CRESTON, Ia. — Saturday relatives are mourning the four members of the Sharp family who died in Mexico, even as they struggle to cope with the overwhelming logistics of the tragedy.
The deaths of Kevin and Amy Sharp and their children Sterling, 12, and Adrianna, 7, while on vacation in Tulum left lingering threads of mystery intertwined with all the sadness.
When an entire family dies in one fell swoop in a foreign country without witnesses, there are complications, to say the least.
All that relatives in Creston know for sure at this point is that the Sharps died in their penthouse at Grand Bahia Principe Tulum from asphyxiation after inhaling a toxic gas.
News reports have quoted Mexican officials as pinpointing a water heater as the culprit in the gas leak, but the family has yet to be told that is definitive.
Amy’s cousin, Jana Weland, and her daughter, Ashli Peterson, have been on the front lines of handling the slew of media requests for interviews and coordinating with the funeral home in Mexico, among other daily details of the fallout.
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“We’re going to go on, put them to rest and go from there,” Weland said of the funeral planned for 2 p.m. Saturday at Southwestern Community College's gymnasium — an emotional center of gravity for the Sharps, who were devoted fans of the college's basketball team.
Meanwhile, the last week saw rampant speculation in news reports and across social media about what killed the family: Perhaps a leaky stove or misused bug spray. That has been one of the most frustrating elements for relatives.
"While two families are trying to become one and bury four people that are truly dear to them," Peterson said, "the media always throws that wrench in there."
Support in a time of tragedy
Weland and Peterson, a hairstylist who runs Salon G downtown, have tried to provide “that shoulder to cry on” for their relatives, Peterson said, “that backbone when they fall.”
That includes time spent with laundry, dishes and pets as Amy’s mother and stepfather, Beth and Roger Fry, have welcomed a steady stream of fellow mourners to their home on the western fringe of town.
Earlier this week, a former exchange student from Switzerland who lived with the Frys and graduated from high school with Amy made a pilgrimage to Creston for the funeral.
Kevin’s parents, Ken and Carol Sharp, also must tend to the family beer business, Southwest Distributing Co. Kevin had become a linchpin in the firm as Ken eased into retirement.
Missed birthday phone calls
The Sharps' relatives also have been rankled at reports the family was dead for as few as one or two days. Autopsy results indicated the Sharp family had been dead for 36 to 48 hours by the time they were found Friday, March 23, a prosecutor told the media.
Not so, relatives say. They insist that the family died the first night they arrived in Tulum, Thursday, March 15.
A missed birthday phone call was the first inkling for relatives in Creston that something was horribly wrong.
Amy without fail always phoned her sister, Renee Hoyt, to wish her a happy birthday — even if she sometimes called as late as midnight.
Behind the story: Trouble in Mexico
But Hoyt's birthday on Sunday, March 18, came and went. The next morning, she realized that she never got a call from Amy.
Then on Wednesday, March 21, Kevin didn’t call to wish a happy birthday to Hoyt’s husband, Glen — a good friend of his who also was a racing buddy at the nearby Adams County Speedway in Corning.
Sterling's silence on Snapchat and social media was another disturbing sign. The family began to worry more.
“Everything started clicking,” Weland said, “all these little things you’ve thought of throughout the week.”
A frantic search begins
So on the morning of Thursday, March 22, a week after the Sharps had arrived in Tulum, the Creston relatives began to scramble to track down the family. They called the U.S. Embassy and any other number they could find.
Weland frantically Googled her way to connections with Mexican officials.
They hit one blind alley after another, including a futile effort to track the Sharps' flights without a confirmation number.
Relatives in Creston posted pleas on social media for thoughts, prayers and help. That caught the attention of local police.
When the family wasn’t on their planned return flight to attend SWCC tournament basketball games in Danville, Ill., worry turned to panic.
Finally, late that Thursday, March 22, Beth, Hoyt and Peterson went to the police station to report the Sharps missing.
Beth posted on Facebook at 3:08 a.m. “Prayer warriors needed! My daughter, son in law and my beautiful grand babies!!!”
The family kept working online and over the phone through the wee hours, last speaking with a property manager in Tulum around 5 a.m.
Weland said the woman, a Canadian, told them she was about 10 minutes away from the Sharps' penthouse, where she was due to meet local officials to check on the family. She said she would update them.
The Frys never received another call from the property manager.
But about 8 a.m., they were summoned to the police station in Creston to receive the horrible news.
Dealing with the aftermath
The Sharps’ belongings remain in Mexico — passports, cell phones and other mementos that the family would like returned.
Even their clothing was confiscated in an investigation that so far the Creston relatives don't completely understand. They've been told it could take months.
For now, #4SHARPS decals are starting to proliferate around Creston, with the hashtag also spread on social media.
This is a town where friends and relatives tend to see each other on a daily basis, whether behind a steering wheel or in the grocery aisle.
Peterson routinely passed Kevin on the road as his truck roared by, late to drop off his kids at school. She misses waving at him each morning.
The family already has begun to talk about how they might continue the Sharps' legacy. Perhaps provide scholarships for local students who may not otherwise be able to afford playing sports (Sterling's passion)? Or join a dance studio (Adrianna's favorite pastime)?
"We want to turn around and help some of those kids that (the Sharps) aren’t there to help,” Weland said.
The family also has contemplated a campaign to encourage the use of carbon-monoxide detectors. They want them in every home.
They want to force VRBOs (vacation rentals by owner) to install them. They want to encourage tourists to pack them in their suitcases.
A time to mourn
But first, the funeral.
Peterson’s daughter (and Weland’s granddaughter), 12-year-old Keyana, will sing "Dancing in the Sky" by Dani and Lizzy. But the family will let her prerecord it, fearing she might burst into tears while singing live.
And here's a sign of how life so often works, tossing a jumble of conflicting emotions in our face all at once: Even as the horrible news unfolded for Beth and her family that she had lost a daughter, she also is on the verge of gaining a grandson.
Hoyt’s daughter, Kacie Schaefer, is due April 4 to give birth to a son, Coy. The family has been monitoring the dilation of her cervix more closely than the weather forecast, hoping that Coy may wait until at least the day after the funeral.
After the last couple of weeks, this family deserves — no, desperately needs — the warm happiness and togetherness of circling around a beloved newborn.