Video of killings of U.S. citizens in Mexico shows gunmen poised to torch SUV, says relative

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A convoy carrying the victims' remains passes the site where Maria Rhonita Miller and four of her children were killed by gunmen, with their car set ablaze, near La Mora, Sonora. Friday, Nov. 8, 2019.

The brother of one of the nine U.S. citizens with Utah ties killed in Mexico earlier this month says a video shows the moments between when gunmen fired on the victims’ first SUV and when they lit it on fire.

Adam Langford said the Mexican national police obtained the video, and one person with that force showed it to him. Langford, in a telephone interview Wednesday, said the video appears to be from a cellphone, lasts less than a minute and was taken from a hill overlooking the SUV that carried Maria Rhonita Miller and four of her children on Nov. 4.

The video, apparently recorded by one of the captured suspects, does not depict any gunfire or the blaze that engulfed the SUV, Langford said. But 12 to 15 men can be seen.

“They’re all in black,” Langford said, “all with assault rifles going toward the vehicles, toward their prey, toward [whom] they killed. At the end, the guy says, the jefe [head] guy says, ‘Burn it! Burn it! Burn it! Quémalo’ in Spanish.”

(Courtesy Miller and Langford families) This illustration shows five of the victims killed in the Nov. 5, 2019, attacks in Mexico against U.S. citizens from La Mora, Sonora, Howard Jacob Miller Jr., 12; his mother, Marie Rhonita Miller, 30; her 8-month-old twins, Titus and Tiana Miller; and her 10-year-old daughter, Krystal Miller.

Miller, 30, died in the shooting and fire, as did her 12-year-old son, Howard, 10-year-old daughter, Krystal, and her 8-month-old twins, Titus and Tiana.

While the video doesn’t show the violence, the dialogue affirms suspicions of the victims’ families, who suspected the Miller SUV was intentionally ignited; that bullets didn’t spark the blaze.

The Millers were the first victims that day. About 10 miles up the road, gunman fired upon two other SUVs. In one of those vehicles, gunfire killed Dawna Langford, 43, and two of her sons, 11-year-old Trevor and 2-year-old Rogan.

Christina Marie Langford Johnson, 31, died in the other vehicle. She was the sister of Adam Langford. He also is the former presidente (the equivalent of the mayor) in La Mora, Sonora, where the victims lived.

La Mora’s residents — most of whom reportedly have now fled the town — can trace their roots to the late 19th and early 20th century, when members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints went to Mexico to continue the practice of polygamy. The Utah-based faith abandoned polygamy more than a century ago and now excommunicates members found practicing it.

The families in La Mora have maintained U.S. citizenship, and many households have relatives who married into so-called fundamentalist Mormon groups in Utah.

Adam Langford said he and a Miller relative were at the crime scene Nov. 11 with investigators from the Mexican national police and the FBI, which is assisting in the investigation. Someone Adam Langford believes works for the national police pulled him and the Miller relative aside and showed him the video. Adam Langford said the FBI was given a copy of it.

Adam Langford said he assumes the video was obtained from one of the suspects Mexican authorities say they have arrested. No other details about the capture have been disclosed.

The video did not answer any questions about why the women and children were targeted, Adam Langford said, but did demonstrate who was behind the killings — a cartel from the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The attacks happened on the line between that state and Sonora.

The evidence shows the Chihuahua cartel hiked into positions on the Sonora side to carry out the ambushes, Adam Langord said. While the shooters occupied high ground above the dirt road between La Mora and the town of Pancho Villa, they were not so far away that they couldn’t have known whom they were shooting.

“They knew it was the women and children,” Adam Langford said. “They don’t give a sh--.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mexican military escorts family members of those slain in a recent attack in Sonora through the area as they make their way to funerals on Wednesday, November 6, 2019.

He assumes the Chihuahua cartel was trying to scare or drive away residents to gain ground against Sonora’s Sinaloa cartel. That organization is best known for who once led it: Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

Despite the Sinaloa cartel’s violent reputation, Adam Langford said, it has never extorted locals for protection payments and doesn’t steal from them.

The Chihuahua cartel may see those omissions as opportunities, he said.

“It’s literally like two countries going to war,” Adam Langford said, “and they want to invade to get more territory. It’s not that they have anything against us. If it was some poor Mexican family, they would have done the same thing.”

Adam Langford is also a cousin to Dawna Langford’s husband, David. She was traveling with nine of her 13 children. Five of them were injured in the shooting.

Eight-year-old Cody was the last to be released from a hospital, on Saturday, in Tucson, Ariz. His aunt Leah Staddon said David Langford plans to keep his family in Tucson for at least a few months for follow-up treatment and physical therapy.

Then David Langford might move his family to southern Utah, Staddon said. One of his adult daughters this summer married a young man from Hildale, Utah.

Before the shootings, La Mora had about 150 full-time residents and other people who came and went between jobs in the United States.

On Wednesday, Adam Langford said, only four or five families remained.