Families plan to move out of Mormon community in Mexico, but for some it won’t be easy to leave

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The childrens' caskets and photgraphs on display following the funeral for Maria Rhonita Miller and four of her children in La Mora, Sonora on Thursday Nov. 7, 2019. The children are Howard Jacob Jr., 12; Krystal Bellaine, 10; Titus Alvin Miller, 8 months; and his twin sister, Tiana Gricel.

La Mora, Mexico • Sitting at his mother’s kitchen table, slicing and tearing open a pomegranate grown in one of the orchards here, Ben Langford said he was done with La Mora and Mexico.

“If I can sell, I’ll sell,” Langford said of his house and ranch. “As of right now, half the families are moving out of here.”

A few hours earlier, Langford had helped shovel dirt onto the graves of his sister-in-law, Dawna Langford, and two of her sons, 11-year-old Trevor and 2-year-old Rogan. They died in the shootings Monday that killed three mothers and six children.

No one is sure what will come of La Mora after the ambush, suspected of being perpetrated by a drug cartel, but everyone agrees the place has changed. The people who grew up here tell of a childhood of romping in the brown desert hills that surround the valley, of fishing and swimming in the river that runs past the homes, and of helping their families raise the crops or cattle that thrive nearby.

Now, they talk about their fears.

“I do not feel safe here and I won’t,” David Langford, the husband to Dawna Langford and father to Trevor and Rogan, said Thursday at the closing remarks to their funeral.

Later Thursday, Joe Darger, a polygamist from Herriman, Utah, who attended Thursday’s services, tweeted that Dawna Langford’s family members planned to relocate, though they didn’t know where yet.

Not only are resident families leaving, but also relatives who often visit plan to stay away.

“I literally don’t know what will happen,” Melanie Langford, another relative to some of the deceased, said at a community steak and chicken fry served after the funerals, “but I’m not coming back until I know it’s safe.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pallbearers carry the remains of four children who died with their mother Maria Rhonita Miller, following their funeral in La Mora, Sonora on Thursday Nov. 7, 2019. Howard Jacob Jr., 12; Krystal Bellaine, 10; Titus Alvin Miller, 8 months; and his twin sister, Tiana Gricel.

She lived in La Mora for two years and now lives in Williston, N.D., with her husband and three children. A few steps away, Jeff Jessop, 19, of Hildale, Utah, was even more assertive. In July, Jessop married one of David Langford’s daughters in the same yard where the father offered the benediction at the funeral for his wife and two sons.

“We’re never coming back here again,” Jessop said. “This is the biggest gathering there will ever be here again.”

Jessop’s blunt prediction came with much lamentation. After all, he expects to have children who someday will want to know where their mother came from, he said, and he won’t take them there.

Religious refugees

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Volumes of Journal of Discourses, collected sermons by early leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a home in La Mora, Sonora, on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019.

La Mora, a community with about 150 permanent residents, is relatively young — about 60 years old. But it traces its history to what happened in Utah and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints more than a century ago.

Some residents and their friends raise that history in explaining what is happening now and why the community might not persevere through the perils posed by warring drug cartels.

Most of La Mora’s residents are so-called fundamentalist Mormons who emphasize the original teachings of church founder Joseph Smith. A handful, including David Langford (Dawna was his second wife), still practice polygamy. Others still believe in it. After the mainstream LDS Church officially abandoned polygamy in 1890, some members migrated to Mexico to continue plural marriage.

Utah has made polygamy a felony, a fact pointed out by Enoch Foster, who lives with his three wives at Rockland Ranch in southeastern Utah and has family ties to La Mora. He described the residents of La Mora and nearby Colonia LeBaron in Chihuahua as examples of people who had to flee to practice their religion.

“The fundamentalists in Mexico shouldn’t even have to be there,” Foster said in a phone interview.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) As they prepare to depart for another funeral, relatives of Dawna Langford pose for a photo in La Mora, Sonora, on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019.

Back at the kitchen table in La Mora, Marilyn Langford, Ben’s mother, argues that the cartels appear to have killed the nine women and children in some effort to secure territory and ultimately money.

“They aren’t driving us out [for our religion] yet,” she said.

Ben Langford responded that the current danger appears to be more like what happened to residents in northern Mexico — including Latter-day Saint polygamists who back then were still in good standing with the Salt Lake City-based church — during the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century. The political bloodshed pushed many back into the southwestern United States for a time.

Now, he said, “drug cartels are threatening violence.”

The choice: Stay or go

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Following two funerals in a single day, people gather for food and a feeling of community in La Mora, Sonora on Thursday Nov. 7, 2019.

La Mora’s full-time residents live in modern, often large homes and are far more affluent than the average Mexican. The community has a presidente — the equivalent of a mayor — but little other municipal infrastructure. There are livestock ranches, orchards and alfalfa fields but few businesses.

Almost everyone born here has citizenship in Mexico and the United States. Most of the people who call La Mora home work in the U.S., at least for a few years. Ben Langford, his wife and their 11 children, the youngest of whom was born two weeks ago, live most of the year in Gilbert, Ariz., where he works in construction framing.

Melanie Langford’s husband works for one of two oil field service companies founded by families from La Mora in Williston, N.D. Fathers, mothers, children, siblings and cousins from La Mora and Colonia LeBaron labor together in Williston hauling the oil and delivering the supplies and services that help power North Dakota’s energy economy.

For residents with careers in the United States, it will be easier to leave La Mora and never return, Ben Langford said. He estimated his home and ranch here are each worth $200,000 — or they were until Monday.

That’s not enough to keep him in Mexico.

His brother David Langford is an example of someone who might have more to lose financially. Ben said his brother has “millions” of U.S. dollars invested in pecan orchards around La Mora.

Another factor might also make it possible for La Mora residents to bolt. Unlike in Colonia LeBaron, few La Mora residents have married local Mexicans, said Jacob LeBaron, a brother to Dawna Langford. Virtually all of La Mora’s marriages have been to other U.S. citizens in Mexico or to fundamentalist Mormons in the United States.

“When you do intermarry or permit it, that becomes a bond with your neighbors,” said LeBaron, who married a local Mexican. “They become part of them and they become part of you.”

The battle over guns

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A family convoy carrying victims' remains passes the site where two vehicles were attacked by gunman, killing Dawna Ray Langford and Christina Marie Langford, along with two of Dawna's children (Trevor, 11, and Rogan, 3) near La Mora, Sonora, on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019.

Langford family members also have expressed hope that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador will accept an offer from U.S. President Donald Trump to fight the cartels. La Mora residents — a number of them Trump supporters — are frustrated with the Mexican government for not reducing the violence in the country and for refusing to allow citizens to possess firearms like Americans can.

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

Mike Hafen, another of Ben and David Langford’s brothers, pointed out there have been other slaughters in Mexico that haven’t received the attention the news media in both countries have given the slaying of nine U.S. citizens.

“If this had happened to a Mexican family,” Hafen said, “nobody would have heard a thing.”

Around the table, Hafen and Ben and Marilyn Langford also talked about how brutal Monday’s murders were. They discussed the tactics the killers might have used to wipe out the people in one car, and then the second and third, and what they heard the bullets had done to the bodies.

They noted how it appeared that it wasn’t bullets that sparked the fire that consumed the SUV Rhonita Miller was driving with four of her children, 12-year-old Howard “Howie” Miller Jr., 10-year-old Krystal and 8-month old twins Titus and Tiana. The killers likely ignited the fire deliberately.

They were sure the gunmen knew they were firing on women and children in the other two cars — one carrying Dawna Langford and nine of her 13 children and a second one carrying Christina Marie Langford Johnson, who also perished in the attack, and her 7-month-old daughter, Faith Marie, who survived.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A convoy carries the remains of the Miller children, who were killed by gunman, to a funeral in Colonia LeBaron, Chihuahua, on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. The Miller children are Howard Jacob Jr., 12; Krystal Bellaine, 10; Titus Alvin Miller, 8 months; and his twin sister, Tiana Gricel.

Even leaving La Mora evokes memories of what happened. As members of a caravan with a police and military escort left Friday to travel to Colonia LeBaron, they passed the crime scenes where the massacre happened.

At the bottom of one canyon road, those traveling in trucks in the back of the caravan looked up. They wondered — and worried — about the men standing on the ridge. Who were they? They turned out to be news photographers who had stopped to photograph from the spot where gunmen fired on Dawna Langford and Christina Johnson’s SUVs.