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Alberta family seeks answers after death of Canadian in Mexican jail

WARNING: This story includes discussion of suicide.

An Alberta family is looking for answers after the in-custody death of a man in Mexico who died by an apparent suicide one day after his birthday late last year.

Thomas Hempstock, 32, died hours after being arrested at his resort in Playa del Carmen, a city at the southern end of Mexico, where he is accused of displaying aggressive behaviour by hotel staff.

A 38-page police, autopsy and toxicology report, signed by the Attorney General of Quintana Roo, says Hempstock was arrested Dec. 12, 2023, and detained by local police at Centro de Justicia Civica, a detention centre nine kilometres northeast of the hotel.

At 2:35 a.m., a guard noticed Hempstock in a  “strange position” with a shoelace around his neck, the police report says. Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.

The medical examiner ruled Thomas died from suffocation by hanging. An autopsy identified cocaine in his system and a blood alcohol concentration of 0.04.

Samantha Hemstock, Thomas’s older sister, said she wants to know why police failed to remove his shoelaces in custody but removed his belt and watch.

“We want justice,” Samantha told CBC News from her home west of Morinville, Alta. “Thomas deserves justice.”

“They failed him. They did not do their job,” Samantha said.

“They did not keep him safe from himself, never mind from anyone else.”

Portrait of Thomas and Samantha Hempstock.
Samantha Hempstock with her brother, Thomas. (Submitted by Samantha Hempstock)

Thomas, who lived in Dawson Creek, B.C. and worked as a commercial truck driver, flew from Edmonton to Playa del Carmen Dec. 6.

Originally he was supposed to travel with friends, Samantha said, but when they couldn’t make the adventure, he decided to go alone. 

He and his sister kept in touch daily. 

“He was loving it,” Samantha said.

In a series of messages on Dec. 11, Samantha wished Thomas a happy birthday. He asked for their shared Netflix password, with plans to stay in as he was getting sick and felt “like death.”

They arranged his pick-up from the Edmonton airport on Dec. 13.

The next morning, Samantha woke up to a message on Facebook from a sympathetic employee at a Mexican funeral home. He was looking for Thomas’s next-of-kin.

“I am very sorry to inform you that your family (member has) passed away,” Samantha read.

She wondered if they were the target of a scam but Global Affairs soon confirmed it was real.

An email to CBC News, Global Affairs Canada said it is aware of the death of a Canadian citizen in Mexico.

Text messages from Thomas and Hempstock where they arrange for his pick-up, she wishes him a happy birthday and they say they love each other.
Thomas and Samantha’s last communication before he died. (Submitted by Samantha Hempstock)

“Consular officials are providing consular assistance to the family and are in contact with local authorities,” wrote spokesperson Grantly Franklin.

Global Affairs urged Canadians to exercise a high degree of caution in Mexico due to high levels of criminal activity.

‘Uncontrollable’ situation: hotel

An emailed statement from RIU Hotels & Resorts says staff follow strict internal protocols to handle any situation that arises.

“Requesting the intervention of the police is the final step of the protocol and is only done in case a situation becomes completely uncontrollable,” wrote Jorge Satorre, a spokesperson for RIU.

“Unfortunately, this was the case at the Riu Lupita on the evening of the 12th of December.”

The hotel said due to privacy policies it could not release internal security footage to CBC News showing Hempstock’s actions prior to his arrest. The family has not seen the video.

The Attorney General of Quintana Roo but has not responded to repeated inquiries from CBC News.

A struggle for facts: lawyer

Leo Adler, a Toronto-based international criminal lawyer, says some of his clients have struggled to get the full story around the death of a loved one in Mexico.

“They obviously depend a lot on tourism and so they try to keep especially anything that results in the death of a Canadian or an American as low on the radar as possible,” Adler said.

Thomas Hempstock in his big rig.
Thomas fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming a trucker. (Submitted by Samantha Hempstock)

The family’s best bet is to find a reputable local lawyer, he said.

“When you’re in other countries, the laws are different, the customs are different, the level of investigation and standard of investigation is completely different.” 

On Jan. 20, family and friends celebrated the life of Thomas. The Trucker Song was played at the event to honour Hempstock’s love of being in a big rig —  fulfilling his childhood dream to be a truck driver like his dad.

“He was an outgoing, loving, kind, a free spirit,” Samantha said. “He made a really big impact on everyone he met.”

If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:

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