When he fled the United States over two decades ago, Vincent Legrend Walters was considered a violent drug dealer, accused of killing a woman in a botched kidnapping before vanishing, presumably with a small fortune.
But when agents from the United States Marshals Service last week tracked down Mr. Walters, who was on their list of the 15 most wanted fugitives, they were surprised to find him in a more sedate career: selling time shares to tourists in the Mexican resort town of Cancún.
“We were under the impression that he left with a good amount of money and thought he would have stayed in the illegal drug trade,” Steve Jurman, a spokesman for the Marshals Service, said by telephone on Sunday. “Now it appears that he had to work for a living.”
At the behest of the Marshals Service, Mexican police officials took Mr. Walters, 45, into custody on Friday after a fingerprint analysis determined that he was the man federal agents had been seeking since September 1988. He was arrested at his workplace at Cancún International Airport.
It was an ignominious ending for Mr. Walters, who seemed to have an uncanny ability to elude detection even in plain sight. Only fugitives whose cases are under heightened scrutiny appear on the Marshals Service’s most wanted list, and Mr. Walters holds the record for being on the list longer than anyone else, Mr. Jurman said.
Mr. Walters, who was born in Mexico but grew up in California, was living in the San Diego area when he became mired in a dispute with other drug dealers over a cache of methamphetamine, according to the Marshals Service.
He had already appeared on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s radar, the Marshals Service said in a statement, for reportedly buying $20,000 worth of chemicals to make methamphetamine and then, unbeknown to him, entering into negotiations with undercover agents for more supplies.
The year was 1988. An associate of Mr. Walters, fearing arrest, gave his supply of finished methamphetamine to another dealer, who then passed it on to someone else.
Mr. Walters, though, wanted the drugs back, the statement said.
The Marshals Service said Mr. Walters kidnapped the dealer who initially passed on the drugs, a friend of the dealer and the friend’s girlfriend, a woman named Christina Reyes, and he offered to exchange them for the drugs, which were being held by a man named Jay Bareno.
Mr. Bareno agreed to the exchange and returned the drugs, the statement said. The two men were released, but Ms. Reyes died after she was gagged with a rag soaked in chemicals.
Mr. Walters disappeared after the episode.
It is unclear how he was able to escape, especially since he was already under surveillance.His brother, Martin Walters, was arrested almost immediately and was eventually convicted of participating in the kidnapping. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
In July 1989, a federal grand jury indicted Vincent Walters on conspiracy to manufacture, possess and distribute crystal methamphetamine, carrying firearms during a drug trafficking crime and possession of unregistered firearms and explosives.
His mother, Martha Walters, and her sister, Carmen Elenes-Fonseca, were sentenced to 37 months in prison in 1990 for trying to hire a hit man to kill two witnesses in the case against the Walters brothers, according to The San Diego Evening Tribune.
Information detailing how the authorities were able to track down Mr. Walters remains classified, said Mr. Jurman, the Marshals Service spokesman. He said investigators were working to piece together the last 24 years of Mr. Walters’s life, trying to determine, for instance, whether he was ever again involved in the drug trade.
The Marshals Service said in its statement that Mr. Walters had bragged to others that he was a wanted fugitive in the United States. The authorities said he was living under the name Oscar Rivera and working out of a stall in the Cancún airport. A spokesperson for the airport could not be reached for comment.
The authorities in Mexico have transferred Mr. Walters to Mexico City, where he will undergo extradition procedures that are required because he is a Mexican citizen.
Given the horrendous violence associated with the Mexican drug trade these days and the seemingly intractable war with trafficking organizations, Mr. Walters’s crimes seem like a throwback to a bygone era. Nevertheless, federal authorities described his arrest as a victory.
“The U.S. Marshals are thrilled with the capture of this violent fugitive,” Steven Stafford, federal marshal for the Southern District of California, said in a statement. “This is a prime example of the sheer determination and persistence we have when tracking down a wanted criminal.”