SAN FRANCISCO DE LOS ROMO, MEXICO—It was just after 8 a.m. when international fugitive Carlos Castillo opened the front door of his gated brick home.
"I'll talk to you guys. I really want to get it off my chest," Castillo said.
U.S. authorities say he cannot be brought back to Chicago for trial because he is charged with a felony — leaving the scene of a fatal accident — that is not extraditable under the United States' treaty with Mexico.
Yet in two interviews in recent days, Castillo said he has spent more than two years engulfed in shame and constant fear of being caught. Those interviews, he said, have helped him muster the courage to do what he knows is right: Return to Chicago to face justice. He said he plans to make arrangements in the next few weeks.
"I can't be here no more. I have to deal with this. There's no other way. You cannot run forever. Nobody can run forever," Castillo said. "There's never not one day where I don't wake up thinking about this. ... Every single day, it just pops up in my head all the time. I can't eat right, I can't sleep right. It's just, it's horrible."
It remains to be seen whether Castillo will actually live up to his statements and return to the U.S.
But if he changes his mind, the Tribune found there is another path to justice: A little-known provision of Mexico's penal code known as Article 4 allows Mexican authorities to prosecute their own citizens for crimes committed in the U.S. or on foreign soil. Though born and raised in the U.S., Castillo is a naturalized Mexican because his parents were born in that country.
At the request of prosecutors from California, Colorado, Texas and other Southwestern states, Mexico has successfully convicted more than 100 fugitives from U.S. justice — many wanted for homicides and some for fatal hit-and-run accidents like the one that Castillo is charged with, according to government records and more than two dozen interviews with American prosecutors and legal experts. But Cook County prosecutors say they don't recall ever making use of the option.
Since he left the U.S. in 2009, Castillo has made little effort to conceal his whereabouts from authorities. On his Facebook page, he has kept in touch with more than 250 friends, many of them from the West Side and Rogers Park neighborhoods where he grew up. He's posted photos of himself alongside messages that detail where he has worked and his favorite neighborhood tavern, a few blocks from his home in this small community about 150 miles northeast of Guadalajara.
Reporters tracked him down within 24 hours of arriving.
The charges against Castillo stem from a Halloween night in Chicago in 2009, when a popular, globe-trotting psychology major named Rachel Gilliam, 25, had finished a bartending shift at Bowmans Bar & Grill in North Center.
Dressed as a mail-order bride in a wedding dress decorated with postage stamps, Gilliam was crossing Lincoln Avenue about 3:40 a.m. Nov. 1 to hail a cab when a silver Acura struck her at high speed, throwing her body roughly 82 feet before peeling away, according to a Chicago police report and interviews with authorities. She died almost instantly.
Castillo said he remembers drinking heavily before taking the wheel of his Acura but not what happened afterward. He said he woke the next morning to find his car badly damaged and fled the country a day later.
In Mexico, he trembled and wept as he gave voice to the fears that flicker through his dreams and have kept him frozen in place: What would happen to him in the U.S. justice system? Can he face Gilliam's family?
"I know that, to her mom, a 'sorry' or any type of apology isn't going to bring her daughter back," Castillo said. "I know no words can bring her daughter back. I feel so bad about this. Sometimes I put myself in their shoes, and I cry too."
Castillo's case illustrates many of the law enforcement flaws exposed by the Tribune's ongoing "Fugitives From Justice" investigation, which examined 216 international fugitive cases from northern Illinois and thousands more nationwide. Close relatives faced no legal consequences for helping Castillo flee, gaps in America's extradition treaties with foreign countries allowed him to remain free, and law enforcement officials failed to deploy every legal tool at their disposal to get him to face justice, the Tribune found.
Gilliam's mother, Janine O'Shea, declined comment for this article. In an email to the Tribune, she wrote that after family members learned Castillo could not be extradited, they have "focused on rebuilding the hole this has left in our hearts."
Raised on Chicago's West Side by immigrant parents who owned a seafood restaurant, Castillo was 13 when his father committed suicide by parking in the family's garage with the car engine running, according to his death certificate and interviews. Castillo's life soon fell apart.