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'Trail' ends in a complex, fascinating crime story

Trail of Feathers: Searching for Philip True, By Robert Rivard Public Affairs, 411 pp., $27.50

A few days after celebrating Thanksgiving 1998 in Mexico with his wife, San Antonio Express-News reporter Philip True embarked on a 10-day trek into Mexico's rugged Sierra Madre range. True, the newspaper's correspondent in Mexico, wanted to write about the Huichol Indians, whose civilization fascinated him. The 50-year-old True, a onetime California hippie, never returned.

Robert Rivard was True's editor and, upon learning of his reporter's disappearance, went down to Mexico to search for him. Rivard used his influence with the Mexican government to obtain military assistance for the search. Alas, Rivard found True buried at the bottom of a ravine. The editor then began a second quest, one through the labyrinthine Mexican legal system, to bring True's killers to justice.

Why did True decide to undertake such a perilous journey, one he pursued alone and without the authorization of his editor or the Huichol Indians? Rivard delves deeply into True's dysfunctional upbringing, one ravaged by sexual molestation. He shows how True became a loner, a seeker, and a lover of the outdoors. Well into middle age, True remained unsettled in spirit.

Rivard meticulously describes how True became an unconventional journalist and how he journeyed to Mexico and met his wife Martha, who was pregnant with their first child at the time True was killed. If True had one tragic flaw, notes Rivard, it was his tendency to trust too much, to ''regard every stranger as a friend." This trust would get him killed.

Rivard tells a multitude of fascinating stories. He begins with True's life and death, and then explores the complex culture of the Huichols. He also writes at length about Mexico, its difficult relationship with the United States, and its woefully inadequate legal system.

After the discovery of True's corpse, Mexican authorities tried to frame the death as a simple hiking accident. Rivard was convinced that True was murdered, and he found support from a coroner who did the initial autopsy and then privately reported his findings to Rivard. There'd been massive head trauma and, equally telling, True's body had been stuffed into a sleeping bag, dragged, and then buried.

Two Huichols were arrested and confessed to the killing. But many Mexicans, and one wealthy expatriate American named Miguel Gatins, suspected a government frame-up. Gatins spent his own money trying to free the defendants, while Rivard pressured the Mexican government for a resolution. Rivard meticulously examines the corruption, confusion, and indifference that dominate the Mexican legal system.

Although Rivard met with two Mexican presidents, the case dragged on for years. The initial judge ordered the two defendants freed, and Rivard began a slow, surprise-filled appeals process. At book's end, an appeals court convicted the two Huichols and sentenced them to 20 years each. But Mexican authorities have been unable to locate them.

Rivard tells this murky story exceedingly well. Nothing about this case, from True's journey to the ongoing search for his killers, is straightforward. ''Trail of Feathers" is a tragedy of two seekers, neither of whom quite found what he was looking for in the hills and courtrooms of Mexico.

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