SALT LAKE CITY — Caskets bearing a mother and four children murdered by drug cartel thugs arrived Wednesday at the somber Miller home in La Mora, Mexico, for one of Thursday’s heart-rending funerals for the nine victims of a machine-gun massacre that has drawn immense international attention.
Kendra Miller, 27, and her extended family had begun to gather for her now-postponed wedding next week. Instead, the would-be bride and her family spent Thursday at two memorial services in the yards of two family homes. They said goodbye to two mothers and six children who died at the hands of what she called terrorists and “evil mobsters.” Another funeral will follow.
“Everyone is having to deal with shock, grief, horror, anger and indignation,” Miller told the Deseret News in a telephone interview describing the shooting and the unique brand of faith that she says is sustaining her family.
She provided a heartbreaking, personal look inside the family’s mourning, talked about the power of their faith and the prayers of others on their behalf, and discussed what comes next as the family tries to move forward.
“I know the world was horrified and shocked at this atrocity,” Miller said. “And I know that their prayers have strengthened us.”
The family’s faith in God is an indelible part of life in La Mora, where most of the approximately 300 residents are descendants of former members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who settled in Mexico to escape federal prosecution for practicing polygamy in the late 1800s.
The church disavowed polygamy in 1890. Miller, who said she was living in La Mora, was set to be married Monday in a polygamous marriage, adding to confusion for the world’s media trying to sort out the intersection of a horrific drug-related crime, religion and the family’s unique faith.
Her family’s brand of faith is an amalgam of religious tenets taken from scripture, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly referred to as Mormon, and polygamous practices disavowed by the church nearly 130 years ago.
Today, most of the residents of La Mora do not practice polygamy. The nine victims of the massacre were not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Miller said.
She isn’t sure when she will reschedule her wedding, but she plans to move forward with it, despite the illegality of polygamy in both Mexico and the United States.
“He is with us,” she said of God. “Honestly, for me personally, how I’ve just been able to kind of be with all of this, the strength that I’ve had, I know comes from God, and all the prayers, the prayer power. We feel it here. We feel the prayers of thousands and thousands of people that have prayed for us. We’ve heard about it. We’ve heard about all the people from all over the world who are praying for us.”
Miller described the eight children, several of them wounded, who survived the bullet-riddled attack as “broken” over the loss of their mothers, brothers, sisters and cousins.
“Through God and through family, we’re riding through this. We’re all crushed. We’re all heartbroken,” Miller said.
Miller’s brother Howard lost his wife, Rhonita, 30, and four of their seven children — Howard Jr., 12; Krystal, 10; and 8-month-old twins Titus and Tiana — in what Kendra Miller stressed was an unprovoked attack on brave but innocent women and children traveling in a caravan of three SUVs on a remote road in northern Mexico.
Howard Miller is devastated and considering pulling up generations of roots after today’s funeral in his parents’ yard, leaving La Mora for a safer place, probably in the United States. All of the family members hold dual citizenship in the United States and Mexico.
His parents, who still have four children at home, are considering going with him.
“What my family has all said is that they’re all done. There’s nothing worth staying here for,” Kendra Miller said.
The family is grateful that the Mexican police and military is guarding the roads in the region today to ensure safe passage to and from the funerals, but there is concern about what happens when they leave.
Meanwhile, the family’s faith and the support of people around the world is carrying them as they grieve.
The second funeral Thursday was for Dawna Langford, 43, and two of her children, Trevor, 11, and Rogan, 2.
The other mother who died is Christina Langford Johnson, 29.
The tragedy brought the number of deaths in the family to 12 this year. Langford’s father died of an illness during the summer, and Miller lost a brother and uncle in a plane crash in January.
She said Rhonita Miller, Dawna Langford and Christina Johnson were God-fearing women.
“They were good women who dedicated their lives to their families to be mothers and wives, to serving their communities and to being the best people that they could be.”
They spent their final minutes defending their children, saving eight of them. Johnson, for example, seems to have fought to protect her 7-month-old baby, Faith, who was strapped in a car seat.
The attackers fired more than 200 bullets. Five of the eight children who survived the massacre suffered bullet wounds. One was struck in the jaw, another in the chest, a third in the back. A boy was hit in the hip and leg and couldn’t walk away, so two unhurt children began long, dehydrating walks to seek help. One other child was hit in the foot.
The children’s bravery and concern for their cousins mirrored their mothers’ examples, Miller said.
“I would visit Christina often, and every time I left her house, I felt that I was a better person because of it,” she recalled. “That woman had so much strength. Dawna just visited me three nights ago, and she just gave me so much beautiful advice on living and being better. Rhonita was just a light that shined and wanted to give her whole life for God and family. Knowing that those women were those kind of people, and of course these innocent children, that gives incredible comfort to know that their souls are great. They’re good where they’re going.”
While her parents and brother Howard and others are considering leaving, Miller wants the world to help the family stay.
“What happens if we leave the people in these three towns?” she asked. “I personally want to keep fighting for these people. I want to use this media attention to say to the cartels, ‘Your day of power is over. You’re done.’ That’s what we want. That’s why we want to ask for the help of the United States.”