'Malcom is Missing': Canadian's disappearance in Mexico puts daughter on gruelling quest for answers
The true-crime documentary reveals the shocking, chilling path Brooke Mullins had to take after her father's disappearance in Mexico.
On Oct. 27, 2018, 68-year-old Canadian Malcom Madsen disappeared in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, having last been seen at a bar with his girlfriend, Marcela Acosta Ramos.
The documentary, Malcom is Missing, takes you inside his daughter's journey to find out what happened to her father.
Madsen was a frequent traveller to Mexico, described by his friends and family as someone with a "child-like spirit" but also "incredibly intelligent."
His daughter, Brooke Mullins, was used to her dad having different partners throughout her life, but admits in the film that she was a bit bothered when she was introduced to Ramos, who is just three years older than her. At the time, Ramos was 43.
Ramos had been living in a one-bedroom apartment with her parents and her two teenage boys. When she started dating Madsen, he purchased a five-bedroom house in Puerto Vallarta for them to live in.
In October 2018, when Madsen had just made a trip from Canada to Mexico, his daughter and friends lost communication with him. When Mullins went to Mexico to try to figure out what happened, she discovered shocking details.
Getting access to video footage from a Puerto Vallarta bar called Andale's, Mullins sees her father having a drink with Ramos, who is fiddling with something in her purse. The video shows what appears to be Ramos putting a powder substance into his drink, while whispering in his ear so he can't see the table. She lets him have a few sips before pushing the drink away. That's the last time he was seen alive.
While that may seem like all the evidence one would need to solve this mystery and seek justice, it was just the beginning of the battle for Mullins.
When Mullins showed the video to police, they questioned whether the footage had been doctored. Jesus, a local taxi driver in Puerto Vallarta who would always drive Madsen when he was in town, said in the documentary that he believes Ramos was able to pay the police — using money she took from Madsen — so they would not investigate this case.
"He was truly in love with this woman and he could not see that she was using him for money," Mullins said in the documentary.
What unfolds is a story about this devastating disappearance, paired with an exploration of systemic issues in place that prevent someone like Mullins to be able to seek justice for her father.
Ramos, dubbed "the black widow," was arrested in July 2020 and her brother, Martin Alejandro Acosta Ramos, was arrested later that year. Her son, Andres Javier Romero Acosta, was also arrested a year later.
An 'intimidating' quest
Filmmakers Robert and Jari Osborne first learned about this story when they saw an article in the Vancouver Sun about a woman from Port Hope, Ont. who had been fighting the Mexican government after her father disappeared. They were able to track down a Facebook page Mullins made about her father and contacted her about working on this project.
Mullins admits she did have some apprehensions about making this film.
"I waited a year to even go public about his disappearance. I kept it a secret from many people in his life for the first year, but I did realize that the media has been incredibly supportive and has brought so many amazing people into my life, and it helped me with the case," Mullins said. "Having a background in film myself, ... I understood Robert's perspective as the person behind the camera.
"I never expected to be in the limelight of it, that's for sure. But I don't regret it. ... I just hope it makes a difference, that it informs people on what's going on."
Not only did Mullins open herself up to the Osbornes, she also agreed to travel with a film crew back and forth to Mexico amid serious tensions with police, officials and people in connection to Ramos.
"At one point, I had a bodyguard when I was travelling and I was flying into different cities to not be directly coming into Puerto Vallarta," Mullins said. "I'm going to have to probably be involved in the trial and, of course, I'm a little concerned about that.
"You don't know who to be afraid or concerned about. You might think the people are arrested, their family, but there's also the police that might not be very happy with me or other people over there. It's definitely intimidating, for sure."
Robert stressed that he thinks it was "very courageous" for Mullins to go to Mexico to film this documentary.
"Certainly when you're working somewhere in a city with a documentary crew, you create a very large profile. You can't kind of slip in and out," he said. "So, we made sure that we had really good people working with us, we hired this great fixer out of Mexico City.
"Plus, we had Jesus, who you met in the documentary, he was our driver. He works as a taxi driver in Puerto Vallarta. He knows everybody. ... So, between the two of them, when we would pull up to a location, they'd have a pretty good eye on the street in terms of if anything started happening that we needed to be aware of."
'A very delicate balance'
One question Canadians will likely have about this story is, why didn't or couldn't the Canadian government step in to help Mullins get some answers about what happened to her father?
"I have been told by numerous people and in the government, mostly through Global Affairs, that a large part of the problem is that ... if they push the Mexican authorities for information or to make arrests, or to look into things, they can often have the opposite effect," Mullins explained. "They will draw back and stop giving information and resources, so it's a very delicate balance, according to my contacts.
"But at the same time, I find this frustrating because Mexico hugely relies on Canadians visiting its country every year. The tourism is massive, and if they want tourists to continue to go there, you would think that they would do everything in their power to make sure they're safe. And if something does happen, that they're there to give them the ability to be supported while trying to bring back a loved one, or find a loved one."
Mullins takes the audience inside her home throughout the story and is quite forthcoming about the logistical difficulty of this process, but also the impact that it's had on her personal life, including her relationship with her children.
But that's balanced with incredibly shocking moments, like when Mullins was offered to buy body parts, such as teeth and eyeballs, allegedly belonging to her father. Mullins actually went through with the transaction, paying for these items with a lawyer in Mexico retrieving them, so she could get DNA testing done.
"We wanted to capture that element because it was something that either could have turned out to be the definitive piece of evidence, or it could have turned out to be a scam," Robert said. "But we had to be aware of Brooke's feelings about this."
Mullins highlighted that this moment was a particularly big concern for her before watching the film.
"This was actually a huge concern I had before seeing the film. I think that Robert and Jari were incredibly respectful," she said. "I totally understand their perspective as filmmakers, not wanting to sensationalize, but to also show what an impactful experience that was emotionally for me.
"They didn't show my complete breakdown. They kept it to a minimum, and I really appreciate that because I think that was probably the worst moment. Other than when I first discovered my father was definitely missing. ... So I'm still, to this day, so grateful that they did not make a spectacle out of that scene."
'It was the right decision'
Reports about Canadians — and people from other countries — disappearing or appearing dead in Mexico continue to come up. While this isn't entirely specific to this country, both Mullins and Robert hope Malcom is Missing sheds a light on what really happens in these circumstances, calling out the barriers that exist to get answers from Mexican authorities.
"I love Mexico. It's a beautiful country," Mullins said. "So many of the people that are helping me, as you can see in the documentary, are Mexican, who love their country and want to see change.
"So many people say, 'Well, I go there all the time, nothing ever happens,' or say, 'You can get hurt or things like that could happen anywhere in the world,' and this is true. But I think it's important that they realize that if something does go wrong, there in Mexico, you are on your own, as are your family if they're the ones trying to find you. That's what needs to change at this point. This is what I'm trying to convey in this film from my perspective."
"I like so many people in Mexico as a result of this trip, this work that we've done," Robert added. "I count two people down there now as good friends and people who I will continue to know, and to have as part of my life for the rest of my life.
"But people have to understand that there is a level of corruption that is almost unprecedented worldwide in that country. It is endemic in the system and if you're comfortable going there, understanding that, then go for it. But you better understand that, as Brooke says, if you get into trouble, you are in a world of hurt."
Looking back, after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, Mullins admitted that sometimes, she does think about whether all of this was worth it. Ultimately, she feels like she made the right choice to start on this long journey to justice.
"I sometimes think about it, whether I would have done it again, because there has been so much loss," Mullins said. "I'm no longer with my fiancé. Things have definitely changed. It's been hard for my family, as well as the financial struggles.
"I never would have imagined that it would end up costing as much as it has just to get to this point. I also think, how would I feel if I hadn't done anything and I didn't know anything, and that they were still allowed to go free and continue to hurt other people? ... I kind of just feel like it was the right decision."
Malcom is Missing is screening at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Sunday, Jan. 29.