UPDATE: According to Steve Flesch’s sister Nikki Lannert’s Facebook page, Steve died this morning.
On April 2, a 31-year-old traveler from the U.S. was robbed and shot in the head in Desamparados, a suburb south of San José. He was taken to the public San Juan de Dios Hospital in the capital’s downtown, where doctors labeled him “XXX muchacho” – the equivalent of John Doe – and placed him in a medically induced coma in an effort to save his brain.
For the rest of the day, XXX muchacho lay unconscious and unidentified. Then another day went by. And another. And another.
On the fifth day, two worried men showed up at the hospital, and when they looked at XXX muchacho, they recognized him – barely. It was Steve Flesch of Brookfield, Wisconsin. Their old travel buddy. They had recently shared the adventure of a lifetime – a five-day kayaking trip. Now they could hardly look at him.
On April 8, the day Steve was found, his parents Don and Sharon got the worst call of their lives. At 2:30 a.m. the day after, they flew to Costa Rica to be with their ailing son. And over the next month – as police worked to arrest five gang members in connection with the shooting – the Flesches stayed at Steve’s side. They watched as he breathed with a ventilator, developed pneumonia and battled bacterial infections. Through it all, doctors had kept Steve unconscious.
“It’s been a nightmare,” Sharon Flesch said Monday afternoon. She had just come from a meeting with a hospital lawyer. Before Steve could be airlifted back to the United States, the family would have to pay his medical bills, which amounted to tens of thousands of dollars.
On Monday, Sharon and Don said they were aware their son’s health is fragile, possibly too fragile for transport. They were told his odds of recovering were long. But they hoped there was a chance.
“We hope he gets rid of the pneumonia, but even if he does, he’ll have some serious issues with his brain,” Sharon said on Monday. She had been crying, but now she paused and seemed to brighten. “Unless he’s one of those miracle cases, which we hope he is,” she said. “If anyone can do it, it’ll be Steve.”
On Tuesday morning, his older sister, Nikki Lannert posted on her Facebook page, “Some very sad news this morning, Steve Flesch passed away fighting the battle of his life. He fought to the very end and is in a happier place now. Thank you all for your thoughts, prayers and kind words during the last month. Please continue to pray for my parents.”
Steve grew up in Wisconsin attending a Lutheran church, and he developed passions for gardening, cooking, traveling and golf. He spent his summers working as a caddie, saving up money to purchase his own duplex and travel abroad.
“Costa Rica was his 42nd country in four years,” said Lannert. “He was a very experienced traveler, which is why I’m surprised that he would wind up in the wrong place.”
Just how Steve wound up in Torremolinos, a slum of Desamparados known for its high crime rate and consequent lack of tourists, is still a mystery. His mother believes he may have been trying to find a dentist, which was his reason for returning by himself to San José a couple of days before his flight home.
Whatever he was doing in that neighborhood, his mom would never expect her street-smart, 6-foot-3 son to end up in a bad situation. “But you don’t get away from a gun,” she said.
Before the incident, Steve had stayed at Costa Rica Backpackers, a hostel in downtown San José, for three nights. On April 2, he left the hostel in the middle of the day with his laptop and passport, but the rest of his belongings remained in his room, where he had planned to stay another night. Three days later, he had not claimed his things or settled up his $22 room tab. His stuff had to be placed in storage, according to a hostel employee who asked to remain anonymous. It seemed as though the backpacker had simply disappeared.
A handful of witnesses knew better. On April 2, at approximately 1:30 p.m. in Torremolinos, Flesch was assaulted by five men, according to a report by the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ). Witnesses reported that when the five men attempted to rob Flesch, he fought them. That’s when they took him to an alley, shot him in the back of the head and made off with all of his belongings, according to OIJ investigator Jorge Chávez. Someone called 911, and an ambulance arrived somewhere between a half-hour and an hour later, Chávez said. He wasn’t sure why it took so long.
On April 30, the OIJ arrested five men – two 19-year-old adults and three minors (aged 15, 16 and 17) – in connection with the assault, which has now turned into a homicide charge. Chávez said that the men are part of a well-known gang in the area that is linked to numerous other crimes. The men have been charged, Chavéz said, and will make their initial appearance in court “soon.”
The Flesches are relieved that Costa Rican police have made arrests and charges have been filed. They are less impressed with U.S. authorities.
If the U.S. Embassy did anything to find or help Steve Flesch, his mother doesn’t know about it. Instead, she thanks two of his travel partners – Kyle and Ray – whom his sister Nikki found on Facebook. After she contacted them, the two men abandoned their travels and hopped a four-hour bus to San José to conduct the search.
A trip to the embassy yielded no news, so the two friends started trying hospitals. It was Kyle and Ray who wound up at Flesch’s bedside at San Juan de Dios. When Sharon and Don flew to San José the next morning, it was Kyle and Ray who greeted them at the airport with a sign – not the embassy official the couple had been told to expect. “They were our angels,” said Sharon. “Why the embassy couldn’t have found him, I don’t know.”
Once the Flesches found their son, they had decisions to make about his care. They sought advice from the embassy and say they were told that a public hospital like San Juan de Dios would cost them nothing. (U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Evelyn Ardón declined to comment on the case, citing a privacy law.) Based on the advice, the Flesches opted not to transfer their son to a private hospital. Now they wish they had known better.
After a month of observing their son in the public hospital, the Flesches decided he would be best cared for back home. Sharon, a nurse, was particularly worried that her son was not being turned on his side frequently enough and might be developing bedsores. When the Flesches asked about airlifting their son back to the U.S., they were told they’d first have to pay the hospital bill.
To help pay the debt, Flesch’s cousin Becca Vance started a crowd-funding campaign Friday with gofundme.com. She set the funding goal to $75,000, hoping to cover the estimated $35,000-$50,000 airlift home with some extra to cover medical expenses upon her uninsured cousin’s return.
By mid-afternoon on Monday, the campaign had a little more than $2,000, said Vance in an interview from Wisconsin. “Actually, it just got $20 more since we have been on the phone,” she said.
Vance says the biggest reaction has come from backpacking and travel communities that have heard Flesch’s story. “They have met Steve or they just took a trip and they know that this could have been them,” she said. “There are just lots of people who it is striking a chord with, and they are spreading it through their various communities.”
Upon hearing about U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Costa Rica, the Flesches started writing letters, hoping maybe the president could also help their son. The only response from the U.S. that the family has gotten is from Pennsylvania, where two congressmen began working with the State Department to secure Steve’s release.
Although the family had agonized over the decision, they had hoped that in the next couple of days they would be able to pay the hospital bill and get Steve back to the U.S.
“We want to get him back home, where there is consistent, high-quality nursing care,” his mother said. “If he dies on the flight, he dies on the flight. At least we can say we did something for him.”
But that chance never came. Steve died at 31.
This story was updated at 1:24 p.m. on Tuesday.