Joseph Escalante had a black bass guitar case slung across his back when he came to CSUN on Wednesday, April 6, but the 49-year-old U.S. Customs senior officer is not a musician.
The instrument inside belonged to his 23-year-old son, Joseph Andre Escalante, who just transferred to the university this semester.
He is lying in a hospital bed in San Diego with his jaw wired shut and a tube in his nose.
Escalante was on campus to retrieve the guitar and a few other items from his son’s dorm room so they could be sent back to his home in Salinas, the Northern California town where he was raised.
Joseph Andre will not be returning to school this semester. It’s unclear at this point when he will come back, or when he will be able to play bass guitar or go surfing again.
He is slowly recovering from near-fatal injuries sustained when he and a female companion were struck by a car while relaxing on a beach in Mexico last month.
She died, and the driver fled the scene.
Now, Escalante wants justice — something that doesn’t come easy in Mexico.
“I’ve never had something so terrible happen to me in my life,” Escalante said. “When you see your kid lying there, that’s about the worst thing you can go through.”
Like thousands of other American college students, Joseph Andre was looking forward to spending spring break across the border.
He and three of his friends — Anthony Rizzi, Luis Canevari and Ross Allen — signed up with an online company for a bus trip that would take them from Northridge to Rosarito Beach, a popular tourist destination about 20 minutes south of Tijuana, Mexico.
When they arrived on Sunday, March 21, the group checked into a hotel and spent the day getting acclimated with their surroundings, said Rizzi, a junior food science major who met Joseph Andre in a chemistry lab class a few months ago. Then at night, they hit the clubs.
“For most of the night we were there, we went to clubs together, but we didn’t stay right next to each other,” Rizzi said. “The last time I saw (Joseph Andre), I was dancing with a girl, and he was dancing with a girl next to me.”
Although he wasn’t wearing a watch at the time, Rizzi estimated it was around 12 a.m. when Joseph Andre got separated from the group.
When the others later returned to the hotel without him, they assumed he had gone home with a girl.
After all, it was spring break.
Apparently, Joseph Andre did meet up with a girl, 24-year- old Amy Ruth Kent, a graduate from UC Davis.
According to the police report, the pair were either sleeping or resting on the beach in front of a restaurant called El Pelicano at approximately 1:55 a.m. Monday.
At that moment, three cars — one red, one gold and the other blue — started a drag race on the sand, according to an eyewitness.
One of the vehicles, a blue Honda Accord, ran over the two students, killing Kent and leaving Joseph Andre clinging to life. All three cars sped off.
An unidentified person called an ambulance, which transported Joseph Andre back across the border to Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego.
The next morning, Rizzi and his friends awoke to find that Joseph Andre was still missing. They began to discuss possible scenarios.
Maybe he was arrested for drinking in public. Or maybe he got into a fight.
Rizzi said Escalante had a slight temper, and seemed like someone “who wouldn’t back down from confrontation.”
But none of the local jails reported picking up anyone named Joseph Escalante.
It wasn’t until they contacted Mexican authorities that they learned he had been in an accident and was taken back to the United States.
Because the bus that brought them to Rosarito wasn’t leaving until Thursday, the group was forced to stay in Mexico for four days, with little knowledge as to the condition of their friend.
“We tried to enjoy ourselves, but it was just so weird,” Rizzi said. “We didn’t know any information. Of course, we were hoping for the best, but all we heard was that he was hit by a car. I didn’t expect it to be as bad as it was.”
Joseph Escalante senior had just come from his uncle’s funeral when he received the call from his ex-wife Sandra.
All the police had found in Joseph Andre’s wallet was a dental appointment card, but that was enough to track down his mother’s cell phone number.
Later that afternoon, Escalante took the next flight out of Salinas, Calif., and went straight to the hospital.
“I just about died the first day I saw him,” Escalante said. “He had hoses coming out of his mouth, and he was hooked up to every IV you could think of, just trying to keep him (alive).”
His son was not in good shape. He had suffered significant head trauma and multiple facial fractures. His neck, ribs and scapula were broken. His eyeball was lacerated, and his chin had actually detached inside the skin.
The doctors had to remove a portion of his skull to reduce swelling.
Escalante said his son is now responding to commands with his fingers, has regained movement in the left side of his body and, on the day Escalante came to CSUN, was starting to communicate through a voice box.
But the puffiness surrounding Escalante’s eyes reveals just how exhausting the past weeks have been.
He and his former wife have remained in San Diego, and have pledged to do so until Joseph Andre is transferred to a hospital in Santa Cruz, closer to their hometown, which could happen soon.
He had been staying in the hospital room with his son, but found sleep to be almost impossible.
“I’d be jumping in and out of bed every time he’d make a move,” he said.
So, Escalante contacted Pedro Olivares, his former high school teacher and a friend of his sister, and asked if he could stay at his house, which is near the hospital.
Although he had not seen Escalante since the 1970s when he was one of his students, Olivares, now retired, didn’t hesitate to invite him into his home.
“We don’t forget our friends,” Olivares said. “If they come up for help, we help them. That’s the human thing to do, right?”
In addition to giving him a place to stay, Olivares helped Escalante launch a letter-writing campaign in an effort to track down the drivers responsible for the tragedy.
But dealing with the Mexican government hasn’t been easy, Escalante said.
It has been difficult to get information from them, and he said the witness named in the police report, Francisco Rodriguez, does not live at the Chula Vista, Calif., address he gave to authorities.
“Had (the accident) happened (in America), it probably would’ve been a lot easier,” Escalante said. “I expected that, knowing it’s easier to deal with our people than with another country.”
In a letter brimming with sadness and frustration, Escalante lashed out against the authorities at Rosarito Beach, accusing them of being more concerned with preserving their tourism revenue than finding the people who injured his son and killed Kent.
He wrote that the local newspapers in Rosarito had even claimed Kent and Joseph Andre were partially responsible for the accident, implying that “they should’ve known better” than to be on the beach at a time when these illegal oceanside drag races sometimes occur.
“How can the Mexican government allow the papers to write something so absurd!!” Escalante wrote.
Escalante is hoping the letter, which he and Olivares sent to the San Diego Union Tribune, the police department and to representatives in Congress, will help spur the investigation.
Meanwhile, the extent of long-term damage to Joseph Andre’s brain won’t be known until he becomes more responsive.
At the moment, all Escalante can do is cling to hope, and to his memories.
“I was there watching him while he was asleep, flashing back to when he was a little kid,” Escalante said, his voice ti
ghtening a bit. “I guess you do that when something like that happens.”