An attack that killed three mothers and six children reverberated from Mexico to Utah to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday with mourning, vows to find the killers and political implications in two neighboring nations.
Video posted online by family members early Tuesday showed what was described as a helicopter flying five children to Douglas, Ariz., from La Mora, Mexico, for medical treatment. Lafe Langford Jr., a relative of some of the victims, said three children in Monday’s attack suffered gunshot wounds.
Also Tuesday, President Donald Trump referenced the attack and offered help to the Mexican government.
“A wonderful family and friends from Utah got caught between two vicious drug cartels,” Trump tweeted, “who were shooting at each other, with the result being many great American people killed, including young children, and some missing. If Mexico needs or requests help in cleaning out these monsters, the United States stands ready, willing & able to get involved and do the job quickly and effectively.”
There’s no indication the families are actually from Utah. They belong to part of a community in La Mora, in the Mexican state of Sonora, that is a mix of people who worship as a polygamous offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The community has many Utah ties, however. It can trace its roots to when the mainstream, Salt Lake City-based church abandoned polygamy more than a century ago. 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.
The deputy White House Press secretary issued a statement later Tuesday.
“Today, President Donald J. Trump spoke with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to discuss the recent violence in Mexico and efforts to combat the growing violent behavior of cartels and criminal groups in the region.
“President Trump made clear that the United States condemns these senseless acts of violence that took the lives of nine American citizens and offered Mexico assistance to ensure the perpetrators face justice. The two leaders also discussed ongoing border cooperation and the strong bilateral ties between the United States and Mexico.”
Mexico’s foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, said López Obrador phoned Trump to express condolences at the slayings.
Ebrard says the Mexican leader expressed “thanks for the offer of help, if Mexico needs some sort of help.” And he said Trump “reiterated confidence” in Mexican authorities “to apply justice.”
Sen. Mitt Romney said Tuesday he has been briefed on the slayings in northern Mexico and called it “a great tragedy” and something “really unthinkable.”
The Utah Republican said the attack was probably "associated with the business of the cartels" rather than a targeted strike against the U.S.-affiliated religious community.
He agreed with Trump that "Mexico has to really knuckle down and go after some of these cartels and stop this escalating level of violence."
The victims are members of a faction that long ago broke away from the mainstream Salt Lake City-based church. Some have family ties in Utah.
Romney's own father was born in northern Mexico. He said he doesn't know any of the people involved.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a news release saying it was “heartbroken” at the deaths.
“Though it is our understanding that they are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” the statement said, “our love, prayers and sympathies are with them as they mourn and remember their loved ones.”
Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, said the U.S. State Department confirmed all nine people killed were U.S. citizens and that U.S. diplomats in Mexico are offering assistance to the survivors.
“It’s outrageous,” McAdams said, “that mothers and children cannot drive in the area without being gunned down by these violent criminals.”
The victims of the attack 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, said her cousin, Kenny LeBarón.
There was conflicting information Tuesday about how the attack occurred. LeBarón said Miller’s car broke down, and the gunmen “opened fire on Rhonita and torched her car.”
Mexican Security Secretary Alfonso Durazo said Tuesday the gunmen may have mistaken the group's large SUVs for rival gangs.
A description of the attacks published by the deceased’s family suggests the gunmen knew whom they were shooting.
A Facebook post by Kendra Miller, on behalf of the victims, said the gunmen “ambushed” Maria Rhonita Miller’s SUV, with the gunfire setting the car on fire. 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.
Ten miles up the road, the post said, 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.
Kendra Miller’s post said the gunmen fired into the front of the two vehicles.
“Christina jumped out waving her arms to let the attackers know that it was women and children in the vehicles,” the post said. “She gave her life to try and save the rest. Dawna and two of her boys were also killed in the gunfire.”
The dead boys were identified as 11-year-old Trevor Harvey Langford and 2-year-old Rogan Jay Langford.
Early reports said Faith Marie was killed, too, but she was later found in her car seat on the floor of her mother’s car. It appeared Johnson placed her there to protect her, the Facebook post said.
Seven children survived. The Facebook post said 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.
A 9-month-old boy was shot in the chest but survived, the post said, as did a 4-year-old shot in the back, an 8-year-old shot in the jaw and leg and a 14-year-old shot in the foot.
The Associated Press and The New York Times contributed to this report.