They had left their northern Mexico enclave of La Mora that morning along with other families, who drove in separate vehicles. The travelers — all extended members of the LeBaron clan of fundamentalist Mormons who hold dual U.S.-Mexico citizenship — drove together for protection on Sonora’s rural roads. But that day, the precautions weren’t enough.
Authorities have provided scarce details of the attack, but family members of the victims, many communicating via Facebook and WhatsApp, described the shooting and its aftermath.
Attackers besieged the three vehicles with gunfire Monday, authorities said, killing nine and wounding several children. One of the cars, carrying Rhonita Maria Miller, 30, and four children, including 8-month-old twins, caught fire. By the time rescuers found the charred remains of the vehicle, only bones and ash remained. Farther up the road, Christina Johnson, 31, was in another vehicle, along with her baby. Johnson was shot to death, but her 7-month-old infant survived and was found strapped to her car seat.
Nine children were with their mother, Dawna Langford, 43, when gunmen opened fire on their vehicle. Langford and two of her children were killed.
At some point, the attackers paused their gunfire, and that was when 13-year-old Devin Langford “hopped out of the vehicle and grabbed his siblings, his brothers and sisters, and started running them over the edge [of the road], hiding them and pushing them over the edge,” Kenny LeBaron, a cousin of Christina Johnson’s, told The Washington Post.
The teenager hid his siblings in the brush and covered them with branches before embarking on a six-hour trek back to La Mora, according to Kendra Lee Miller, the sister-in-law of Rhonita Miller, who described the ordeal in a lengthy Facebook post.
About 5:30 that evening, hours after his mother and two brothers were killed, Devin stumbled back to La Mora to alert others of the attack.
Devin’s return set off a flurry of alarm, according to frantic voice messages exchanged between family members and obtained by The Post. The messages reveal some confusion among participants about which children had returned to the enclave, but one fact was clear: The family was in trouble.
“They’re shot and wounded and we got to go up there and get them,” one male participant said of the children Devin had left behind.
Several men set out from La Mora on a rescue mission but didn’t find the hidden children until 7:30 that evening, according to Miller’s Facebook post. While he was gone, Devin’s 9-year-old sister, McKenzie, had worried that her brother had been away too long and also went for help. It took the search party another two hours to find her, according to Miller.
When they found her, the “first thing she told us is, we have to go back for the others,” said Lenzo Widmar, a cousin of Rhonita Miller’s who helped with the rescue.
Five of the surviving Langford children sustained some form of injury, ranging from a grazed arm to a bullet in the chest endured by an 8-month-old infant. They were eventually taken to a hospital in Tucson, according to Johnson’s cousin Leah Staddon, who lives in Arizona.
Devin, his uninjured 6-year-old brother and Johnson’s baby were all in the care of family in La Mora, according to Miller. Though they were physically unscathed, their families have been irreparably wounded.
“My family never gives up and we’re not known to be quitters,” Kenny LeBaron said. “We’re taught from a young age … the best thing you can do in your life is to give your life for someone else, and if we ever have an opportunity to help somebody we do. And it is what sets us apart from most people I know.”
This story has been updated to reflect new information released by Mexican authorities.