The incredible life and haunting death of world traveler Harry Devert

Author: Michael E. Miller. August 28, 2015. Source: The New York Times. Photo Credit: Ann Devert.

Photos of Harry Devert almost inevitably show him standing somewhere breathtaking — a frozen cave in Iceland, a mountaintop in the Himalayas, a waterfall in Brazil — with his arms out wide and his face tilted up towards the sky.

It was as if he were drinking in the world, one gulp of adventure at a time.

“I’ve had the chance to see, touch, taste, smell, hear and experience so many of the world’s wonders,” he wrote on his blog. “I believe life is short and that we need to make the most of it, and while many people say this, I truly try and live my life accordingly.”

In Latin America, people called him trotamundos, or globetrotter. He dubbed himself a “gypsy.” He easily earned both monikers: running with bulls, cuddling with tigers, tracking elephants, saving birds, charming snakes, slugging whiskey with strangers and shrugging off muggings as if they were mere tolls on the highway to enlightenment.

For Devert’s friends and family back in New York, his stories were a lifeline to people and places they themselves would never see, forfeited for the sake of children and stable careers, mortgages and retirement accounts. He was a poster boy for thrill-seeking millennials everywhere, making money just to travel and earning friends on every continent.

“I lived adventure through Harry,” close friend Danny Garcia told The Washington Post. “He had enough of it for ten people.”

But then, in late January of 2014, the stories unexpectedly stopped. Harry had been riding his motorcycle alone through one of Mexico’s most cartel-infested regions when the 32-year-old suddenly vanished.

Six months later, his bike was found covered in mud next to two plastic bags.

Inside were piles of bones.

Now, a year and a half after Harry Devert first disappeared, we may finally know what happened to him. Last week, Mexican authorities announced that they had arrested an alleged drug gang leader nicknamed “El Tigre” and were charging him with Devert’s murder.

Yet, those closest to Harry are unconvinced. The story seems too simple, too convenient: a hastily written last chapter to a twisting, turning, enthralling life that deserved a better ending — and still awaits full explanation.

“My gut reaction was the government just wants to tidy this up as a good news event, and say ‘Now we don’t have to investigate anything related to Harry Devert anymore,’” his mother, Ann Devert, told The Post in a telephone interview from Harry’s childhood home in New Rochelle, N.Y.

“I still have a lot of unanswered questions,” she said. “Everything is this vast web of intrigue.”

The unbeaten path

In hindsight, the recipe for wanderlust is clear: an encouraging mother; an adventurous father; add an idyllic childhood, a dose of tragedy and some serious money as a young man, and a voilà: you get Harry Devert, globetrotter extraordinaire.

But for those who knew him, Devert defied explanation.

He grew up near the Bronx, splitting time between his mother’s home in New Rochelle and his dad’s place in Pelham. His mother taught English as a second language, and every summer would fill her house with exchange students from Japan. “Harry was like the pied piper with them,” said Ann Devert, who regaled her son with stories of her own youthful travels in Mexico.

His exploratory urges were further fueled by his father, Georges, a French insurance broker who, at 56, had already lived a life full of adventure by the time Harry was born. Georges had been in the French airborne division during World War II and lived in Algeria during its war for independence.

“My father used to tell me his adventure stories when I was young,” Harry wrote in a blog post titled “Sense of adventure.” “I remember lying on the porch, my head in his lap, as he would show me pictures of mountains that he had climbed, tell me stories of seas that he had dived, animals and dangers that he had encountered. Fighting an octopus under water, dangling from one arm over a precipice after falling while climbing Mont Blanc, parachuting into German towns while bullets whizzed by, praying that he wouldn’t get shot. It all amazed me.”

He also wrote about by being awestruck by his father’s friends, particularly one: “a tan, handsome, sun faded brown curly haired man” who “glided more than walked” and told stories of traveling the globe.

The talk of adventure rubbed off on the kid.

“He was a tree climber,” Ann Devert said. “I took him to swim lessons at the age of six months and he swam like a fish. His dad liked to take him climbing. He was always afraid of climbing but he wanted to dominate his fear. So when he climbed it would be a challenge to him and in honor of his father, so he was always climbing mountains. He was always setting goals for himself. Lists and lists and lists. Things that he would like to do. Things that he would like to see.”

“He was intense,” said Danny Garcia, who remembered Harry hopping neighbors’ fences on the way to McDonald’s because it was faster — or more fun — than taking the sidewalk.

When he was a junior in high school, Harry suddenly decided he wanted to play lacrosse, Ann said. So he took to waking up before dawn and walking to an abandoned railroad bridge, where he would hurl the ball against a curved wall hours before school. By senior year, he was selected to represent Pelham High at state competitions.

“I will forever be grateful to my parents for giving me deep roots and soaring wings,” Devert later wrote on his blog. “They nurtured my take on the world and let me choose my path.”

When Harry was 18 years old, however, tragedy struck. His father was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, and Harry, who was away at an Army training course, couldn’t visit him in time to see him alive once more. It was a heavy blow. “They had such a close relationship that when Harry came back, he said he thought if he just saw his father he would rise like Lazarus, because Georges would do anything for him, and he would do anything for Georges,” Ann said.

His father’s death changed Harry. He quit partying, taking up online trading instead.

“He just immersed himself into it,” Garcia said. “He was on the computer, like, 18 hours a day. First he had one monitor, then it was two, then it was three, then it was up to six.” When his buddies asked him what he was up to, he would just answer: “Making money, bro.”

Trading was like a game for Devert, and he was pretty good at it. He moved to Miami and made hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, spending it on “Burberry pants, Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses and a collection of Cartier watches,” according to a Playboy profile.

“He spent all his money on nightclubs and girls,” his mother told the magazine. “He didn’t have much that was concrete to show for it. He was like Mr. Miami.”

When the stock market tanked in 2007, Harry lost a lot of his money — perhaps more than a million, according to Garcia — but still had enough to finally follow in his father’s footsteps. He moved to Paris, then Barcelona, then began taking longer and longer vacations around the world, hitchhiking around much of South America and Asia. He washed off his sins in the Ganges, spent ten days meditating in a tiny cell in India and wielded a machete on coffee plantations in Colombia.

He was handsome, smart and athletic. But most important, he was Harry: intense, an eager listener and always up for adventure. “He was everyone’s sweetheart, everyone’s great friend, beloved by humans and animals alike,” Ann said.

Harry would call his mother and tell her about his adventures, also chronicling them on his blog, “A New Yorker travels”:

I’ve run with the bulls, and broken 3 ribs because of it in Pamplona. I’ve spent time in a small jail in Paraguay, swum in the highest waterfall in the world and almost died swimming in a hurricane. I’ve climbed the highest tepui mountain in the world and almost got stuck at the top of a mountain in Brasil until I made a rope out of vines and got myself down.

I’ve sipped champagne on lazy afternoons with billionaires and sipped dirty water on equally lazy afternoons with the homeless. I’ve showered with a bucket and a bowl while spending a week with a family who’ve never had running water in Colombia, gone months without hot water and showered in the endlessly running waters of countless waterfalls around the world.

I’ve slept on a beach in Rio, a bench in Barcelona, a street in India, a cave in Vietnam, a hammock in Laos, a floor in Venezuela, a board with 3 other people in Colombia and I’ve stayed in some of the world’s best hotels. I even slept in a castle once.

I’ve run 3 miles to try and save a bird’s life and I’ve sat and watched as someone was hacked to death with a machete only a few meters away from me. I choose my battles. I’ve been in the largest food fight in the world in Spain and eaten some of the world’s best in France. I’ve been chased with a gun in Colombia, chipped my tooth on a gun that was shoved in my mouth in Venezuela and shot everything from a bazooka to a machine gun, an M16 to a Colt 45.

When he finally did make it back to the United States for a friend’s wedding, his friends and family literally didn’t recognize him. “His mother, Ann, was walking her dog when she noticed the next-door neighbor talking to a scrawny stranger with a full beard and dressed like a guru in flowing pants,” according to Playboy. The stranger was Harry.

“When I saw him he looked like the people from the Himalayas,” Garcia told The Post. “It looked like he took yarn and knitted a sweater out of it, and wore just sweatpants. He looked completely different. He didn’t have on the fancy clothes. I was like what the f— happened to you? And he said, ‘Bro, I don’t even need that stuff anymore.’”

One day when he was back in New York, working on Long Island to save up travel funds, he turned to Garcia and told him that he wanted to settle down with a girl he had begun dating.

But first, he wanted to take one last, epic trip.

A bad feeling

Harry’s idea sounded insane.

He wanted to ride a motorcycle from New York all the way down to Brazil in time for the World Cup.

“Are you crazy, bro?” Garcia told him.

There were several problems. First, Devert didn’t have a motorcycle. Second, he didn’t know how to ride one. Third, he was close to broke. But Harry being Harry, he quickly overcame them, pawning a Cartier watch from his Miami days in order to buy a Kawasaki from a former Marine in Brooklyn. He fell over twice just while testing the bike. But within a week, he was taking it to Long Island and back every day.

“Whatever he did, he put 100 percent into it,” Garcia told The Post.

Devert’s plan was to take a winding path through the United States and then down through Mexico, meeting Garcia in Guatemala before sputtering through Central and South America in time to make it to Rio for the party of the century.

But his buddies had a bad feeling.

“My fondest memories are working on his bike and him telling me his stories of him in India or him sleeping with a tiger or chasing an elephant,” Garcia said. “But the whole time I kept thinking, ‘Man, this might be the last time I see this dude.’”

“We tried telling him Mexico is no joke,” Garcia said. “I drilled that into him every day. I told him, ‘Don’t f—– do it.’ But he wanted to.”

His mom also tried to dissuade him. She, too, had a premonition that something had changed, and that Harry’s happy-go-lucky days might be coming to an end.

“Before he left on the trip, he took his dad’s suitcase down from the attic and he went in his room and suddenly he was weeping,” Ann said. “Later he came into my room and said, ‘Before every trip, I open daddy’s suitcase and I take out his clothes and I smell them and I feel that daddy is with me, and I imagine what he’d say about the trip that I’m taking. And this time his clothes don’t smell like daddy anymore.’

“And I just felt at that time that he had lost a kind of anchor,” she said. “And I wondered later, did he take a chance he didn’t need to because he didn’t feel as grounded? I don’t know.”

One last trip

Harry Devert’s final trip began like all of his others: with high hopes and small setbacks leading to serene moments of epiphany.

After wiping out in Florida thanks to blown tire, he made his way down to Brownsville, Texas, roaring across the border on Dec. 28, 2013, and into the country that would claim his life. When he had a problem with his fender, some Mexicans helped him fashion a new one out of a red plastic gas can. He met friends in Guanajuato, who dressed him up like a charro and let him ride a horse in a rodeo. And by the time he reached a bed and breakfast in central Mexico in late January, he had plenty of new stories to fill his notebook.

For three days, he woke up early and trekked from the hostel to a monarch butterfly sanctuary two hours away, where he would sit amid a vortex of orange and black wings and write, before trekking back to the B&B.

He was only a couple days drive away from Guatemala, where Garcia was waiting for him. The day before he was due to leave the B&B, however, Harry met a couple from Canada who had just come from Zihuatanejo. The beach town was like countless others in a country dominated by coasts, and was an entire day’s journey in the wrong direction, but the place had a special appeal for Devert. Zihuatanejo is the setting for the final scene in “Shawshank Redemption,” Harry’s favorite movie.

So he charted a course for Zihuatanejo — right through drug cartel land.

There is debate over which route Devert took when he left the B&B on January 25, 2014. But what is certain is that he soon ran into trouble. Mexican soldiers spotted the American speeding down the highway in his helmet and leather jacket, and stopped him to ask what the hell he was doing. According to investigative reporter Jason McGahan, the soldiers escorted Devert to a gas station in Huetamo, Michoacán, the heart of a region notoriously controlled by drug cartels. It was there that Devert sent his girlfriend his final message.

“Just got an hour-and-a-half-long escort out of some area it was too dangerous for me to be,” he wrote, in part. “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. Missing you. Mucho.”

A day passed without anyone hearing from Harry. Then another. Then another. He had gone quiet before, dropping out of communication with his friends for months at a time, Garcia said.

But Ann Devert knew better. She was walking around her house in New Rochelle on Jan. 25 when she suddenly felt the world shift. “I couldn’t move,” she told The Post. “I felt as if I were being pricked by a million needles and stung by bees and I could not turn my head to look at the clock. I thought if I turn my head to look at the clock, I will know the time my son died.”

Friends convinced her that her hunch was mistaken and Harry was fine, but in the back of her mind, Ann knew something was wrong.

“I think that was the time during which he had received the blow to his head and life was ebbing out of him,” she said.

After about a week of silence, Ann posted a message to her son’s Facebook page asking if anyone had heard from him. When no one had, she got worried. She asked the B&B to file a missing person’s request with the Mexican government. The case picked up steam when the American embassy in Mexico issued its own bulletin on Devert’s disappearance.

Despite the fact that there are nearly 30,000 missing people in Mexico — a country that has been wracked by drug violence for nearly a decade — Devert’s case drew global attention. Much of it had to do with Devert’s charismatic persona and incredible story.

Unlike the tragic but complicated case of the 43 Mexican students who disappeared in September of 2014, for instance, Harry’s plight was easily understood by audiences around the world. “There was a lot to draw people’s attention,” said Ann Devert, listing compelling components of her son’s case. “He loved soccer and he was riding on a motorcycle and he left his job and he was free… And then the disappearance. A mystery.”

According to her, the Mexican government initially told her it couldn’t help, only to pull an about face when the story made international headlines. There were many theories bandied about. One Mexican newspaper wrote that Harry had been mistaken for a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agent and killed by a drug cartel. Another source told Ann that her son had been kidnapped and forced to work on a cartel ranch in Michoacán.

For six months, authorities spun their wheels. Then on July 10, 2014, they found the bones.

On a beach about 10 miles up the coast from Zihuatanejo, soldiers discovered a stripped down Kawasaki and two large trash bags full of human remains. They also found drug cartel ledgers, baggies of cocaine and 30 pounds of marijuana. An anonymous caller had tipped them off to the grisly site.

“It’s him,” the battalion commander said after receiving photos of the crime scene, according to the Playboy investigation.

Ann Devert wasn’t sure. When Mexican authorities sent her photos of a shattered skull, she couldn’t bear to look at them, so she forwarded them to Garcia. When he saw pictures of the motorcycle, he had a sinking feeling that his friend was dead. The bike’s vehicle ID number appeared to confirm it. Finally, a DNA analysis of gave them certainty: the body belonged to Harry.

As early as Feb. of 2014, Mexican newspapers had linked an alleged Zihuatanejo drug gang leader named Adrián Reyes Cadena, aka El Tigre, to the crime. But it wasn’t until last week that Mexican officials made their move.

On Aug. 18, they announced that they had arrested El Tigre and charged him with Devert’s murder.

An anonymous federal official told the Associated Press that El Tigre’s gang apparently thought motorcyclist Harry Devert was a U.S. agent. Ann learned of the arrest from a journalist, then the U.S. embassy, then finally Mexican officials.

“As far as I’m concerned there will never be closure because I’ll never have my son back,” Ann told The Post. “But this brings me a step closer to resolution.”

Yet, the arrest has raised just as many questions as it has answered, she said. Why did Mexico wait almost 18 months to arrest a man that had been publicly linked to her son’s death? And did El Tigre even do it?

“It could be very simple and these really are the guys who came across Harry and decided that, even if he wasn’t a DEA agent, he knew too much because of the way he had been interrogated for them to let him go, and they murdered him,” she said. “They could have simply wanted to hand out his stuff as prizes to the people who were involved. Or it could be that he was channeled there by people who thought he was suspicious, and by people who are in league with the cartels who are not employed by the cartels.”

She is also suspicious of the timing of the announcement.

“My first thought was that it’s summer, it’s a slow news time, and Donald Trump is making a lot of fuss about how Hispanics in this country are bringing a criminal element here,” she said. El Chapo’s escape in mid July had already embarrassed Mexican officials, “so they needed a good news story,” she said. “Or maybe they somehow felt that this was the best time for the operation. I just don’t know.”

Either way, she is worried that the arrest will serve as an excuse to close Harry’s case for good.

If Harry Devert’s story remains unresolved, however, its protagonist is not. Despite his horrific death, Ann Devert is happy that the world now knows about her son.

“In everything that he did, he was fascinated by life,” she told The Post. She recalled conversation she had with her son shortly before he left on his ill-fated trip. “He gave me the biggest hug and said, ‘This is what I want to do. This is who I am. And I’ll come back. And if I don’t, I will die doing what I love to do.’

“So I have that,” Ann said. “I know he took risks, but to him it was worth it.”