remember him."

G.P. "Bud" Peterson, the Colorado chancellor, said in a statement, "A loss of any one of our students is deeply felt here, but the loss of such a visionary student is nearly unbearable."

Graaff lectures on ethics and sustainability at the university's Leeds School of Business. A native of South Africa, according to a profile on the university Web site, Graaff describes herself as "passionate about sustainable development and social change."

"I continue to challenge myself to develop the inner and outer capacities for living an integrated and sustainable life," Graaff writes. A photograph shows the woman with her son and daughter, identified in the obituary as Lesley.

A university spokesman told ABC News the family, including father Stephen Parrish, has declined any comment on the case but said Graaff has been in contact with some of her colleagues.

Parrish's death is the first reported fatal shooting of an American tourist traveling in Puerto Vallarta, according to the U.S. Embassy. Of more than 1 million Americans who visited the Mexican port city along the country's western coastline last year, there were only 12 reports of violence.

Other areas in Mexico do not share the same reputation for safety. A state department travel alert issued in October warns American tourists about execution-style murders involving Mexican officials and kidnappings common to some parts of the country.

"In recent years dozens of U.S. citizens have been kidnapped in Mexico and many cases remain unresolved," according to the current travel alert, which will remain in effect until April 15, 2008. "Moreover, new cases of disappearances and kidnap for ransom continue to be reported." The alert specifically cites border areas as potential flash points of danger.