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Idaho woman says she was sexually assaulted and forced to pay $10,000 to get out of Mexican jail

Idaho

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IDAHO FALLS — A birthday celebration in Cancun turned into a terrifying nightmare for an Idaho woman and her husband who vow they will never return to Mexico.

Destani Cowham says she was arrested, sexually assaulted, held in a bug-infested, 90-degree-plus jail cell, and forced to pay $10,000 to return to Idaho and her three children.

“This was hands down the worst experience of my life,” Destani tells EastIdahoNews.com during a Zoom conversation from her Meridian home. “I’m still in shock that any of this even happened because it’s the kind of stuff you hear about in the movies. I didn’t think things like this actually happened.”

Going to Mexico

Destani and her husband, Chris, spent months planning a tropical getaway for her 30th birthday. They booked a flight to leave April 1 from Boise to Cancun with a layover in Denver. It was their first trip without kids since their honeymoon five years ago, and they were excited.

“I had to pack for myself, my three kids who were staying at three different places. I worked all day, cleaned the house and got my kids and dog all dropped off where they were staying,” Destani explains. “I was tired, and I screwed up.”

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Destani and Chris Cowham enjoy a drink while vacationing in Cancun. | Courtesy Destani Cowham

Destani is a concealed carry permit holder and often has a .380 pistol in her purse. She put the purse in her suitcase — not realizing the gun was inside — and checked the bag at the airport while carrying a backpack on the plane with her wallet, ID and passport.

The firearm went unnoticed by the Transportation Security Administration at the airport.

The couple made it to their all-inclusive resort in Cancun, where they had a wonderful time. Destani says she didn’t take anything from her purse during their trip, and it stayed in her suitcase the entire time.

Trouble at the airport

On April 5, the Cowhams left the resort and checked in for their United Airlines flight at the Cancun International Airport.

“We were there early, so my husband and I did some shopping, had breakfast and went to our gate probably 30 to 40 minutes before we were supposed to board,” Destani says. “As we’re walking up, this lady is calling our name over the intercom. She calls us up to the desk, where she tells us that there’s a security issue, and she can’t let us on a flight until it’s resolved.”

Destani works for Alaska Airlines and wondered if her colleagues were possibly playing a prank on her. But she realized the situation was serious when five Mexican National Guard members came over to speak with her and Chris.

They told them a gun had been found inside Destani’s suitcase, and the couple was escorted outside through a backdoor at the airport. In the parking lot, several more National Guard members were standing with the luggage.

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Destani Cowham enjoying her vacation in Mexico. | Courtesy Destani Cowham

“They open it and are telling us where they found the gun. I realized that it was in my concealed-carry compartment of my purse. I didn’t even realize it was in there because I never even took my purse out of the suitcase,” Destani recalls. “I have no idea how it wasn’t caught leaving Boise because we shouldn’t have been able to leave with it. I told them all of this and apologized. I told them I was sorry and asked what I needed to do.”

One of the security officials told Destani if she could prove the gun was registered to her, the situation would be resolved, Destani says. So Chris contacted his mother in Meridian, who took photos of the registration and texted it back to him.

That apparently was not enough because Destani was told she would be taken to the Cancun police station.

Going to jail

Destani was put into the backseat of a police car with National Guard members on each side of her and in the front seats, she says. Chris was not allowed to ride in the same vehicle, so he caught a cab and met his wife at the police station.

“Nobody in the car speaks English, and we arrive at this building where they take me upstairs, sit me on a bench, and somebody comes out and tells me that I need to speak to the attorney general,” Destani says. “They said all I need to do is just show him my paperwork (the gun registration), and it’ll be fine. They have my suitcase, they have my passport and they wouldn’t let my husband come upstairs, so he sat downstairs the whole time.”

After waiting three hours, Destani says a woman came out and introduced herself as a public defender.

“She tells me I am going to prison in Mexico for three to six months, up to six years, because the gun is illegal. I handed her the paperwork and tried to explain that it wasn’t illegal,” she says. “She tells me that it may not be illegal in Idaho, but it is illegal there because you have to have a specific permit.”

As Chris waited for his wife, he was introduced to a private attorney named Miguel Rosales. Rosales said if the Cowhams paid him $10,000, he could get Destani released from custody within 48 hours.

“We have three kids and we’re like, ‘What the heck do we do?’ We don’t have that kind of money just lying around, but at this point, we’re kind of panicking, and my husband’s like, ‘We’ll figure it out,'” Destani says.

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Destani and Chris Cowham took this photo days before she was arrested in Mexico. | Courtesy Destani Cowham

Destani’s mugshot was taken with someone’s cell phone, and she was taken to a holding cell in the basement of a nearby building. She describes the cell as a tiny concrete room with a thin foam mattress covered in blood and other stains on a concrete bunk bed. There was a toilet without a handle, no toilet paper and a basin with no running water. Bugs were “literally crawling all over everything.” Chris was allowed to give his wife a blanket but could not visit or stay with her.

“The one that spoke English pulled his gun out, put it to my head and said if I said anything to my husband, they would kill me and say I tried to escape.”

A thermometer on the wall of the room read 92 degrees, and there was no air conditioning. No other inmates were in the jail.

Chris checked into a hotel, and that night, Destani says she suffered a panic attack and “freaked out.” A man who identified himself as a doctor was called to the jail cell and told her if she didn’t calm down, she would be taken to a hospital and would have to serve more time behind bars.

“So I’m trying to calm down and he offers me this medication that he said was an anxiety pill. In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have taken it but I took what he gave me – a round white pill that I thought was like a Xanax,” Destani recalls. “I finally fell asleep. I have no idea what time it was because there were no clocks or anything but probably a few hours later, I woke up to two men who came into my cell. I had never seen these guys before, but they were in an all-black uniform. One spoke English and one didn’t.”

The men starting yelling at Destani to get up and take off her clothes, she says. When she started to scream, she says one of the men ripped off a piece of the filthy mattress and shoved it into her mouth. Destani remembers the men handcuffing her hands behind her back and taking photos of her naked.

“I was super dizzy and nauseous and tired. It’s all was kind of blurry, but these men took turns sexually assaulting me,” she recalls, holding back tears. “Both of them had guns on their hips, and when they went to leave, the one that spoke English pulled his gun out, put it to my head and said if I said anything to my husband, they would kill me and say I tried to escape.”

The men left the cell, and Destani eventually fell back asleep.

The next day, Chris visited his wife and could tell something was wrong, but she was nervous to say anything because they didn’t know if the jail guards were listening.

Chris secured the $10,000, and Rosales told him to wire $2,500 from Western Union to four different people, one of them being himself.

Destani remained in jail that day, and Chris brought her food. That evening the doctor visited again and gave her another pill. She fell asleep to bugs crawling all over her body, but fortunately, the men in black uniforms did not return.

“The next morning, the guards come down and tell me I can go. They bring me up to this room where my husband is signing some kind of paperwork in Spanish. I took photos of all of it because they refused to give me copies of anything,” Destani says.

Going home

Destani says while she was locked up, the guards repeatedly told her she would see a judge within 48 hours. That never happened, but when she was released, Rosales said there would be a virtual hearing that she would need to attend. Once the hearing was over, her passport and other belongings would be sent back to her in Idaho.

“That evening, our attorney brought us paperwork that was all in Spanish and said I would be let on the flight if I showed them the forms,” Destani says. She noticed her birthdate was wrong, and when she used an online program to translate the paperwork, she realized it was a police report that said she had lost her passport at the mall.

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Destani Cowham received this letter from her attorney to show officials as she was traveling to the United States from Mexico. | Courtesdy Destani Cowham

“So we message him and ask, ‘How am I going to get home with this?’ Working for the airline, I’m like, I need an emergency passport or at least documentation that has my correct birth date on it,” Destani says. “But he’s like, ‘No, no. You’re fine. They’ll let you on the flight.'”

Destani contacted United Airlines, who had no record of anything that had occurred earlier that week. The system simply noted the Cowhams failed to show up for their flight.

The airline issued new tickets, and the couple showed up at the Cancun Airport the next day – April 8.

“We get to the airport, and we show them this paperwork. The person at the desk calls whoever they need to call and confirm that this paperwork is accurate,” Destani recalls. “They then personally escort us through TSA and through security to our gate. They let us through, and we got on our flight.”

The Cowhams landed in San Francisco a few hours later and were expecting problems at customs, but after the agent made some calls, they were cleared to enter the country.

Once they made it home to Meridian, Destani went to the hospital for an exam and was prescribed antibiotics and other medications due to her stay at the jail.

Working with officials

Chris has been in touch with the U.S. Consulate in Cancun since April 5, the day Destani was arrested. EastIdahoNews.com has reviewed emails between him and an agent where Chris asked for help and reported his wife was in trouble.

“During her 48-hour incarceration, being held without any formal charges, no one from the U.S. Consulate ever came and checked on her,” Chris wrote in an email on April 21. “The guards entered her cell and violated her. She was never read her rights but instead was handed a piece of paper, written in Spanish with no explanation of what any of the documents said. … The ‘lawyer’ that was ‘sent over’ told me that it would take $10,000 USD to get her released. I paid this. I have not been provided with any receipts or declarations of payment for anything.”

The agent responded to Chris and said she was “sorry to hear about the poor treatment that (Destani) received while in detention and (encouraged) her to file a police report with the public ministry for the violation.” The agent wrote that the U.S. Consulate has neither law enforcement nor investigative authority in a foreign country and they are not able to investigate crimes.

In response to a request for comment from EastIdahoNews.com, a State Department official said, “When a U.S. citizen is arrested overseas, the department works to provide all appropriate consular assistance. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment.”

Rosales, the attorney, told EastIdahoNews.com he often assists Americans arrested in Mexico, and when asked what the $10,000 was used for, he said it helped get the Cowhams home quicker.

When asked why the form Destani was given stated her passport had been lost at the mall, when Mexican authorities actually had it, Rosales said, “That’s something I advised them to do to get back to their country quicker.”

What now?

Once the Cowhams arrived home, they learned one of four people who were supposed to receive $2,500 from the Western Union transfer hadn’t claimed it. Chris requested a reversal, and they got the money back.

Rosales told them a hearing on the charges was scheduled for Tuesday night, but he refuses to give Destani any information until they return the $2,500. They have no plans to do so. Follow-up calls to Rosales from EastIdahoNews.com were not answered.

Destani admits she was wrong to have the handgun in her bag and says she and her husband have learned their lesson.

“I 100% admit this was my mistake. And it’s crazy because I don’t know what would have happened if my husband wouldn’t have been able to come up with that money,” she says. “This was absolutely all about money, and I don’t think any of it was legit. There was no paperwork. There (were) no charges listed. I never saw a judge. I don’t know what they are doing with those photos they took (in the jail). I have no idea. But I would honestly not recommend going to Mexico. This kind of thing happens.”

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