Keely Walker Muse stands in her home in Atlanta. She blames Mexican drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero for her father's death.

Story highlights

John Walker's daughter is angry that Mexico freed the man she blames for her dad's killing

Drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero was freed from a Mexican prison on a technicality

Walker was a Purple Heart Marine turned journalist who moved to Mexico to write

"I can't believe that after all these years, I'm reliving this," says his daughter

CNN  — 

Every Sunday John Walker had a date to call his wife and young daughters in Minnesota. It was 1985, so he would ring from the landline in his apartment in Guadalajara, Mexico. The journalist had temporarily moved there hoping that it would inspire him to accomplish a lifelong goal: write an epic murder mystery.

When he missed one appointment, Eve Walker wasn’t too worried. Maybe her husband had a bad connection, or time got away from him.

But when another week passed and no call came, Keely Walker Muse, then 10 years old, could feel tension in the house.

“I remember playing Atari with my little sister and watching my mom pacing while she was on the phone. I heard her say the word ‘missing’ over and over.”

Eve Walker had received a call from the State Department telling her that her husband and his friend, Albert Radelat, a dental student from Fort Worth, Texas, had disappeared.

They were last seen walking into a Guadalajara seafood joint called La Langosta Loca, or the Crazy Lobster.

The same night, someone else had locked down the restaurant for a private party – Guadalajara cartel kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero.

A man who looks like he’s straight out of trafficker central casting, he preferred his diamond jewelry thick, his leisure suits undone to the navel and his parties over the top. A partier at one those soirees claimed to have seen Caro Quintero smoking cocaine on the back of a prancing horse.

As capo ambitions went, the trafficker seemed to have everything he could want. But that year, he wanted blood from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Recent raids had reportedly made multi-million dollar dents to the cartel’s bottom line.

And here were two Americans strolling into La Langosta Loca. To Caro Quintero’s crew, they might have looked like agents.

Five months later, Walker’s and Radelat’s bodies were found in a nearby park. Their bodies, ravaged with signs of torture, had been tossed into shallow graves.

A kingpin free again

“I can’t believe that after all these years, I’m reliving this,” Walker Muse says.

She’s 38, a mother of two girls, a successful television producer. She sits in her Atlanta living room looking through a folder of old newspaper clippings, photographs and trial transcripts.

She hasn’t touched this stuff in years.

“This stays in my closet. Why would I bring it out? Just to cry?” she says.

She’s always carried sadness about her father’s death quietly. Before, when someone asked how her father died, she would just say, “an accident,” not wanting to draw attention or pity.

But now she’s incensed and wants everyone to know that.

Soldiers patrol near a prison in Zapotlanejo, Mexico, where ex-cartel boss Rafael Caro Quintero was released this month.

On August 9, a federal court in the Mexican state of Jalisco overturned Caro Quintero’s conviction for the 1985 kidnapping and killing of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena and his pilot Alfrado Zavala Avelar. The slayings profoundly damaged U.S. and Mexico relations then and remained a sore spot in the drug war.

The druglord’s release infuriated U.S. officials. The Justice Department said freeing Caro Quintero was “deeply troubling” and it would “vigorously continue its efforts to ensure” that he faces charges for his crimes.

The Jalisco court ruled that Caro Quintero was incorrectly tried in the federal judicial system, when he should have been tried at the state level.

Related: Killer of DEA agent ordered freed

Caro Quintero had served 28 years of a 40-year sentence for killing Camarena and pilot.

The agent was snatched off the street in Guadalajara about a week after Walker and Radelat were killed.

Although Caro Quintero was never convicted of Walker’s and Radelat’s slayings, according to numerous news reports, the order that overturned his sentence reads that “accusations” were dismissed related to Walker’s and Radelat’s deaths.

Cartel bodyguard Javier Vasquez-Velasco was tried and convicted, in Los Angeles, for Walker’s and Radelat’s murders. He was sentenced to two life sentences. He remains in prison, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

After the ruling that set Caro Quintero free, the former druglord was nowhere to be found. A few days later, the Mexican government said it wanted him locked up again.

The office of the Mexican attorney general issued a warrant for Caro Quintero’s “provisional detention,” acting on a request from the United States. Once the ex-cartel leader was in custody, the U.S. would have 60 days to try to extradite him.

“Unfortunately, it’s likely that few people would have paid attention to Walker or Radelat’s murders were it not for the massive attention brought by the Camarena case,” says David Shirk, a political science professor at the University of California-San Diego, who has studied and written extensively about the drug war.

“Camarena’s killing was the single biggest event of the past 50 years in the drug war and U.S. and Mexican relations,” he says.

Read: The Mexican drug war 101

Mexico’s trafficking organizations, historically considered a low-level local threat, were suddenly deemed national security threats.

And the case illustrated, Shirk says, that “corruption had reached the highest levels” in Mexico as evidence trickled in that officials had either helped the Guadalajara cartel directly or been complicit in concealing the crimes.

The shake-up led to the dismantling of the Guadalajara cartel and amped up competition among other surviving cartels that has mushroomed into the snuff film-like violence that makes headlines today.

More than 60,000 people were killed between 2006 and 2012, according to Human Rights Watch. And that’s not counting the more than 26,000 who are considered invisible victims, Mexico’s so-called disappeared.

More American victims?

Among those who have vanished are four people who may also be victims of the Guadalajara cartel.

A short time before Walker and Radelat were killed, two American couples went knocking on doors in the city, trying to spread their Jehovah’s Witness faith.

Benjamin Mascarenas and his wife were living in a small town in Nevada when they were invited in 1984 to take care of a wealthy friend in Guadalajara, according to his sister Pat Romero.

“They loved that city,” she tells CNN. “It was just beautiful and they were able to do their work as Witnesses.”

The couple invited their friends, missionaries Dennis and Rose Carlson, to visit. The Redding, California, couple were eager to get to work, Romero says.

According to news reports, including the Los Angeles Times, witnesses and investigators said that the Americans appeared to have knocked on the door of Caro Quintero’s cartel partner, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, who was also convicted for the murders of the DEA agent and his pilot. Fonseca Carrillo is in prison, but a lawyer representing him told CBS News this month that his legal team has filed an appeal based on the same procedural grounds Caro Quintero used.

Jose Luis Guizar said he expects Fonseca Carrillo to be released, according to the story.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses have never been found.

Romero believes they paid for their bad luck in going to the wrong house.

“I tell people that this sad story doesn’t have an ending,” she says.

When Romero’s 86-year-old mother got word that Caro Quintero had been freed this month, it was almost too much.

“She can barely keep it together,” Romero says. “My mother’s heart cannot take any more of this.”

John Walker poses for a portrait with his daughters Lannie, left, and Keely in Minneapolis.

‘Childhoods over’

Walker Muse pulls out a framed black and white photo. Her father, whose photography adorns her home, is holding up his camera, squatting next to his daughters. Their family portrait is captured artfully in the reflection of a store window.

Walker Muse brushes her dark hair back and studies it.

She looks like her dad.

Eve Walker was in Mexico when her husband’s and Radelat’s bodies were found. She and Radelat’s parents had been pushing for information from Mexican authorities.

“My mom just kept knocking on doors,” Walker Muse says. “People in Mexico were stonewalling her. American officials really didn’t know much. It was a nightmare.”

Eve Walker learned her husband was dead when Mexican news reported it, and journalists back in Minnesota began calling her hotel room.

The Walker girls were staying with a family friend. Eve Walker immediately called home, warning their sitter to make sure the kids didn’t see the news.

But Keely was too savvy.

She knew that newspapers got delivered to her elementary school teachers so she took a peek and saw the front page headline. “It was like, OK, childhood’s over.”

Eve Walker was reeling.

She had to identify her husband’s body at the morgue.

“It was only a skeleton, but not just a skeleton,” she later testified in court in Los Angeles. “There were parts of his body still on him – one of his eyes, his overlip … his mustache. It was John. It was, unmistakably, John.”

When the widow returned to the States, she and her daughters struggled, Walker Muse remembers.

“I became the adult,” she says.

It took about a year for Eve Walker to get back to some semblance of normalcy. But the murder always hovered over the family.

Camarena’s death dominated headlines when the crime occurred and it’s dominating headlines now with Caro Quintero’s release. That has made Walker Muse cynical. She’s come to expect that when something gets written about the cartel’s victims, her father will be lucky to get a passing reference.

Walker Muse even worked on a PBS series about the Mexican drug war several years ago that barely mentioned her dad, but devoted a lot of attention to the slain DEA agent.

She knows she could have spoken up, but generally it was too painful and she wasn’t ready or didn’t really want to get into her dad’s story.

Now that Caro Quintero is free, though, she wants everyone to know who her father was.

“I’m sorry for what happened to Camarena. But he was a DEA agent. He was doing a job. My dad was just a dude going to dinner.”

Walker Muse’s younger sister, Lannie Walker, grew up to be a journalist, like her father.

“I hope to continue a career he was never able to finish,” she tells CNN. “Every day I think of the milestones I missed because of his murder. I think of how I never got to know him as an adult. I wonder if he would be proud of me and I wonder what type of advice he would give me. I still ache for his hugs every day.”

John Walker was awarded two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, his daughters say, after he stepped on a landmine.

John Walker, a former Marine, was awarded two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, his daughters say, after he stepped on a landmine and almost lost both his legs. He helped the family survive on what little his military pension afforded, and his daughters grew up with a sense of worldliness and a love for other cultures. Lannie reports overseas.

The entire family lived in Guadalajara from 1983 to 1984, before Eve Walker and the girls returned to Minnesota and John Walker went back to finish his novel.

The sisters loved it, Walker Muse recalls, showing a photo of them side by side in front of the family pool. “It was like paradise,” she says.

“My dad was funny because his Spanish wasn’t that great so whenever someone said something to him, he was like, ‘Ah, no problemo,’” she says. “He was easygoing. That was his personality.”

And he was determined. He finished that novel.

Walker Muse has copies of it.

“I’m just keeping it,” she says. “It’s something for us, something to hold on to.”

CNN’s Mariano Castillo and Julie In contributed to this report.