Officials in Mexico believe it may have been a case of mistaken identity after nine members of a prominent fundamentalist Mormon family were shot and torched to death in broad daylight by gunmen, suspected to be members of a drug cartel, Monday.
In a statement posted on Facebook, criminal investigators in northern Mexico said Tuesday that they arrested a suspect in connection with the brazen execution of three women and six children from the LeBarón family who were ambushed in their vehicles.
The Agency for Criminal Investigation for the state of Sonora said the suspect was found in the town of Agua Prieta, close to Arizona's border, holding two hostages who were gagged and tied inside a white pickup truck, USA Today noted from a translation of the statement. The suspect was also found in possession of four assault rifles, ammunition and various large vehicles, including a bullet-proofed SUV. One of the vehicles was connected to a robbery in Phoenix, Arizona.
Officials noted that the gunmen might have mistaken the large SUV the family was traveling in for those of a rival gang.
"These acts in which women and children lost their lives makes it clear that we need a collaboration and a union of forces," the statement said. "Criminality should be analyzed and combatted, not only in local protest, but also regional, national and transnational."
Citing interviews with two family members, El Universal said the events began unfolding at about 9:30 a.m. Monday when the three women, identified by other family members as Rhonita Miller, Dawna Langford and Christina Langford Johnson, along with their 14 children left Bavispe, Sonora to visit family elsewhere in Mexico and the U.S.
In a statement on Facebook Tuesday, family member Tiffany Langford identified the dead and shared harrowing accounts of the attack according to children who survived.
“We lost 9 today. Right now we are waiting, for the morning, for answers, for justice,” Langford said.
Rhonita Maria Miller, 30, was fatally shot and torched in her vehicle along with her children. They are: Howard Jacob Miller, Jr., 12; Krystal Bellaine Miller, 10; and 8-month-old twins Titus Alvin Miller and Tiana Gricel Miller.
They were “all shot and burned in their vehicle. Only ashes and a few bones remain,” Langford said.
Rhonita is survived by her husband, Howard Jacob Miller Sr., who was in North Dakota at the time of the attack. as well as her three other children — Tristan, Amaryllis, and Zack, who were being cared for by their grandparents in La Mora.
Christina Marie Langford Johnson was shot dead 19 days short of her 32nd birthday. She is survived by her 7-month-old daughter, Faith Marie Johnson, who was found in her car seat on the floor of her mother’s vehicle. It appears her mother placed her there for protection.
Dawna, 43, was shot dead along with her children, Trevor Harvey Langford, 11 and Rogan Jay Langford, 2.5. She has seven other children who survived the attack, ranging from 4 months old to 14 years old.
Tiffany explained that two of the mothers were traveling to Chihuahua to see family while one of them was heading to Phoenix, Arizona, to pick up her husband from the airport.
“They never made it. They were ambushed by the Mexican cartels; shot, burned, and murdered in cold blood. These were innocent civilians, American citizens simply trying to live peaceful lives,” Tiffany wrote.
According to El Universal, the gunmen who attacked the members of the LeBarón family interrupted all communication in the region and created a security fence around the area of the attack which prevented local security forces from intervening.
No one knew anything about the attack until Dawna’s son, 13-year-old Devin, walked approximately 14 miles to La Mora to get help after hiding other surviving siblings in the bushes.
“After witnessing his mother and brothers being shot dead, Dawna's son Devin hid his 6 other siblings in the bushes and covered them with branches to keep them safe while he went for help. When he took too long to return, his 9 year old sister left the remaining five to try again. Devin arrived in La Mora at 5:30 pm, 6 hours after the ambush, giving the first news anyone had heard of his and Christina's families,” Tiffany said.
She said Devin's uncles rushed to find the hidden children, knowing many of them were injured.
“They didn't get far before realizing they would be risking death, since there had been continual shooting for hours, all over the mountains near La Mora. The group of men waited a while for reinforcements, and around 7:30, found the hidden children. They found Christina's baby Faith with the vehicle around her riddled with bullet holes. Somehow she had remained untouched, and alive. She was in her car seat, which looked to have been hurriedly placed on the floor of the vehicle by her mother for protection,” she said.
The family then had to go searching for Devin’s 9-year-old sister, Mckenzie, who had gone looking for her brother. They found her two hours later with the help of soldiers and men from La Mora and nearby towns.
“For 11 hours, their families all over Sonora, Chihuahua, and the Midwestern US waited in fear and horror for any news of possible survivors. The first vehicle was found full of bullet holes and completely ablaze. Nita and the four of her seven children she had taken on the trip were burned to mostly ashes and only a few charred bones left to identify that all five had been inside,” Tiffany explained. “It appeared that one tried to escape as the front passenger door was open and the remains were partially in and out of the vehicle.”
Tiffany explained that about 10 miles away from where they found the remains of Rhonita and her children, they discovered Christina, with her baby Faith in her vehicle, and Dawna and her children in hers.
“They both were fired upon from ahead and Christina jumped out waving her arms to let the attackers know that it was women and children in the vehicles. She gave her life to try and save the rest,” she said.
The surviving children, including Devin, who did not suffer an injury during the attack, are now in the care of extended family while several others are being treated at a local hospital.
While some say the attack on the family may have been a case of mistaken identity, Brent LeBarón, a LeBarón family spokesman, told Vice in 2012 that the family had been at odds with drug cartels in Mexico for decades.
The family fled to Mexico in the late 1800s after the U.S. outlawed polygamy.
“The original story is they come down for the cause of plural marriage to continue it. Mexico allowed it. My great grandfather being a fundamentalist he broke away from the Mormon Church because he had two wives. That’s when he went to establish Colonia Lebarón. They established five of six colonies down here,” he said.
In a statement Tuesday, Eric Hawkins, spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, quickly pointed out that the fundamentalist group of Mormons in Mexico were not a part of their church body.
“We are heartbroken to hear of the tragedy that has touched these families in Mexico. Though it is our understanding that they are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, our love, prayers and sympathies are with them as they mourn and remember their loved ones,” he said.
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a prominent member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose father helped establish the Mormon colonies in Mexico, called for action Tuesday morning.
“Ann and I are heartbroken for the victims of the horrific attacks in Mexico. Our prayers are with their families who have suffered such an unspeakable tragedy. The U.S. must work with Mexican officials to hold accountable those responsible for this senseless violence,” he said in a tweet Tuesday.
The Utah senator still has family in Mexico and about 10 years ago one of his cousins was reportedly kidnapped and held hostage until a ransom was paid several days later.
In the Vice interview, Brent Lebarón also noted that the colony was not unfamiliar with the murder of their own.
In the 1980s, Brent’s uncle, Ervil LeBarón, who had 13 wives and 50 children, reportedly used his own family, including his children, as assassins. Ervil LeBarón, who was also known as the “Mormon Manson” along with his family, were suspects in more than 40 murders.
He killed his own brother, Joel, over “blood atonement,” Brent Lebarón said.
“Ervil tried to take over the church and he started claiming blood atonement, the right to kill in the name of God. If you oppose him, he has the right to kill you. Once Ervil snapped, he just went on a killing spree. He had his daughters killed, his wives killed, his sons killed and he just went from there. He went haywire,” Brent said.
He explained that because of the experience with Ervil, they were ready when the cartels came after them because of their wealth.
"We've had a few run-ins with them," Brent said. "Don't like to say too much about them."
In 2009, 16-year-old Eric LeBarón was kidnapped and held by a Mexican cartel on a $1 million ransom. The family refused to pay it, and he was eventually released. A few months later, however, another drug lord reportedly ordered a hit on Benjamin LeBarón, who was an anti-crime activist in the family. He and his brother-in-law were killed.
The family is now seeking to raise $500,000 to assist with medical and funeral expenses via a Go Fund Me campaign.