Commentary: A Tribune reporter’s account of covering the killings of U.S. citizens in Mexico

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) A military patrol prior to the the funeral for Dawna Langford and two of her children, Trevor and Rogan, in La Mora, Sonora on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019.

Editor’s noteSalt Lake Tribune polygamy reporter Nate Carlisle is co-teaching an investigative reporting course at the University of Utah this semester. Earlier this month, he and photographer Trent Nelson traveled to La Mora, Mexico, to report on the killings of nine U.S. citizens with family and religious ties to Utah. Carlisle wrote this guide for his students, but it can be instructive for Tribune readers as well.

• Why go to Mexico? The Salt Lake Tribune subscribes to wire services that have reporters in Mexico and produce reliable journalism, but we couldn’t be sure those stories would cover — or focus on — issues important to our readers.

There’s also The Tribune brand to consider. The killings may have happened in Sonora, but they were local news in Utah, given that many of the residents there have family and faith ties to the state. Plus, the funerals became a gathering for a swath of people we never would have met otherwise. I left Mexico with a notebook of people and phone numbers for future stories about the victims, their families and other topics related to polygamy and fundamentalist Mormonism.

• When did we decide to go to Mexico? A few minutes before we crossed the border.

(Tribune file photo) Salt Lake Tribune photographer Trent Nelson, left, and reporter Nate Carlisle on Nov. 8, 2019, in La Mora, Mexico.

Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce gave Nelson and me the go-ahead on the afternoon of Nov. 5 to fly to Tucson, Ariz., where the injured children were recuperating. We took our passports with us, but we had no expectation of going to Mexico.

The next day we learned David Langford, husband of one of the women and two of the children killed, was traveling in a caravan from Tucson to the border crossing at Douglas, Ariz., and then to La Mora. Once in Mexico, the caravan was supposed to be under the guard of that country’s military.

Nelson and I had not thought to rent a car whose owner would allow us to drive it to Mexico, nor one that could navigate the bumpy, dirt roads leading to La Mora, and we couldn’t find any such vehicle on short notice. So we drove to the rally point in Douglas, hoping to hitch a ride in the caravan.

We found a couple from Motoqua, Utah, who had empty seats in their four-door Ford F-150. Nelson and I offered to pay for their gasoline and to put their box of 9 mm bullets in the trunk of our car for safekeeping. (Mexico does not allow Americans to bring firearms into the country in most circumstances. No, I don’t know where the pistol was.)

But before committing completely, Nelson and I asked our would-be drivers about safety on the road to La Mora. The consensus among the people traveling in the caravan was there was some amount of risk, but the Mexican government had promised protection through the funerals, and it wouldn’t make sense for the drug cartel suspected of the slaughter to draw further scorn by attacking mourners.

Hearing that, and with one more OK from our editors and our wives, Nelson and I left our rental car locked up in a Walmart parking lot and decided to go to La Mora, albeit it with an option to jump off the truck in Agua Prieta, Sonora, just across the border from Douglas, if the military didn’t show up. From there, we could walk back into the U.S.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) A convoy of family members makes its way to La Mora, Sonora, with an escort of vehicles from the federal police and Mexican military on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019.

The soldiers were where we were told they would be. Over the next five hours, up and down winding, dusty roads — with soldiers carrying rifles a few trucks away — we had a nice visit with our benefactors from Motoqua.

[View a gallery of Nelson’s photographs from Mexico.]

• Where did you eat and sleep? La Mora, with about 150 full-time residents, has no motels or restaurants. So we, like other journalists, relied on the hospitality of strangers. The families, it turned out, were welcoming reporters to cover the funerals. Langford assured us in Douglas that there would be plenty to eat and someplace to sleep. Just in case, I stuffed all the granola bars Nelson brought into my backpack, and I ran into a store and bought two foam sleeping pads and four gallons of drinking water.

Once in La Mora, Nelson and I were directed to a house on a hill behind some pomegranate orchards that had been open to journalists. We arrived there with Arizona Republic reporter Rafael Carranza and photographer Nick Oza, who had found seats in the caravan, too. Kevin Sieff, The Washington Post’s Latin America correspondent, was sitting on a sectional typing on a laptop when we walked inside. Journalists from Mexican television networks were in bedrooms down the hall.

Bedding was at a premium. Nelson spent two nights on the other side of that sectional where we found Sieff. I discovered a narrow staircase leading to a carpeted playroom. I pushed wooden building blocks and other toys into one corner of the room and rolled out my new foam pad. When I went to sleep that night, I laid my head on a change of clothes I had in my backpack.

We ate among the families at community meals served at Langford’s house and another home a few doors down.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Two boys are coated in dust as dirt is shoveled after the funeral for Dawna Langford and two of her children, Trevor and Rogan, in La Mora, Sonora, on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019.

• How did you cover the funerals? On Thursday, La Mora had services for both Dawna Langford and two of her sons, 11-year-old Trevor and 2-year-old Rogan; and then for Maria Rhonita Miller and four of her children, 12-year-old Howard “Howie” Miller Jr, 10-year-old Krystal and 8-month-old twins Titus and Tiana.

There was slow but functional Wi-Fi in the house where reporters stayed and outside one other home where some of the meals were served. About 30 minutes before the first funeral, I sent the newsroom what we call “a boiler.” It was an article to put on sltrib.com saying the first funeral was about to start, followed by background explaining what had happened three days earlier.

Organizers asked all news photographers to stay in an area perpendicular to the caskets. Print reporters were free to sit among the mourners. During the Langford funeral, I wound up next to some of Dawna Langford’s sisters and brothers-in-law. About midway through the service for the Langfords, it was lunchtime and mourners started passing one another the tamales that had been made for everyone. Someone handed me a delicious shredded pork tamale.

Otherwise, I spent the Langford funeral taking notes and writing the first draft of my article. From the viewing of the bodies to the burials, the services for the Langfords lasted about five hours. I ducked out at the three-hour mark to send the first draft.

The Tribune is in a news partnership with FOX 13. Just before the service started, producers there asked me to shoot some video with my smartphone and send it to them. Transmitting that video was a chore for the Wi-Fi, and I missed some of the services watching a blue line slowly move left to right across my phone screen showing the progress of the upload. Still, I managed to catch the important moments of the Langford and Miller services.

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

The work didn’t necessarily stop after the services. That night, around the sounds and smells of grilling chicken and steaks and over coolers full of ice and Tecate beer, I visited with a lot of people with ties to La Mora. Much of the discussion was casual conversation. But when someone said something about the future of La Mora — or lack thereof, in some views — I asked if they were willing to be quoted. Some were; some weren’t. Those who agreed became part of the story I wrote for Sunday’s newspaper while traveling on a bus the next day.

• Did anyone try to limit or influence the coverage? Before we left Douglas, some of David Langford’s family members expressed concern I was going to La Mora to focus on polygamy. I assured them I was going to write about the deaths of nine people and the effects it was having on the population; polygamy would be mentioned only in a historical context. I was also asked not to seek out the immediate family of the deceased for interviews.

I encountered a lot of people bothered by articles in other media that confused the La Mora residents with polygamous or fundamentalist Mormon groups elsewhere, something I had noticed even before I left Utah. I countered this by explaining what I write about at The Tribune and how I understood their origins and I was committed to explaining those origins correctly to readers.

• How did you get home? The plan to return to the United States was pretty much like the plan to go to Mexico — ask for a ride, a safe ride.

A map of our journey in Mexico. Google Maps can't even identify La Mora or the dirt road to Janos via Pancho Villa.

The Millers were to be buried in Colonia LeBaron, about a three-hour drive east of La Mora. Christina Johnson was to have her service and burial in Colonia LeBaron, and many of the people we met planned to go there Friday under the protection of another military escort.

Nelson and I did not want to go to Colonia LeBaron. We felt we pushed our luck getting as far as La Mora and didn’t want to impose on grieving families any longer. The wires could cover the other funeral. I also had that Sunday story to write.

Besides, Nelson and I worried our rental car had been towed from the store parking lot where we’d left it.

So we found a nephew of Dawna Langford who planned to follow the caravan as far as Janos, Chihuahua, then turn west and return to the United States through Douglas. He agreed to take us with him. (I never met the children whose playroom I slept in, but I wrote them a thank-you note and left it on top of their wooden blocks.)

We arrived at a burrito stand in Janos, where our driver and his family decided to stop for one more meal together before saying goodbye. The nephew then decided he wasn’t ready to leave Mexico; he wanted to spend more time with his family. He offered to take us to Colonia LeBaron with him.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) 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.

This led to some polite but awkward conversations in which Nelson and I didn’t want to keep our driver from his family, but we also didn’t want to go to Colonia LeBaron. Someone realized there was a commercial bus service in Janos that could take us to the border. While I waited for my bean and chile rojo burritos to arrive, our driver sped to the bus depot to look at the schedule. A few minutes later, he returned to tell us our bus left in 10 minutes.

It was more like 30 minutes, but being early was a good thing. Neither Nelson nor I speak Spanish, and it took a few minutes to buy tickets from the clerk. We had about a 2½-hour bus ride through terrain that looked somewhat like Interstate 15 in Utah from Scipio to Cove Fort — rural, brown and relatively flat but with mountains always in sight.

Our stop was in Agua Prieta. In a scene Nelson later compared to the final minutes of the movie “Blackhawk Down,” our trip to a foreign territory that had recently proved dangerous ended with a brisk mile walk from the bus depot to the border crossing. We showed the U.S. agent our passports, answered a couple of questions about where we were going and where we had been, and were across the border in a minute.

Once in Douglas, we had another half-mile walk to the car. There it was; still in the store parking lot.

We drove back to Tucson that night, sent our editors our last story and photos, and flew back to Salt Lake City the next day. We left the ammunition at the front desk of our motel in Tucson for folks who drove us to La Mora to pick up on their way back to Utah.