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JewishJournal.com

April 10, 2008

Israeli girl’s disappearance marks 1-year anniversary

Where is Dana Rishby?

http://www.jewishjournal.com/israel/article/israeli_girls_disappearance_marks_1year_anniversary_20080411

"Are you sleeping?" the 1 a.m. caller asked. "She has been found! You can be happy."

Sadly, for Dania and Dror Rishpy, the call, built on a baseless report from a bad source, brought but another fleeting flicker of hope.

It has been a year since Dana Rishpy, an Israeli girl last seen vacationing in Mexico, disappeared. In that time, her parents have had their hopes buoyed -- and then dashed -- by numerous erroneous reports that Dana had been spotted in Guatemala or Belize or some other Central American country. It's unlikely, they know, because her Israeli and German passports, along with close to $1,000 in traveler's checks, her credit card and clothes, were found in her knapsack back in Tulum, left April 7 at the front desk of the motel where she was staying, by someone known only as "Mati."

Dana, who was then 24, was last seen in the early hours of March 31, 2007, at a beach party in Tulum, a coastal retreat about 100 miles south of Cancun that mixes archaeological ruins with picturesque shorelines. Tulum, according to TravelYucatan.com, "has yet to be invaded by the all-inclusive resorts and remains as one of the last popular bastions of hedonistic culture in the Riviera."

Photos depict Dana as the stereotypical pretty girl next door, doe-eyed, with long, brown hair and soft features. As a child, her picture graced billboards advertising grapes, and as an adult, she offered her voice for dubbing children's programs like "Tom and Jerry" and "Pokemon" in Hebrew.

Her family is well-connected and well-to-do, her father a retired El Al pilot who once served as the personal aviator for Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and her mother a former travel agent. International vacations were typical, and Dana was already a seasoned traveler. Her parents didn't worry when she spoke with them from Los Angeles in mid-March and said she was heading south.

Now, though, they wait half a world away in Israel for news that is not only encouraging but accurate.

"Every day there is something that gives hope, and then we are getting slapped on the face, and we see that nothing was done or nothing changed," Dania Rishpy said this week in a phone interview from the family home in Haifa. "We are between hope and despair all the time."

Adding to the difficulties of an international search for a young woman not known for disappearing acts, the Rishpys and Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs have little confidence in the Mexican investigation and even less influence over it.

"The basic problem on this case is we are talking about a crime against an Israeli citizen in another country, Mexico, with the main suspect being an American," said Itzhak Erez, an Israeli consul in Mexico City. "It is a triangle of countries."

Despite a direct appeal from Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai to Mexican President Felipe Calderon, federal authorities have had scant influence over the attorney general for the state of Quintana Roo, Bello Melchor Rodriguez. He is a bureaucrat who has been accused of bungling the investigation into Dana's disappearance and also another involving the slashing murders of a Canadian couple staying at a posh resort on the eve of their daughter's wedding in Cancun. The state's top law enforcement official also was the source who told TV reporters that Dana had hopped the border and been spotted carousing in Central America with a male companion.

"We know she is here, somewhere," said Erez, who has traveled several times to Tulum to search for Dana and speak with local authorities. "It will be a big surprise if we find her alive. But we are trying to find her and bring her back to her family -- alive or dead."

To this point, authorities have no evidence of a crime related to her disappearance nor what may have happened to her. The man last seen with Dana, whom Erez and her parents believe either knows what happened or had something to do with it, is back in the United States and not speaking with authorities.

Next week, after months of diplomatic finessing, a team of Israeli police officers is scheduled to land in Cancun to revisit search locations and comb over the little evidence held at the police station in Tulum. Pessimism grows with each passing day. With no comforting explanation for Dana's disappearance, horrifying possibilities are preferred over the macabre.

"Every day I think something else," said her mother, who is 64. "I am a very optimistic person. I still want to believe she is being held somewhere against her will and can't do anything. Maybe she is drugged and can't call us."

Dana had been traveling alone, something she had taken to since completing Israeli military service, and had spent the previous two weeks visiting computer-animation schools in California and meeting cousins in Los Angeles who she didn't know she had.

"We were setting up these family meetings for her all over the city. I asked her if she was really OK with this, and she said, ‘Oh yes! I really want to meet everybody. I love meeting everybody,'" said Bruce Powell, founding head of New Jewish Community High School in West Hills, who is a cousin of Dana's father. "She was really just delightful. I mean, what 24-year-old wants to spend their time with a bunch of 50-year-olds they don't even know?"

The plan was to meet her parents in New York at the end of March. But the weather was bad, and Dana decided to head for warmer weather. Her parents were comfortable with her plans to travel to Cancun; they had vacationed there 30 years before and remembered it fondly.

Based on the last entry in her diary, Dana was easily making friends and enjoying her adventures on the Yucatan Peninsula. "We took a taxi together to the beach. The Swiss found a cabin, and I accepted the American's offer to share his. His name is Mati, he is from Santa Monica, 32 years old. He has lived here for two months, working in real estate," she wrote in Hebrew on March 30. "I don't know what his intentions are, but I have none with him. At least not until he shaves, takes a bath and gets a haircut. He looks friendly, but he stinks."

Authorities say Dana and Mati were seen later that night at the beach party. But then no one heard of Dana again until the American who had offered her shelter called the Rishpys in New York on April 7 to say he had Dana's knapsack.

Mati's call did not alarm the Rishpys, who believed their daughter had gone on a tour of nearby ruins and would soon return. They advised him to leave the knapsack at the receptionist's desk and thanked him for the courtesy.

Dana's parents still were not worried when eight days later, Dania signed into her daughter's e-mail account and noticed unopened messages dating back to the end of March. They were familiar with the disconnected nature of traveling. About a month before, the parents had taken a hike in Argentina that left them incommunicado for two weeks.

But at this point, Dror Rishpy decided to e-mail Mati, whose address was found in Dana's inbox, to see if he had heard from her. The exchange offered few clues, except that Dana had not been staying in Cancun as they understood but had left the resort haven after two days for a small cabana at Mar Caribe in Tulum.

On April 25, after having still not heard from Dana and finally starting to fear the worst, Rishpy contacted the Israeli Embassy in Mexico City. The next day, Erez and about 100 Israeli volunteers traveled to Tulum to search for Dana. A group of volunteers also went looking for Mati, whom they hoped had more information about Dana's latest whereabouts.

What they found was an empty apartment, the previous day's newspaper on a table, unmelted ice sitting in a container and a bicycle. According to Silvia Cherem, who wrote a six-part series on Dana's disappearance for La Reforma, Mexico City's largest newspaper, police also found a California driver's license on the floor. It belonged to Matthew Ryan Walshin, born Dec. 22, 1968. He was 38, not 32, and a subsequent search revealed he had boarded a plane from Cancun to San Francisco, via Phoenix, that morning, Erez said.

"He was scared. He decided to escape because he knows something," Erez believes. "He might not be the murderer, but he knows something we don't know."

Walshin, who has been characterized as a hippie drifter constantly on the move since returning to the United States, could not be reached for comment. His mother, Marlene, offered last week to pass a reporter's number onto her son, whom she said was in Los Angeles temporarily. He did not respond.

"He's a little bit wary about who is asking the questions," his mother said from her home in Henderson, Nev. "All of the news has just been slanted one way. It's not been good."

Indeed Cherem, whose articles for La Reforma accused authorities in Quintana Roo of sweeping aside the Rishpy case to save the tourism industry their economy depends on, not only identified Walshin as the prime suspect or an important witness but hypothesized about how he might have killed Dana and how he would have disposed of the body.

In September, Walshin was arrested in El Cerrito, near Berkeley, for getting into a fight with a private investigator hired by the Rishpy family to tail him. Cherem reported that during the scuffle, Walshin allegedly screamed, "You are never going to find her!"

Dana's mother, however, prays that is not true.

"We still hope that we will find her in any condition. We know that if we find her alive, she will come home and be well."

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