The audio messages started streaming into Kenny LeBaron’s cellphone Monday afternoon, traveling across the U.S.-Mexico border and more than a thousand miles to reach him at his office in a small North Dakota town.

The WhatsApp group chats were normally a place for family photos and stories, to help bridge the distance between each other. On this day, they turned into live feeds of the chaos unfolding in Sonora, Mexico, where more than a dozen members of the family had been ambushed while traveling in a caravan of SUVs.

“We don’t know where they are,” a woman said in one of the audio recordings, sounding breathless. “They’re gone. The vehicles are not up there. Nita and her children are all dead. They’re burned. And yeah, Christina and Dawna are missing at this point. We have no clue where they are.”

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Authorities would eventually confirm the family’s worst fears. The three women — Rhonita Maria Miller, Dawna Langford and Christina Langford Johnson — had been shot and killed along with six of their children, one of the cars set on fire. But before the tragedy became international news, it spread in among parents, siblings and cousins — dual citizens of Mexico and the United States scattered between the two countries.

In a rush of chilling audio messages, the family tried to piece together what had happened to the trio of mothers and the 14 children accompanying them. Those in the rural region of northern Mexico that has long been home to the extended family — an offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — were sometimes plaintive, sometimes defiant as they described a frantic search for the vehicles.

Listening to them from afar, LeBaron, who grew up on the bucolic family ranch and lived in Mexico until 2007, felt a gnawing sense of despair.

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“You couldn’t do anything about it,” said the 32-year-old, who now owns a trucking company in Williston, N.D. “I couldn’t do anything, and none of us could do anything. Every one of us wanted to do something. It’s a sense of knowing that by the time you got that message, it could have been 20 minutes, and anything could have happened since then.”

After discovering the burned car, the relatives wondered whether the assailants may have opened fire on Miller by mistake and then realized, after seeing the other two cars, that they had “shot up a family and killed a bunch of kids.” Had the other women and children been taken hostage? A man told the group, “We need prayers and we need help. We need a helicopter; we need some eyes in the sky so we can track down where these two Suburbans went.”

Later, they learned the fate of the other two cars: “Guys, Aunt Dawna and Aunt Christina are dead,” a woman said, panting. One of the surviving children, a 13-year-old boy, had trekked home to seek help after the ambush left him and eight others stranded along the road. He told them Langford and Johnson had both been shot dead.

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The boy’s arrival set off a desperate attempt to reach the others. In a flurry of messages, relatives called for men to head into the hills to where the children were left, bringing guns with them. They said police and military members were making their way there.

“There’s five kids sitting on the side of the road, got shot on the mouths, shot on the foot, shot on the leg,” a man said. “We’ve got the ambulance; it’s going to meet us here. We need everyone up here now to come with us to get the kids.”

Amid the horror were glimpses of good news. The stranded children were discovered with the help of authorities. There was the update on the wounded 9-year-old girl, Mckenzie, who walked alone into the wilderness, worried that no one was coming to help. “She’s okay,” a man said, crying in relief. “They found her.”

And there was the baby, named Faith, who had been presumed dead. As the men searched the mountain, they found her alive in the back of one of the SUVs. The discovery, one woman said, helped her feel better in the face of overwhelming tragedy.

“They thought everyone who were in the Suburbans were dead,” she said. “So I’m real happy that they were able to find this baby alive.”

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