A New Yorker Travels, and Disappears, in Mexico

A New Yorker who quit his office job and bought a used motorcycle he didn't know how to operate was last seen riding off into the sunrise, en route to the beach where the reunion scene at the end of <i>The Shawshank Redemption</i> takes place. No one...

Feb 10 2014, 3:29pm

All photos courtesy of Harry Devert's Instagram.

A New Yorker who quit his office job, bought a used motorcycle he didn't know how to ride, and set off on a year-long journey from New York to the southern tip of South America went missing in Mexico more than two weeks ago. He was last seen riding off into the sunrise, en route to visit the beach where the reunion scene at the end of The Shawshank Redemption takes place. No one has heard from him since.

Harry Devert, 32, checked out of a bed-and-breakfast in the tiny village of Macheros around January 25, steering his green Kawasaki sport bike in the direction of Zihuatanejo, a coastal city in the state of Guerrero. He carried a tent, sleeping bag, camp stove, tarp, raincoat, and not a lot of clothes, according to his mother Ann. “He travels light; he thinks possessions weigh you down.”

His last communication was an ominous message he sent to his girlfriend, Sarah Schiear, on January 25.

“Just got an hour and a half long escort out of some area it was too dangerous for me to be. Stopping for lunch and ... voila internet,” he wrote Schiear, via the social media site WhatsApp. “Gonna get back on the road soon. Apparently there's another military escort waiting for me in some other town... I'm running way late because of the crazy military stuff... hopefully get a chance to talk to you tonight when I (hopefully) finally arrive.”

Harry's bike after a crash near Orlando, Florida, on his way south to Mexico.

The US Embassy in Mexico has been unable to ascertain details of the contact between Devery and the military. “Assuming the Mexican government can confirm or deny making a military escort, where did they take him? We don't have these answers,” said Darren Del Sardo, a friend and legal advisor to the family. 

Devert was posting photos and texts of his adventures in Mexico to his more than 11,000 followers on Instagram and filing regular dispatches to his website, “A New Yorker Travels.” In the month leading up to his disappearance, his photos on Instagram show him at a volcano, two waterfalls, two ancient ruins, a cavern, and observing a mountain sunrise. In the most recent of the photos, he appears in the traditional costume of a Mexican charro on horseback at a rodeo in Morelia.

Devert hoped the trip would lead to a book deal if he kept writing and posting photos to Instagram, his mother said.  He last checked in to Instagram on January 22 from the town of Uriangato, Mexico.

Ann Devert was accustomed to her son's going off the grid for a few weeks at a time. But he ordinarily gives her fair warning. When he didn't phone home for his father's birthday on January 29, that was when she sensed that something was wrong.

Friends set up the Facebook page Help Find Harry. It has gained more than twelve thousand followers and has connected family and friends to people with valuable information. “We're not sure of anything except the leads that we receive ourselves,” Del Sardo said.

The state of Michoacán where Devert met his mysterious fate is a chaotic mess of a place run by a drug cartel called the Knights Templar, thousands of farmers ostensibly opposed to the cartel taking up arms and forming militias, and thousands of Mexican soldiers and military intelligence agents deployed to quell the violence—though the military itself has often been linked to crimes there, too.

Ms. Devert now finds herself becoming a quick study in Mexican current events. “People from either side could have thought he represented a threat to the other,” she said. “They might have thought he was a military intelligence agent, or just someone carrying nice belongings like a camp stove.”

Harry Devert set out for a life of travel and adventure at the age of 27, with a five-year journey around the world. He made a small fortune as a day trader, a trade he continued to ply during his travels. He learned the ropes on his own while managing the chat room for a hedge fund in Palm Beach Florida. Harry's formal education stopped at an associate's degree from Westchester Community College. “He was more the kind of person who studied what he liked,” his mother Ann said. “He believed that experience was the best teacher.”

Vietnam, Laos, Colombia, Thailand, Venezuela, Brazil, Spain, France. Harry train-surfed in Nepal, snake-charmed in India, made it through the world's biggest food fight in Spain. He told his mother all of the stories, and she took the good with the bad: the tooth he chipped when two boys in Venezuela shoved a gun in his mouth, the crowd of men he witnessed hack a guy to pieces with machetes in a Rio Favela. “I've been in some of the poorest and some of the most dangerous parts of the world and to many of the finest,” he wrote on his website, “and I still can't tell which I like more.”

Macheros is a village in the state of Mexico, very close to the border of Michoacán. The village, a short walk from the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, is remote enough that Google has yet to map its streets. Nevertheless, because the flight path of millions of butterflies passes through Macheros, every year starting in early November through mid-March, when the butterflies return, Macheros becomes a tourist destination.

Violence and drug-wars are bad for the tourist industry. Gunplay in neighboring Michoacán has caused many foreign tourists to stay away. The military is a visible in the streets, frightening some, comforting others. Helicopters hover from time to time. Federal police convoys come and go. Ellen Sharp runs the bed and breakfast here with her boyfriend, John. “Americans are worried about traveling here,” she says. “Not Harry.”

Harry Devert signed the registry book on Wednesday, January 22, at 4:30 PM. He paid ten dollars a night for bathroom access and a patch of grass in the yard to pitch his tent. Ellen said her interactions with Harry were limited, but she does remember some things. Like most people traveling for a year, he was watching his money. He hired a guide from town to take him through the reserve, instead of a more expensive package offered by the B&B. On his third day, he managed to sneak in without any guide at all, which Ellen called “a misunderstanding at the gate.”

Harry caught a trout at the trout run, cooked it, and ate it. He stayed in the park until after nightfall and walked home in the company of the forest rangers. He told her about a discovery that, if you sit still, butterflies will land all over you and fly away the moment you move. “He seemed very happy. Very open and enthusiastic. My boyfriend thought he had a very good energy about him.”

On Saturday, January 25, at 6 AM, Harry Devert loaded his belongings onto the back of his Kawasaki and left Macheros behind. No one knows which route he took. A Canadian couple who were guests of the bed and breakfast discussed with Harry the best route to Zihuatanejo the previous day. He had asked if there was a direct route there. That was when they told him about Route 134. It was direct enough but “full of potholes and bandits.”

“People don't like to take Route 134,” Ellen said. “It's too steep and windy, and there are deep ravines. It's a dangerous road for many reasons.”

No one knows if Harry pushed ahead on Route 134 or took the safer route through Morelia. Four hours down the road, more than halfway to Zihuatanejo, he messaged Sarah and told her about the military escort. To her it was him preparing to regale her with yet another tale of travel adventure. Ann, however, detects fear in his attempt at making light. 

One native of Macheros named Joel whose family runs a restaurant attached to the B&B said he has never heard of the military providing an escort to a motorist. “An escort like that seems very strange,” Joel said. “You might see a checkpoint, but not an escort. And they would never tell you that a road is too dangerous to travel alone.”

Watch our documentary on the drug gangs, and the vigilante gangs that fight them, in Guerrero and Michoacán here.

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