MEXICO CITY — At least 10 members of a prominent Mormon family – three mothers and their young children – were killed in a shooting attack relatives suspect might have been a case of mistaken identity by drug cartel gunmen.
The victims were U.S. citizens and members of La Mora, a decades-old settlement in Sonora state founded as part of an offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s located about 70 miles south of Douglas, Arizona.
The mothers were driving from Bavispe to a wedding in LaBaron, another Mormon community in the state of Chihuahua, when their three vehicles loaded with children were attacked by gunfire, causing one of the vehicles to explode in flames.
Leah Staddon, a relative who grew up in the same Mormon community before moving to Arizona, said her nephew’s wife and her four children died in the blaze.
She said her brother discovered the bullet-ridden vehicle still smoldering.
“It’s devastating,” Staddon said. “It’s incomprehensible, the evil. I don’t understand how someone could do that.”
The attack happened near Rancho La Mora on the border between Sonora and Chihuahua, the Mexican newspaper El Diario reported.
The vehicle exploded when bullets hit the gas tank, the newspaper said.
Another relative, Julián LeBaron, said on his Facebook page the dead woman was Rhonita María LeBaron.
Staddon gave her name as Rhonita Miller, 33. She said Miller’s four children who died inside the car were ages 8, 10 and 4-month-old twins, a boy and a girl.
Staddon said a sister-in-law, nine children and a cousin with a baby traveling in two separate vehicles had been kidnapped.
Staddon posted a message on Facebook pleading for help from U.S. authorities to find her missing relatives after family in Mexico told her what had happened.
“They are doing all they can in Mexico and we need America’s help,” Staddon posted. “Please help get the word out. We need to get them all back home safe also do not travel to Mexico! The mafia over Sonora and the mafia over chihuahua are in all out war right now!!!”
Authorities at the U.S. Consulate’s Office in Mexico could not be immediately reached for comment.
Staddon said she learned later on Monday that her sister-in law and her cousin had been killed along with several of the children.
She was still trying to verify from relatives in Mexico exactly how many people had been killed.
She said relatives in Mexico told her that after gunmen killed her sister-in-law and two children, they opened the door and saw more children and let them go.
She said her sister-in-law’s oldest son, a young teenager, hid the smaller children behind a tree, then walked back to the family’s ranch for help. Some of the children were wounded, Staddon said.
She identified her sister-in-law as Dawna Langford. Langord was traveling in a second vehicle with nine children.
Staddon identified her cousin as Christina Johnson. Johnson was traveling in a third vehicle with her baby, Staddon said. Johnson’s baby was found alive inside the vehicle, Staddon said later.
Staddon said the three families belonged to a Mormon ranching community that has lived in the Bavispe for more than 40 years.
The Security Committee of Sonora confirmed late Monday that authorities in Sonora and Chihuahua were investigating an attack that occurred earlier in the day involving a burned vehicle and the kidnapping of several people.
The Security Committee did not verify any of the deaths.
The investigation involved municipal and state police, the state attorney general’s office, the army and the National Guard, which had launched an air and land operation in the area where the incident occurred, according to a written statement provided to The Arizona Republic.
No further information about the attack was released.
President Donald Trump tweeted about the attack Tuesday morning offering the Mexican president U.S. help “to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.”
Lupita Orduno, a spokeswoman for the Sonora Attorney General’s Office, said authorities planned to release more details about the attack Tuesday.
The governor of Sonora, Claudia Pavlovich Arellano, said on Twitter, that as a mother she felt “deep pain” for the victims and vowed that the “cowards” would not go unpunished.
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“As a mother I feel courage, repudiation and deep pain for what cowards did in the mountains between Sonora and Chihuahua,” she wrote. “I don’t know what kind of monsters dare to hurt women and children. As Governor, I will do everything to make sure this does not go unpunished and those responsible pay.”
It would not be the first time that members of the break-away church had been attacked in northern Mexico, where their forebears settled — often in Chihuahua state — decades ago.
In 2009, Benjamin LeBaron, an anti-crime activist who was related to those killed in Monday’s attack, was murdered in 2009 in neighboring Chihuahua state.