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How fun road trip to Mexico became days of horror

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Julie Watson, Alfredo Pena, James Pollard and Hilary Powell teamed up on reporting from both sides of the border as AP took readers through the harrowing journey of a group of childhood friends on a fun trip to Mexico that ended up in kidnapping and death. 

The story on an ill-fated journey from South Carolina to a Mexican border town came out in pieces over a week’s time. AP’s journalists on both sides of the border hit the reporting from all angles as the details slowly emerged, San Diego-based reporter Watson, who’s long covered the border, wove together reporting into a compelling narrative.

AP took readers through the harrowing journey as it happened: the fun drive south through the night with everyone goofing off, then one friend dropped off on the U.S. side of the border and the rest crossing into Mexico for a cosmetic surgery appointment. Then, the dread that built when the friend left behind didn’t hear from her friends and contacted police. The details and video of a shooting, the hunt for the missing Americans while their families waited in the U.S. in a panic, and finally, the terrible news that two were dead followed.

The surviving victims were driven around in a truck with the bodies of their friends for days. Watson scored an early reporting win when she obtained the first published comments from the fifth friend who went on the trip but didn’t go all the way to Mexico. After identifying Cheryl Orange, Watson used a text message exchange and a copy of the police report to coax her into giving her first public comments on the ordeal and confirming some key timeline details.

Journalists in Mexico including Pena were first to get a letter purported to be from the cartel, saying that the killings were unintentional. In South Carolina, reporter Pollard and video journalist Powell spent multiple days knocking on doors in Lake City and making phone calls to reach family and friends. AP had front pages throughout the week and was ahead on many angles in the coverage.

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