MONTE ALTO, Texas -- Sam and Nancy Davis had taken their missionary work to Mexico for 30 years, but relatives say the Texas couple recently put off trips because of spiraling drug cartel violence. Nancy even stopped making some of those trips because of the risks.
"But for some reason Nancy went in (on Wednesday) and did not come out" alive, Francille Davis said a day after her daughter-in-law died of a gunshot wound to the head following an attack in one of Mexico's most violent areas.
Nancy Davis, 59, was shot as her husband tried to speed away from suspected drug cartel gunmen who may have wanted to steal their pickup truck, authorities said. Sam Davis frantically raced to the Pharr International Bridge border checkpoint with his wife bleeding beside him, but she was declared dead at a McAllen hospital.
The couple was well aware of the dangers they faced, and their son said his mother often text-messaged after crossing the border to let him know they arrived back safely.
"It would be easier to count the times they weren't chased," Joseph Davis told The Associated Press on Thursday outside his family's home in the remote South Texas town of Monte Alto.
Francille Davis told the AP that her son and daughter-in-law were in Mexico Wednesday to pay pastors in some of the village churches the family had established. She said the drug war had prevented Sam from reaching the churches earlier in the month.
"Sam had gone in and there were dead bodies all over the place," Francille recalled.
The Davises were driving along the two-lane road that connects the city of San Fernando with the border city of Reynosa, about 70 miles north, when they came upon an illegal roadblock, an official in Mexico's Tamaulipas state attorney general's office told the AP. The official would not be identified because he is not authorized to discuss the case.
The area where the couple was attacked is dominated by the Gulf Cartel, which has been waging a fierce turf war in northeastern Tamaulipas with the Zetas cartel for control of lucrative smuggling routes to the U.S. The area has had 40 violent car thefts in the last two months, the official said.
Sam Davis told U.S. investigators that he tried to speed away from the gunmen, and that they gave chase in a pickup truck and opened fire, hitting his wife.
Pharr police said the couple's 2008 Chevrolet pickup is the kind of heavy-duty, high-profile truck prized by cartels, and that it's likely the reason the Davises were targeted. Damage to the truck's quarter-paneling suggests the gunmen tried to ram them, Pharr police Chief Ruben Villescas said.
Wednesday's killing echoes the September attack on American tourist David Hartley and his wife on Falcon Lake, on the U.S.-Mexico border. Tiffany Hartley said she and her husband were Jet-Skiing in Mexican waters when pirates fired on them, striking her husband and forcing her to flee. His body was not recovered.
"I just thank God that he was able to get back across the border with her," Hartley told the AP.
Concerns about the investigation into David Hartley's death led Texas Gov. Rick Perry to call for a stronger response from Mexican authorities. On Thursday, Perry's spokeswoman, Katherine Cesinger, said Nancy Davis' slaying underscores the need for greater border security.
There were conflicting reports about exactly where along the road the attack occurred. Pharr police said it happened near San Fernando, but the Tamaulipas official said it happened about seven miles south of Reynosa.
Tamaulipas is one of three Mexican states that accounted for 50 percent of the country's more than 15,000 killings last year, according to the Mexican government.
The Mexican government in November sent more troops and federal police there in what it called a major operation to control drug violence, but drug gangs still roam freely in caravans of SUVs and trucks, attacking rivals, terrorizing locals and in some cases emptying entire towns.
Merton Rundell III, a friend of the Davises and the director of finance at Union Bible College in Indiana, said the couple spent 80 to 90 percent of their time in Mexico and had a home in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon. He said they spent the rest of their time at their home in McAllen or traveling the U.S. raising funds for Gospel Proclaimers Missionary Association, the organization they founded.
"They loved the work they were doing in spite of the danger," Rundell said.
Rundell described Nancy Davis as "a petite lady with a drive like you wouldn't believe. She lived life to the fullest. They were both totally given to (their work)."
Joseph Davis said his mother loved music, and could compose songs and lyrics in minutes. But he said she loved the work she did most of all.
"Time after time, what made her the happiest was seeing somebody hit their knees and come up forgiven for whatever they've done -- murder, rape, the smallest sin," Joseph Davis said. "She'd come home so happy. She'd say, 'Well, we stole another one from the devil today.'"