As a Wisconsin family questions what happened to their daughter the day she died from an injury at an all-inclusive Mexico resort this year, the State Department is warning travelers of "tainted alcohol."
Families told the Milwuakee Journal Sentinel they experienced sickness, blackouts and injuries after drinking at resorts in the Cancun and Playa del Carmen area in recent months.
The reports follow the death of 20-year-old Abbey Conner, who was found face down in a pool at the Iberostar Paraiso del Mar resort.
On the State Department's website, updated Wednesday after the newspaper's report, in the "Safety and Security" section, the agency warns:
"There have been allegations that consumption of tainted or substandard alcohol has resulted in illness or blacking out. If you choose to drink alcohol, it is important to do so in moderation and to stop and seek medical attention if you begin to feel ill."
Conner's family said they were on winter break together in Playa del Carmen when she mysteriously suffered a "traumatic brain injury."
John and Ginny McGowan, Conner’s mother and stepdad, told the Journal Sentinel they had spent their afternoon relaxing by the pool while their children swam. The parents went up to their room to get ready for dinner, but an hour later, both Abbey and her brother Austin, who had spent part of their afternoon at a poolside bar, were found unconscious, face down in chest-deep water.
Austin survived, but Abbey Conner was declared brain-dead by doctors. On Jan. 12, the family decided to withdraw life support and donate Conner’s organs.
But months later, they still don’t know what actually happened to their daughter.
The Journal Sentinel reports the official cause of death was "accidental drowning," but family said they have doubts about that ruling.
Conner’s brother reportedly told the publication the duo had done a few shots together before a group invited them to do a shot together. They all drank one, and that was the last thing he remembers before waking up in an ambulance.
According to the report, Austin Conner's blood-alcohol level was 0.26 and Abbey's was 0.25.
"My kids were at this hotel for less than two hours. The last thing my son remembers is having a drink in the pool," the children's father, Bill Conner, who was not in Mexico at the time, told NBC affiliate WMTV in April. "The next thing my son remembers is they woke up in the hospital. Somebody got to them… This was at 5:30 in the afternoon, daylight, exclusive hotel and you just don't think it'll happen to you."
"It's all too convenient," the McGowans’ attorney, Florentino Ramirez, told the Journal Sentinel. "If it was an accident, where was everybody? It just doesn't make sense. There are too many open ends."
It appears the Conner family isn't alone with such questions.
The attorney representing the family told the Journal Sentinel he went to the resort and watched the bar where Conner's injury happened.
“They serve alcoholic drinks with alcohol of bad quality and in great amounts, mixing different types of drinks,” he wrote in a four-page report summarizing how Conner may have died.
Other families have reported similar incidents after drinking at resort bars across the area, though none of the experiences were deadly.
Two teenage brothers from Minnesota on vacation with their parents told the Journal Sentinel they woke up covered in mud, with no shirts or shoes and their wallets and cell phones missing. Another Wisconsin woman said she was assaulted while she and her husband were unconscious, a claim the Journal Sentinel reports was supported by an exam she had done after returning to the U.S.
Kathy and Jeff Daley, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said they were vacationing in Cancun with their daughter and had visited a pool swim-up bar to do a round of tequila shots with their group. Kathy Daley said she took one shot and drank water for the remainder of her time there before she was offered a mixed drink from the bartender. Daley took a couple of sips before she said she lost consciousness and woke up vomiting and disoriented in a hospital. She was diagnosed with intoxication and severe dehydration, the Journal Sentinel reports.
In many cases, guests reported drinking tequila, but in some cases it was beer or another alcohol.
Numerous travelers, including the Daleys, reported that local hospitals demanded large sums of cash after such incidents, in some cases seeking the money before treatment.
Iberostar Paraiso Resort reiterated in a statement that they are taking the situation following Conner's death "very seriously."
"We would also like to emphasize that for us at IBEROSTAR the safety and satisfaction of our guests is of utmost importance," the statement read. "IBEROSTAR Hotels & Resorts welcomes more than half a million guests per year in Mexico and has a very strict policy for hygiene and safety. A high standard of quality for food and beverages is crucial for the daily operation of our resorts. We work with food and beverage providers whose products comply with the highest quality standards to guarantee the satisfaction and safety of all of our guests. We work with a host of providers not unique to IBEROSTAR who service other hotel chains and renowned brands. Similarly, we only purchase sealed bottles that satisfy all standards required by the designated regulatory authorities.”
A State Department official confirmed to NBC 5 the department is “aware of [Conner's] case.”
“We extend our sincere condolences to family and friends,” the official said in a statement. “In cases of U.S. citizens injured overseas, the Department of State works to provide all appropriate consular assistance. Out of respect for the family, we have no further comment.”
According to data from the department, nearly 40 U.S. citizens died from drowning in Mexico last year.
A travel warning from the state department on Mexico, however, does not mention drowning or alcohol-related incidents from the area.