A bad day, Vince MacDonald knows, is learning you’re a wanted man in Mexico. A
really bad day is hearing you’ve been convicted of a crime in Mexico.
All of which makes MacDonald wonder: Is that monsterously catastrophic day yet
MacDonald, a Temecula resident and roofing contractor who owns two Mexican
vacation homes, is deeply mired in a legal enigma wrapped within a cultural
puzzle, smothered in south of the border social subtleties and garnished with
way-too-generous helpings of pesos.
Caught in the crossfire of a bitter Baja property dispute, MacDonald realized
he was going to butt heads with the Mexican legal system. He knows now, three
years later, that getting head-butted is quite a different thing. Nuance, you
One of MacDonald’s peaceful Mexican hideaways is in idyllic Playa la Mision,
perched on a spectacular stretch of beach equidistant from Rosarito Beach and
Ensenada in Baja, California. Still an avid surfer, MacDonald bought the place
20 years ago when he met and married his wife, Cindi. The little enclave of
about 160 residents has always seemed to its occupants safely removed from the
criminal turmoil that has enveloped much of Mexico during the past few years.
Things were great until, as MacDonald recalled, “the neighbor from hell
This was Michael Kienzl, a kitchen remodeling contractor from Los Angeles who
was in the process of buying a house adjacent to the MacDonald’s. Even before
the sale was completed — to this day the property transfer has not been
finalized — Kienzl started a major renovation of the residence. Then he turned
his attention to a pair of nearby garages; these would be bulldozed and a new
structure built, along with a new swimming pool.
The only problem with the plan was that the garages belonged to MacDonald and a
Playa la Mision neighbor, Bill Kirchhoff, the latter a fulltime resident and
former city administrator of Redondo Beach.
The MacDonalds were stunned to see the destroyed garages.
“The ‘dozers had arrived, and the place looked like a bomb had gone off in it,”
Catapillar tractors were crawling over the previous site of the two garages
before MacDonald and Kirchhoff could contact Kienzl via e-mail to “advise him
that he was encroaching on property that was not his.”
Kienzl’s response was terse and unexpected: “I must tell you that I have a very
clear understanding to what I own and what my rights are,” he wrote in a return
Gone in the destruction was all that had been in the garages: a washer, dryer,
tools, furniture and other items.
Land disputes are common in Mexico, and are generally resolved by official
surveys of lot boundaries. In one way, Kirchhoff and MacDonald were fortunate:
Playa la Mision is a legitimate subdivision and all property lines have been
officially surveyed, certified and recorded.
MacDonald and Kirchhoff pooled their money and commissioned an additional
series of official surveys by the city of Ensenada.
“Each survey confirmed that Kienzl was building on a 15-foot-wide parcel that
he did not own,” said MacDonald. recently. Kienzl also was building without
permits from Ensenada,” which has jurisdiction over Playa la Mision.
MacDonald and Kirchhoff retained civil attorneys to carry their complaint to
Mexican government officials, confident that the matter would soon be resolved.
Armed with a virtual carload of authenticated surveys, a dozen years of tax
records and other documentation, MacDonald and Kirchhoff sought an opinion from
Banco Serfin, the bank holding title to the properties. (In Mexico, properties
in the coastal zone are owned by the government and are held in trust by a
“It was the banker’s opinion, too, that Kienzl was encroaching on property he
did not own,” said Kirchhoff recently.
A “stop work” order for Kienzl’s project was issued by Ensenada’s De Desarrollo
Urbano Y Ecologia (building department), but the work continued unabated.
As the dispute raged, Kirchhoff visited Kienzl with the documentation he had
gathered. During that conversation, Kirchhoff spray-painted an orange line on a
still-standing wall of the garage, indicating where the property line existed.
Without a satisfactory resolution, the men accelerated their civil action
But unbeknownst to MacDonald and Kirchhoff, Kienzl retained Hector Cervantes, a
well-connected Tijuana attorney and former deputy mayor and city councilman in
that border town.
First, Cervantes and Kienzl tried to buy the parcel, which MacDonald believed
was evidence that they knew the property was not Kienzl’s.
Then, Cervantes filed a criminal complaint against the pair, alleging trespass
and vandalism, for that orange paint stripe. So as MacDonald and Kirchhoff were
naively preparing for a civil battle, the wheels of “justice” were grinding into
action and the full force of Mexican criminal law was bearing down on them.
On October 4, 2004, the rules of the fight were irrevocably altered. Kirchhoff
was snatched from his home by Cervantes and four armed men, and disappeared.
Tossed into the notorious La Mesa Penitentiary in Tijuana with no accompanying
warrant or other official paperwork, Kirchhoff would spend four fear-filled days
and nights in that dank hellhole before he could be liberated.
When he finally got to talk on the phone to his wife, Kirchhoff warned her that
“rogue cops are looking for Vince” MacDonald.
“I don’t live fulltime in Playa la Mision, so I was fortunate not to be here
when Bill was essentially kidnapped off the streets to disappear for four days,”
While he had been incarcerated, Kirchhoff said he had plenty of time to figure
out what happened.
“Michael Kienzl hired a lawyer to have me arrested under criminal charges,”
said Kirchhoff. “I was arrested without a warrant and was taken to a judge for
processing, and then tossed anonymously into Mexico’s deepest, darkest prison.”
Kirchhoff said “it is very clear what happened. The lawyer (Cervantes) put this
abduction together,“ citing an e-mail to his wife from Cervantes that arrived at
his home the night of his disappearance.
“As you are aware now, an apprehension order was executed on the person of Mr.
Kirchhoff,” the e-mail began.
“Mr. Kirchhoff has been arrogant and stubborn about these issues (involving the
property dispute.)” It ended with this observation: “Litigation is our daily
work. You are more than welcome to continue fighting.”
Attorney Cervantes, in a Dec. 11, 2006, e-mail to this reporter, called the
kidnap allegations “nonsense.”
Denying he had anything to do with Kirchhoff’s being seized and incarcerated,
Cervantes wrote: “Mr. Kirchhoff was never ‘kidnapped’ as he has told all the
neighborhood in Playa la Mision. He was arrested pursuant to a legal warrant
issued by a Baja California state criminal judge. This warrant was issued by the
court following a legal procedure initiated by Kienzl with the assistance of his
criminal attorney. The facts of the complaint were related to Mr. Kirchhoff’s
invasion of a strip of land, part of the lot possessed by Kienzl, and because of
the damage of private property committed by Kirchhoff and MacDonald against
He added, “There is nothing irregular or illegal about these proceedings,” even
though the “arrest warrant” was signed by a Rosarito Beach judge a week after
Cervantes suggested a “settlement” once was possible.
“Kirchhoff and MacDonald would have saved the stress of a couple of years of
criminal proceedings” by cooperating with Kienzl, he wrote.
Kienzl, contacted repeatedly for comment, said in a Dec. 13 e-mail: “As I have
told you in the past, I am not interested in commenting on a pending
investigation. I have legal counsel representing my interests in Mexico.”
Reached by telephone Jan. 17, Kienzl elaborated on his position: “I really
haven’t been following all this too closely, because I have lawyers in Mexico
handling the matter. I understand that Mr. Kirchhoff may have spent some time in
jail, I’m not sure. Really, I don’t understand why all of this has happened.”
Kienzl, like his lawyer Cervantes, dismissed allegations of a kidnap as
“I don’t have too much to do with this because it’s in the lawyer’s hands now,”
he added. He declined to talk about further litigation, and would not comment on
his plans for the future. He also refused to discuss how he was able to litigate
property to which he has not yet received title.
“We became criminals in Mexico, and my crime was vandalizing my own property,”
said MacDonald. “For those who don’t know Mexico, there’s a dark side… and it’s
real dark. At any moment you can be picked up and disappear, and all it takes is
money. Someone trespassed. We’re not trespassing. That means Kienzl is
MacDonald added, “Sometime during that period, Mr. Kienzl made the decision to
go to the dark side and utilize the ability to corrupt the system. Checkbook
opens, money changes hands, and things can happen. I sincerely believe that our
neighbor thought that no one could withstand the onslaught one encounters when
getting involved with the Mexican legal system.
“What our neighbor did to us you don’t do to a stray dog.”
MacDonald and Kirchhoff have been required to check in every two weeks at the
Ensenada courthouse during the two years pending their court date on the
vandalism charges. WHAT IF THEY DON’T?
On Christmas Eve 2004, while the dispute raged, Vince and Vicki MacDonald’s
sprawling TEMECULA? Wine Country ranch house was destroyed in a fire.
* * *
Through a series of court appearances, none of which Kienzl attended, MacDonald
and Kirchhoff argued their case. But on Dec. 15, 2006, an Ensenada judge ruled
against the pair in the vandalism case. After the decision the two men
discovered that their lawyer had filed a two-page pleading that included none of
the documentation of ownership of the property in question. Ensenada’s district
attorney, who prosecuted the case, submitted a lengthy argument.
MacDonald said (Feb. 16) his resolve has dissolved, and he‘s ready to quit.
“This thing isn’t going to end well for us. Kienzl and Cervantes have the
political connections. We have been out-connected. Nothing in the world will
make us win,” he said.
“I have now entered into conversations with Kienzl… but I’m sometimes easily
None of which pleases Kirchhoff, the scars of his ordeal still evident. He
believes that justice will prevail.
“Vince may think he can walk away from this, but Kienzl is no longer in charge.
The Mexican legal system has taken over,” he said.
An appeal and other legal motions to overturn the conviction have been filed.
Daniel Blackburn is editor of Central Coast News Agency and is producing a video
documentary, “Know Your Neighbor: Mexico’s Dark Side.” His e-mail is