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Jail warden and brother charged in roadside shooting of Mexican migrants

Michael Sheppard, 60, is accused of firing two shotgun blasts at a group of migrants who stopped for water in West Texas

Mark Edward Sheppard, left, and Mike Thomas Sheppard are charged in the shooting of two migrants along a highway in West Texas. One of the migrants was killed. (El Paso County Sheriff’s Office)

Near sundown one night this week in West Texas, a white-bearded jail warden and his twin brother allegedly drove past a group of migrants trekking through the desert. Then, authorities say, the warden stopped the truck and backed up.

Migrants scrambled to hide in the brush and later told authorities they could hear a man’s voice cursing at them to “come out.” Then the warden allegedly fired a pair of shotgun blasts in their direction.

“Did you get him?” the warden’s brother allegedly asked him, according to a state affidavit released Friday.

A man in the group was killed, and a woman was shot in the abdomen. The brothers allegedly drove away without checking to see whether anyone had been hit, investigators said.

The victims’ names have not been released, but a Mexican government official said Friday that they were Mexicans who had recently entered the United States as part of a group of 13 — joining an influx of migrants that has reached record levels this year.

The Mexican consulate in El Paso is assisting the woman, who is recovering at an El Paso hospital, said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because that information had not been publicly released.

Authorities identified the alleged shooter as Michael “Mike” Sheppard, the warden of a privately run detention center that for years held immigrants facing deportation. His twin brother, Mark Sheppard, allegedly was with him. The two 60-year-olds are facing manslaughter charges and are jailed in El Paso County.

The Washington Post could not determine on Friday whether the Sheppard brothers had legal representation, or when or where they would appear in court for an arraignment. Attempts to speak with their family members on Friday were not successful.

In a joint news conference Saturday, four Democratic members of Congress from Texas called on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the matter as a hate crime.

“It is a hate crime, pure and simple,” Rep. Sylvia Garcia said. “Why the prosecutor’s office is even thinking of charging manslaughter is just beyond me.”

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The shooting occurred Tuesday evening near the town of Sierra Blanca, about 85 miles southeast of El Paso, on a rural road that Hudspeth County chief Sheriff’s Deputy Lazaro Salgado described as a frequent pickup spot for migrant smugglers. The Sheppard brothers are accused of shooting at the migrants as the group stopped on a farm road to drink water, Texas officials said.

Michael Sheppard worked at the West Texas Detention Center, according to Salgado. The jail, which holds federal detainees awaiting trial or sentencing, is operated by LaSalle Corrections. The county owns the facility, according to federal records.

“Everyone in town knows them,” Salgado said, of the Sheppard brothers, adding that he was “very surprised” by the incident and had never heard the brothers making bigoted or hateful statements about migrants. “Nothing that I’m aware of,” he said.

Advocates have raised concerns for years about violent and abusive treatment of migrants at the detention center, which served as an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility from 2007 until last year.

In a 2018 report, immigrant advocates and attorneys alleged that dozens of African migrants were pepper sprayed and beaten at the jail while being housed in unsanitary conditions and subjected to racial slurs. Detainees also denounced a lack of access to clean water and medical services.

Federal inspectors found multiple failures during facility visits. A Department of Homeland Security official familiar with the complaints of abuse, mistreatment and irregular access to drinking water and showers, said the center “was the most concerning facility we had.”

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ICE transferred detainees out of the facility in 2018, then briefly used the facility again in 2019 during an acute shortage of detention capacity, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations at the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“We were not happy with the level of service,” the official said.

ICE staff who interacted with Michael Sheppard during that period described him as downplaying the detainees’ allegations, as well as ICE’s concerns about the frequent water shut-offs, according to the official. “Corporate would have to step in,” the DHS official said, referring to the facility’s owners, LaSalle Corrections. Problems continued, however, and last year ICE took formal steps to terminate the relationship with the center.

The 1,053-bed facility continues to house immigrant detainees for the U.S. Marshals, said Susan Pamerleau, the U.S. Marshal from the Western District of Texas. Pamerleau, who was nominated to her job in 2018, said the Marshals signed a contract with Hudspeth County to house approximately 800 criminal defendants there while awaiting trial or sentencing for crimes such as human or drug smuggling.

“I can’t speak for DHS,” she said when asked about that agency’s concerns about the facility. She noted that the Marshals fall under the Department of Justice. “Let’s say that if we had concerns we wouldn’t be there.”

Asked about Michael Sheppard on Friday, LaSalle spokesman Scott Sutterfield said in an email that the warden had been fired because of the criminal arrest and investigation. He declined to comment further.

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Authorities said the shooting occurred around 7 p.m. on Tuesday. In the state affidavit, Texas Ranger Juan Torrez said the migrants overheard a man shout something in Spanish that sounded like “Come out you sons of b---- s, little a----!”

Groups of migrants walking along the county’s roadways are a frequent sight, Salgado said. “We have them walking through the desert every night. Every day and every night.”

Federal agents identified Michael Sheppard’s vehicle from the security cameras that abound along the southern border, the state affidavit said. Investigators said when they questioned the warden about the shooting “he was reluctant to speak with us about it and left.”

Agents then interviewed Mark Sheppard, who officials said gave them a shifting account of the night’s events. He initially said he had never been near the shooting and then told investigators the brothers had stopped at a reservoir searching for ducks. He then said they were looking for birds, and then Javelinas, animals that resemble wild boars, the affidavit said. Sheppard told investigators he had been peering through binoculars at the brush and told his brother he thought he spotted the “black butt” of a Javelina.

He said his brother exited the vehicle with the shotgun and fired two rounds.

Mark Sheppard said he and his brother never yelled anything and did not check to see if they had shot anything, according to the affidavit. He told authorities they left to attend a Hudspeth Water Board meeting, where they later heard on the radio that migrants had been shot.

Asked how they reacted to learning migrants had been shot near where his brother discharged his weapon, Mark Sheppard said they “did not do anything,” the affidavit states.

The FBI, U.S. Border Patrol and Homeland Security Investigations, the investigative wing of ICE, aided in the investigation of the shooting, officials said. The FBI arrested the brothers and turned them over to the El Paso County jail, a county official said Friday.

At their Saturday news conference, the Democratic members of Congress from Texas accused top Republican officials in the state of fueling a “culture of hate” against migrants that has enabled crimes against them.

“We are asking them to stop their violent invasion rhetoric,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro. “It has gotten people killed. It got people killed at El Paso. And it just got somebody killed a few days ago.”

Paul Sonne contributed to this report.

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