'I do not feel safe here’ — Tears flow, hugs abound as funeral honors loved ones killed in Mexico ambush

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Family mourns at the funeral for Dawna Langford and two of her children, Trevor and Rogan, in La Mora, Sonora on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019. Three women and six of their children, all members of the extended LeBaron family, died when they were gunned down in an attack while traveling along Mexico's Chihuahua and Sonora state border on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019.

La Mora, Mexico • A few people were crying earlier Thursday morning as family members who had driven in from across northern Mexico and the western United States shared hugs and viewed the bodies of Dawna Langford and two of her sons, Trevor and Rogan.

The crying began en masse when loved ones started telling stories of the mother and children, three of the nine victims killed in an ambush earlier this week. One surviving son recalled how Dawna could take mundane happenings and turn them into stories with a moral, even if it might mean exaggerating or bending the facts of that story a tad.

One of Dawna Langford’s 48 siblings recalled how Dawna was the oldest child in the household and helped raise the younger ones but still was ornery enough to participate in a prank in which some sisters rubbed chili powder on a brother’s underwear, and then laughed at the boy’s reaction when he pulled them on.

Trevor, 11, was remembered as the boy who could be tagged to help make breakfast for the family. And one of Rogan’s sisters remembered how the 2-year-old called his mother his favorite person.

“We love being from a big family,” Ryan Langford, another of Dawna Langford’s sons, told the crowd at Thursday’s funeral, “knowing there’s not another one on Earth like this.”

About 500 people attended two funerals Thursday for the Langford and Miller families. Many of the mourners were family from Utah and elsewhere in the United States as well as native Mexicans from the neighboring farming and ranching communities.

Some relatives drove from U.S. border crossings, where they met Mexican soldiers who escorted them on the remaining four-hour drive to La Mora. On Thursday, soldiers were posted where the roads enter La Mora.

In all, three women and six children died in the attack on the road a few miles from La Mora.

The funeral for Dawna, Trevor and Rogan Langford was held in the front yard of the house where Dawna Langford and her 13 children lived, and against the bouncing hills of northern Mexico.

Thursday’s gathering had many of the characteristics of a family reunion, with hugs, handshakes and the introduction of children who were born or grew since the last visit here. The Langford family had coffee, tamales and breakfast pastries for the guests.

Jody Ray, one of Dawna Langford’s brothers, told the crowd as he began to officiate the service that it was still tough for the family to realize Monday’s violence really happened. Ray then paraphrased what someone told him earlier and said: “It’s easier for us to bear when we have hugs.”

The attack happened Monday morning. The victims were traveling in a caravan of three SUVs. Maria Rhonita Miller, who died with four of her children, was traveling to Phoenix to pick up her husband, who works in North Dakota and was returning to celebrate the couple’s wedding anniversary.

The Miller vehicle was attacked first, with bullets igniting the fuel tank. Along with the mother, killed amid the bullets and blaze were Howard Jacob Jr., 12; Krystal Bellaine, 10; Titus Alvin Miller, 8 months; and his twin sister, Tiana Gricel.

Up the road, Christina Marie Langford Johnson, 31, and her 7-month-old daughter, Faith Marie, were in a vehicle. Dawna Ray Langford and nine of her children were in another vehicle. Gunmen fired into both of vehicles, killing the mothers and Trevor and Rogan.

At least five of the surviving children were wounded. A 13-year-old boy hid his surviving siblings in the bushes, placing branches on top of them, then walked 14 miles back to La Mora to get help.

The victims and their families belong to part of a community in La Mora that is a mix of people who worship as offshoots of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The community began as a place to practice polygamy after the mainstream church officials abandoned the practice. Residents say few people practice polygamy now, though Dawna Langford was one of David Langford’s two wives.

‘I can’t do it alone’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) David Langford speaks at the funeral for Dawna Langford and two of her children, Trevor and Rogan, in La Mora, Sonora on Thursday Nov. 7, 2019.

Jackson Langford, one of Dawna Langford’s grown stepsons, recalled through tears how every time his mother made something for dinner he didn’t like, he would go to Dawna’s house because he knew she would feed him.

“I was over there a lot,” Jackson Langford said, evoking a laugh from the audience.

If the killings didn’t spark immediate international outrage, they did so after President Donald Trump tweeted about them Tuesday and offered Mexico assistance against drug cartels, which are suspected of being behind the attack. About a dozen U.S. journalists and perhaps two dozen from Mexico covered Thursday’s services.

La Mora’s historical connections to the Salt Lake City-based LDS Church are just some of the community’s ties to the Beehive State. Many of La Mora’s residents have family and marriage ties to Utah households, including the state’s polygamous sects, but the residents of La Mora are not organized under any one church.

David Langford spoke for about 12 minutes at the end of the service. He updated the crowd on the status of the injured kids, grieved over his dead wife and children and condemned Mexican policies.

Two girls who were among the five wounded children were at the funeral Thursday. One of the girls was struck in the foot by a bullet and was on crutches.

David Langford’s son Cody remains in critical condition, the father said. He was hit by three bullets and four pieces of shrapnel. One bullet went down his mouth and hit his jaw. The jaw will have to be wired shut for six weeks.

“It’s a miracle he has survived so far,” his dad said. The rest of the injured children are recovering well.

Langford then recounted how his wife and two sons were “brutally, brutally murdered” and credited Dawna with saving lives by telling the nine children in the car to duck.

“I do not feel safe here,” David Langford said, his voice getting louder, “and I won’t. We live in the mountains. We have no access to authorities.”

Many members of the Miller and Langford families in recent days have criticized the Mexican government for not allowing citizens to possess firearms, pointing out those laws haven’t stopped the cartels from obtaining heavy firepower.

“The irony of it is: We live in a country that takes our weapons away,” David Langford said, “and we can’t even defend ourselves.”

As he delivered the closing prayer, the husband and father yelled through his sobbing to express his sorrow and his uncertainty about the future of his remaining family in La Mora.

“Help them, Father, for I am too weak. I can’t do it alone. Oh, my God!”

Crystal Langford, one of Dawna Langford’s daughters, who was in Utah at the time of the ambush, told the crowd that three of her siblings remain in the hospital. The daughter recalled how when she last saw Dawna Langford, her mother didn’t want her to go to Utah; she wanted Crystal to spend time with the family in La Mora.

When she heard about Monday’s attack, Crystal wondered if she should have stayed in La Mora; maybe she could have done something to save lives.

“And now I know that it’s all in God’s plan,” she told the mourners. “He had a bigger plan for me — that I went to Utah so I could be here now and I could help raise these seven survivors.”

Waide Ray, 12, read a message to his late cousin, Trevor Langford, recalling some of their times playing and hiking together. The visits were always too short, Waide Ray said, and there was a lot they now won’t get to do.

“We don’t know why, but God had other plans,” Waide Ray said. “We will always love you forever, Trevor. Goodbye, best friend.”

Mercy and justice

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) at the funeral for Dawna Langford and two of her children, Trevor and Rogan, in La Mora, Sonora on Thursday Nov. 7, 2019.

After the service, the caskets were loaded into the beds of three dusty pickup trucks for the quarter-mile trip to the cemetery. The crowd walked behind.

At the cemetery, David Langford helped hand the caskets to men waiting in the graves below. He then picked up a shovel. The father, his surviving sons and daughters, and his brothers-in-law began shoveling a pile of dirt the size of an SUV over the coffins.

There were four caskets at the Millers’ service (the twins shared one). Rhonita Miller’s father-in-law, Kenny Miller, who with his wife posted a video Monday of the burned car carrying his daughter-in-law and grandchildren, lamented his family didn’t even have full remains to bury.

He called all three mothers and six children who died Monday innocent, and said that even if his family grants forgiveness, the killers will still meet justice.

“In this life or the next,” he added, "mercy does not rob justice.”

Danielle LeBaron, Rhonita Miller’s friend, told stories of Howard “Howie” Miller Jr. acting like the responsible eldest child and Krystal making waffles with whipped cream and sprinkled nuts for family members, who didn’t complain about the mess she left in the kitchen after.

“Nita” Miller, as she was called, did not know she was having twins. Titus came out bottom first, Danielle LeBaron said. Tiana came next, and it took a few minutes for the doctor to get her breathing.

Danielle LeBaron relayed how Nita Miller said she knew God wouldn’t give her twins just to take one. “So God must have really needed Nita," Danielle added, “and all those babies.”

The Millers will be buried Friday in Colonia LeBaron, about a three-hour drive east of La Mora. Services and burial also are expected there and then for Christina Johnson.

Thursday’s second service ended about 5:30 p.m. The sad day’s events then concluded much like they began: Everyone was invited to a big meal in the center of La Mora.