SALT LAKE CITY — As Mexican authorities continued Wednesday to investigate the slaughter of nine American citizens, residents of the small Mexican town where they lived were mourning the loss and grappling with their next steps.
The attack that left three women and six children dead Monday also left the people of La Mora — a decades-old settlement in Sonora founded by early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — feeling unsafe in their longtime home.
Police and soldiers filled the surrounding area Wednesday, a physical representation of the abrupt change. Before Monday’s attack, relatives said, La Mora residents had traveled the dirt road out of town countless times without issue or concern.
Days later, some who’d lived in La Mora for decades said they were now thinking of leaving their home.
“I feel like my heart’s ripped out,” one woman said. “Not only did we lose our family, but the safety we felt here in our home.”
The search for those responsible was ongoing Wednesday after authorities said a person arrested the previous day near the U.S. border was not involved in the attack.
Late Tuesday, the Agency for Criminal Investigation for the state of Sonora posted on its Facebook page that as a result of the investigation into the shootings, investigators had arrested a person near the border town of Agua Prieta.
On Wednesday, Mexican Security Secretary Alfonso Durazo told CNN that man was determined not to be involved in the massacre. Still, authorities also discovered two people gagged in a pickup truck when the arrest was made, according to the post.
Authorities also seized at least four assault rifles, including a 50-caliber sniper rifle, large amounts of ammunition, and two SUVs — one of them listed as stolen out of Phoenix and another converted into an armored vehicle, the post states.
As of Wednesday afternoon, it was not known who the arrested person was nor the two people found gagged in the vehicle.
The arrest came hours after two ambush attacks about 5 miles outside of La Mora, roughly 70 miles south of Douglas, Arizona. Three SUVs were traveling in a group for safety. Two vehicles were headed to visit relatives in Chihuahua. The driver of the other was going to Phoenix to pick up her husband at the airport.
More than 200 shell casings were found at the scene of the massacre, according to Mexican authorities.
Rhonita Maria Miller, 30, and four of her children — Howard Jacob Miller Jr., 12; Krystal Bellaine Miller, 10; and 8-month-old twins Titus Alvin Miller and Tiana Gricel Miller were all shot and then burned.
About 10 miles from that attack, Christina Marie Langford Johnson, 29; Dawna Ray Langford, 43; Trevor Harvey Langford, 11; and Rogan Jay Langford, 2, were also shot to death, according to the family.
But in the midst of the tragic events also came incredible stories of survival.
Christina Johnson’s 7-month-old daughter, Faith Marie Johnson, was found alive and uninjured in the vehicle riddled with bullet holes, still sitting in her car seat.
Devin Blake Langford, 13, hid his surviving siblings in nearby bushes and covered them with branches as he walked for six hours over 14 miles to get back to La Mora to seek help, according to the family.
Devin and his sister Kenzie took turns carrying the wounded younger children before hiding them, said their older sister Lovelle Langford, who was not involved in the attack. After Devin didn’t return to the hiding place, 9-year-old Kenzie set off to find him, walking for hours until her feet blistered, according to Langford and her husband, Shem Stubbs.
“Every single one of them’s a miracle,” Stubbs said of the surviving children. “We’re just very grateful they’re still here.”
The Mexican military helped transport five children to Tucson, Arizona, for medical treatment. A relative of the family told the Deseret News Wednesday that one of the wounded children had been released from the hospital.
Whether the attacks were a case of mistaken identity or were more targeted was something that was still being investigated Wednesday.
Some family members said in social media posts they believe it was a case of mistaken identity and the assailants may have mistook the victims for rival cartel members with whom they are currently involved in a violent turf war.
But others note there is a history and long-standing tensions between the cartels and the citizens, who have been outspoken about the cartels in the past.
Furthermore, friends and family members have told news outlets in Mexico and stated in social media posts that they routinely travel over the road where the ambush happened on a near daily basis, that their vehicles are known, and they’ve had no previous issues. In addition, their windows were not tinted, so scouts of the cartel should have easily seen the blonde hair of the women and young children.
Lafe Langford, a relative of those killed, grew up in La Mora. He said the family drove on that road regularly.
“The Langford and the Miller and the Johnson family in this community of La Mora, we have never felt unsafe. We’ve never had an incident with the cartels of any type. That road has just been, I mean, we love that road. It’s the dirt road over the mountain,” he told the Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends” on Wednesday.
But Langford also said the cartel presence over the past few years in that region has increased and the families have had to take more precautions while traveling.
He also said there were reports that feuding cartels may have used his family as bait. Langford told the TV hosts that a war had broken out the night before between two groups and additional troops from one side were sent from Chihuahua to Sonora.
Another relative, Leah Langford-Staddon, had a message for those responsible for the attack.
“They’re evil, and that they need to pay and that they will pay,” Langford-Staddon said. “One way or another, they will pay for this.”
The attorney general for Chihuahua, Cesar Peniche Espejel, told Mexico’s Imagen Radio on Tuesday that the newly formed Los Jaguares cartel may be responsible for the massacre. Another group, the La Línea cartel, is also under investigation. Los Jaguares is an upstart group from the Sinaloa cartel, while La Linea is an offshoot of the Juarez cartel. The two groups are said to be in a turf war.
”These very cartels of Sinaloa, after the arrest of Guzman ‘El Chapo,’ have suffered fragmentations,” Peniche Espejel said. “They have been growing near the border with the United States and are heavily involved in trafficking of immigrants into the United States and drug trafficking.”
Offshoot sects of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the region have been the targets of extortion attempts and victims of violence in the past. In 2009, Benjamin LeBaron, 31, was shot and killed after denouncing cartel members who had kidnapped his brother and demanded $1 million, which he refused to pay. The brother was eventually released.
A Utah relative who grew up in the La Mora community described the victims as members of a “fundamentalist” group, some of which practice polygamy. The family has had roots in the community for generations.
Julian Barron, who was related to the three women killed and who is an activist in the area against crime, said organized crime groups have mostly left the families alone over the years, according to the Wall Street Journal. But recently, the growing wealth of the LeBarons, who work as pecan farmers and contractors, has caught the attention of some.
Kendra Lee Miller told CNN that the cartels recently threatened her family over where they could travel.
A GoFundMe campaign was started by family members to help raise money for medical and funeral expenses.
Contributing: Associated Press, Heather Simonsen, Dan Rascon