San Diego The dark green Mustang ragtop looks blue under the hazy floodlights. Here behind the state judicial police station in Tijuana's Otay section, the smart new cars are recovered stolen vehicles, mostly with California plates. The older ones belong to the cops of the state judicial police. A patina of dust has settled on the BMWs and Fords. The Mexican moonlight gives them a silver sheen.
The cleanest part of the 1995 Ford is its red, white, and blue license plate, "Idaho 8055."
"It's been here a couple of weeks," says local police chief Héctor Huerta Suárez.
His officers found the car on Thursday, September 24, in the parking lot of the Zona Rio Plaza mall, unlocked, keys in the ignition.
"A private security officer at the mall had called two of my officers, Valencia and Ferrer," says Huerta. "He told them that the car had been parked in the place for ten or more days. It's not a good feeling for us, this new car with keys in it. So I told my officers to contact the United States police.
"When we asked them for the information about the car, my officer told me that there was some kind of concern, like there was a United States case number on that car, that it was a sensitive matter," Huerta says. "[We asked them to] find out the name of the owner, and maybe a picture, so we could try to check on missing people over here in Tijuana. Maybe somebody was killed in Mexico [who] was unidentified."
The U.S. police came up with a name from Washington state, near the Idaho border. Pamela D. Bennett, 49, of Clarkston, a town separated from Lewiston, Idaho, by the Snake River.
"Our first reaction was that it was maybe a classic insurance fraud," says Huerta. "Sometimes United States citizens who come to Tijuana intentionally leave the car unattended with the keys in, hoping and praying for somebody to steal it, so they can go back to the United States and claim on the insurance."
But this case seemed different to Huerta, because no owner came back to check if it had been stolen or to reclaim it.
"There are many possible theories that we can come up with: she could have come to Tijuana, drunk too much, gone to the beach, and disappeared in the ocean. We're also going to check if a person with these characteristics is in jail or in a psychiatric hospital. There is [also] a very great possibility she could have been killed if she was involved with drugs."
The drug-connection theory gains credence when you talk to the police in Clarkston, Washington, a thousand miles north of San Diego.
Detective Sergeant Richard Muszynski, of the Clarkston Police Department, says his department first received a report on September 22 that Bennett was missing. "Her cousin [Barry Biegert] made the actual report. Nobody had heard from her or seen her since August 31. [Although] she was observed in Pullman, Washington, a town 30 miles from here, the week of Labor Day [a few days later]. We searched her residence here, and we didn't find anything that would indicate foul play is involved. No blood, no signs of a struggle, nothing like that."
But Muszynski says there were signs she left the house in Clarkston's wealthy Riverview area in a hurry. In the yard behind the home she inherited from her grandfather, valuable rafting equipment she had recently used was left out in the yard, a back door was still unlocked, her dog, a two-year-old vizsla named Daisy, was gone. But no clothing nor other personal items were missing. Above all, she hadn't asked friends to mind what cousin Biegert calls her beloved house plants. "Either something's happened to her, or else she's in hiding," says her former husband David Bennett, speaking from his farm outside nearby Gifford. "And why she'd be hiding, I don't understand either. We've known each other since I was nine years old. It's out of character for her to leave that car [in Tijuana] unlocked. Hell, she'd even lock its doors when she parked it inside my metal shop," which Bennett operates on the farm they once shared.
Bennett says it would be just as unlikely for his ex-wife to abandon her grandfather's Riverview house. "That's a $200,000 to $300,000 house. The idea just doesn't make sense." But it was Pamela Bennett's love affair with "Joseph Blake," a mysterious, sophisticated middle-aged stranger she called "J," that really worried her friends and family. A few days after she disappeared, on September 3, police discovered the remains of a methamphetamine lab in "an upscale home" police say Blake occupied in Lenore, a small settlement about ten miles east of Clarkston along Idaho's Clearwater River. The contamination was so bad from chemical dust and toxic materials leaking out of containers that a member of the investigating team had to be treated at a local hospital, according to the Lewiston Morning Tribune.
"We understand [Pamela Bennett] had a relationship with one of the people who were involved in that lab," Sgt. Muszynski told the paper on October 3. "We don't know his location at this time."
Muszynski's colleague across the river in Lewiston, Idaho, David Kane, special agent in charge of the Lewiston Criminal Investigation Bureau, says that person is Joseph Blake -- who had disappeared three weeks before Bennett.
"Our information was that the person who claims to be Blake -- we don't know what his real name is -- had been in the [Lenore] residence for well over a year," says Kane. "He'd paid a large sum of money down [towards the purchase price], but it's my information that Blake was defaulting on the payments."
Kane says that's not surprising. "They'd made their money [from their methamphetamine lab operation]. I'm sure he was [happy for the owners to take the house back]. That way he doesn't have to worry about all the chemical contamination." Kane says he hasn't yet charged Blake. "We're working with [state and federal] prosecutors to come up with [charges] -- except we don't know which of his several aliases to charge him under." Kane says Blake's case shows how the meth trade, which historically came from such areas as San Diego, Riverside, and San Bernardino, is reversing gears. "We do know that [Blake] was involved in sending large quantities of methamphetamine out of this area to California. We've seized well over three pounds of that at one point in time. Your [Southern California] law enforcement down there is doing a pretty good job of putting pressure on these people, driving them up to our areas. We really appreciate that! They're opening the map of the United States, seeing where there's little population, a large land mass of open areas and limited law enforcement, and they're coming up with Idaho as one place. The lab seizures in the state of Idaho have increased probably 400 percent in the last year. Meth is our number-one drug up here." But Kane worries about publicizing Blake's and Bennett's disappearance in San Diego. "If [Blake] has gone to Tijuana, we don't want to chase him further into Mexico."
Bennett's 75-year-old mom, Gloria Biegert, who lives in New Jersey, apparently feels the same. She refused to speak to the Reader. But she is so worried about her daughter, she has hired a private investigator to find Pamela. And Dennis Phillips of All West Investigations says that, unlike his employer, he'll speak because "the thing that's important to us is finding Pam, and they could well be right in your readership area." Phillips says Blake was a charmer who came at the right time for Bennett, when she was vulnerable, with the death of her father and the breakup of her marriage, both last year.
He believes it was the air of danger, adventure, sophistication, and wealth about "J" that appealed to her. "She's an outdoor, adventurous woman. She likes the outdoor life, she likes travel, she likes good food, she's a connoisseur of good food, she's a gourmet cook, she's a talented entertainer of people, a gregarious person. But it's our feeling that she's fallen into J's world, and when she fell, she had no idea what she had gotten into. We know that she's emotionally wrestling with what to do, how to bring her life back to some normalcy. We feel that there's definitely an element of danger, based on who he is. This person is a professional criminal, in our opinion.... The way we'll find Pam is when someone finds Blake."
According to her best friend, Christine Mulholland, granddaughter of L.A.'s famous water baron, the two studied liberal arts at the exclusive Sierra Nevada College in Tahoe in the early 1970s and remained friends ever since. Mulholland, speaking from San Luis Obispo, says the two used to party together.
Mulholland has heard every theory: that Pamela and Blake are still around Oregon-Washington, that they paid someone else to drive the Mustang to TJ and abandon it, that when the meth lab became "hot," she and J drove separate cars down and flew off from Tijuana airport to the Bahamas. Yet Mulholland feels if her friend were okay, she would have heard. "I would have had a postcard from her by now from some place or a phone call."
Mulholland says Bennett told her earlier this year she started suspecting Blake was involved with meth labs. "At that time she told me that she was sending him packing, and he couldn't hang around there anymore." And that, Mulholland fears, along with Bennett's temperament, could have turned Pamela into a problem. "She's got a volatile temper on her and a volatile mouth to go with it. And when she drank, boy, she could really drink. So if she drank too much, or -- I know meth creates paranoia and violent behavior.... My friend's car turns up in Tijuana.... I still am not certain that [Blake] or somebody else hasn't caused some foul play to happen to her."
Back in Tijuana, Licenciado Huerta, the Otay Mesa police chief, peers into the Ford Mustang in the yard behind his police station. When American forensics finally come to inspect it, he fears they won't get many answers. Huerta speaks good English, but there hasn't been a lot of communication with police in Clarkston and Lewiston, even though he gave the U.S. cops his number.
"It's not so 'clean' [for prints] as we wished," he says, peering in. "When the car was opened, the police touched the car, the private security officers touched the car. Why? Because there was no crime related to the car then, so it is not clean." But he worries more about the young lady who might have been dragged out of it and killed, perhaps because she knew too much. "That is a very [great] possibility -- that not only Pamela Bennett, but maybe Mr. Blake could be a victim too. If they come to Tijuana, if they are involved with these kinds of problems, of course it is a possibility." He pauses before climbing the steps into his police station. "Or, she could have come to Tijuana to disappear. In Baja it is very easy to disappear. If you see this lady in Rosarito, in Ensenada, in the Coyote Playa in Baja Sur, you're not going to think of her as a possible delinquent. It is very easy to disappear in Tijuana." Pamela Bennett is described as five feet, eight inches tall, weighs 140 pounds, and has brown hair and eyes. Her dog wears a teal collar with a southwestern design.