LAKE CITY, S.C. (AP) -- Prepping for his first trip out of the country, 28-year-old Zindell Brown of Lake City, South Carolina, had something more than nerves. Perhaps it was a premonition about the trip he and several friends were taking to Mexico. "He said: 'Something, it just doesn't feel right,'" his older sister Zalandria Brown told The Associated Press over the phone. "(That was) the last thing we talked about." Hopping into protection mode for the man so close to her that she called him her "hip bone," Brown urged her brother to not take the trip planned earlier this month. As someone known to help others, however, Brown wasn't surprised her sibling shook off the feeling and offered to drive with his group of childhood friends on a road trip to Mexico, where one was scheduled for cosmetic surgery and another planned to celebrate his 34th birthday. The inside of a rented white van would be the last place Brown would see her baby brother alive. Sometime during the nearly 22-hour trip from South Carolina to Brownsville, Texas, Brown watched a video posted online of Zindell smiling into the camera.
But in Mexico, the group was attacked. Around midday, a vehicle crashed into the group's van. Several men with tactical vests and assault rifles arrived in another vehicle and surrounded them, according to Mexican police reports.
Two members of the group -- Zindell Brown and Shaeed Woodard -- were shot and killed. Eric Williams was shot in the leg, and he and fellow survivor Latavia McGee were loaded into a pickup truck, according to video posted on social media. The violence was blamed on the Gulf cartel, a drug gang tied to killings and kidnappings in Matamoros, a city of a half-million people that has long been a stronghold of the powerful cartel. The group purpotedly apologized for the killings in a letter obtained by the Associated Press from a Mexican law enforcement official. Even before she viewed footage of the ambush that quickly circulated online, Zalandria Brown said she began to have a sickening feeling that her brother was gone. "That was the other part of my soul," she said. She called her brother the male version of herself. Gone is her game hunting partner and the "cool uncle" her two (teenage) sons looked up to. In the days leading up to the trip, Zindell spent time at home, playing video games -- a break from the other work his hands were known for: carpentry. Zindell picked up woodworking skills from his father, who wanted to train him in the family craft. Though she lives in Florence, South Carolina, Brown said she, her brother, Woodard and McGee all grew up in modest Lake City. By midweek, the town of fewer than 6,000 people seemed consumed by the grim loss. At the local library on Main Street, patrons chatted amongst themselves about condolences, while a few blocks away near the police station a stranger pressed a bouquet of purple flowers into the arms of Shaeed's father. This month would have marked Shaeed Woodard's 34th birthday, according to his father, James Woodard. Shaeed's cousin Latavia McGee had surprised him with the road trip as a birthday excursion, James Woodard said. Shaeed and Zindell were close, Brown said she also considered him a brother. By Sunday night, Brown would get a phone call confirming her worst fears. A family friend phoned to say the doctor's office they were headed to in Mexico called to say McGee was late and thought to be kidnapped. McGee said every day since Sunday for her surviving two siblings and parents has seemed like a "nightmare." Neither family said they accept that the cartel apologized for the violent abductions. "It's just crazy to see your own child taken from you in such a way, in a violent lay like that," Woodard said. "He didn't deserve it because he was a sweetheart. He had a big heart."