Massacred wives linked to polygamous cult
A group of American mothers and their six young children "murdered in cold blood" while travelling through Mexico have been linked to one of the most secretive cults in the US.
On Monday, cartel members ambushed three cars packed with women and children on a highway in northern Mexico.
The gunmen opened fire, killing mothers Rhonita Miller, 30, Dawna Langford, 43, and Christina Langford Johnson, 29, according to relatives.
The slain children have been identified as Howard Miller, 12; Trevor Langford, 11; Krystal Miller, 10; Rogan Langford, two; and eight-month-old twins, Titus and Tiana Miller.
Rhonita's burnt-out bullet-ridden SUV and the two other vehicles were reportedly found outside the town of Bavispe. Several other children were shot and injured in the attack but survived after fleeing and hiding in bushes nearby.
The victims were all US citizens who lived in La Mora, a decades-old settlement in Sonora near the US border, about 112km south of Douglas, Arizona.
News.com.au understands they were members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a polygamous sect that split from the mainstream Mormon church.
They fled to Mexico and Canada to avoid legal consequences when the practice was banned at the turn of the last century.
Willie Jessop, who is related to one of the victims, was once one of the highest profile FLDS members - with the exception of its infamous prophet turned convicted paedophile, Warren Jeffs.
The FLDS' Yearning for Zion (YFZ) polygamist ranch compound in Texas was thrust into the spotlight when it was raided by state and federal authorities in response to reports of child abuse in 2008.
In the media firestorm that followed, Mr Jessop emerged as the fiercely loyal ranch spokesman. Three years later, authorities slipped him an audiotape of Jeffs sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl in an FLDS temple.
The tape brought Mr Jessop's world crashing down and ultimately caused him to denounce Jeffs and turn his back on the sect.
"It was awful," Mr Jessop said at the time.
"Him having group sex with little girls, and it was basically just a tremendous amount of pornography.
"The way he was doing it was using religious language to cover up some horrifically gross acts."
Jeffs was convicted in August 2011 of sexually assaulting two girls he considered "spiritual wives" and is serving a life sentence in a Texas jail.
Mr Jessop today told NBC News that "everyone was in so much shock" over the massacre on Monday.
"It's just unbelievable, and there's just no way to comprehend it,' he said.
In a public Facebook post, Mr Jessop wrote that "family and friends have been murdered in Mexico".
"So terribly sickening," he continued.
In an update, he said more victims had been "confirmed shot and burned".
"All young mothers and small children," he said.
It is not yet known if the murders were the result of a targeted attack or a case of mistaken identity.
Sonora is considered a key location by the international drug trade and human trafficking network and is labelled as a "Level 3: Reconsider Travel" by the US State Department because of crime.
FAMILY'S SHOCKING HISTORY
All nine victims killed in the brutal attack were related to the LeBarón family which was involved in a run-in with a cartel 10 years ago when two members opposed to local drug trafficking groups were kidnapped and murdered.
In 2009, gunmen kidnapped Eric LeBarón, then 16, from his home in Galeana and demanded a $1 million ransom. His older brother Benjamin, then age 31 and known as Benji, led a delegation from the church community to the state capital to demand a more forceful response to the kidnapping, according to news reports at the time.
In response, the state deployed search helicopters and set up roadblocks, leading to Eric's release after eight days, the Wall Street Journal reports. Benjamin later formed a self-defence and advocacy group called SOS Chihuahua.
Two months after his brother was released, Benjamin and brother-in-law Luis Widmar were reportedly kidnapped and killed by armed men dressed as police officers. Their bodies were found on the outskirts of town near a sign indicating they had been killed by members of an organised-crime group for co-operating with authorities against them.
....monsters, the United States stands ready, willing & able to get involved and do the job quickly and effectively. The great new President of Mexico has made this a big issue, but the cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 5, 2019
MOTHER'S FINAL HEROIC ACT
In harrowing detail, relative Kendra Lee Miller wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday morning about the tragic moments the women and children were killed amid a surge of violence in the remote area.
She said Christina, Rhonita and Dawna were travelling separately in three cars with 14 children between them when they met with foul play.
"Two of them to see family in Chihuahua, and one of them to pick up her husband from the airport in Phoenix, AZ," Kendra wrote.
"They never made it.
"They were ambushed by the Mexican cartels; shot, burned, and murdered in cold blood."
Christina, Dawna and their children were travelling about 16km ahead of Rhonita and her crew when they were "fired upon from ahead," according to Kendra.
"Christina jumped out waving her arms to let the attackers know that it was women and children in the vehicles," Kendra continued. "She gave her life to try and save the rest."
But it was to no avail.
State prosecutors said Christina's body was found about 15m from her van.
Hours after Christina was gunned down, relatives discovered her infant daughter Faith - unscathed and still strapped to her seat inside the bullet-riddled car.
"They found Christina's baby Faith with the vehicle around her riddled with bullet holes. Somehow she had remained untouched, and alive," Kendra wrote. "She was in her car seat, which looked to have been hurriedly placed on the floor of the vehicle by her mother for protection."
Dawna and her two sons, Trevor, 11, and Rogan, 2, were also shot dead, while her seven other children survived by jumping out and hiding in the bushes.
Several of the survivors were later found by family members with gunshot wounds, including eight-month-old Brixon, who was shot in the chest and suffered a graze wound to the wrist, and four-year-old Xander, who was shot in the back, Kendra wrote.
Meanwhile, gunmen also opened fire on Rhonita, 30, killing her and her four children - eight-month-old twins Titus and Tiana; Howard, 12; and Krystal, 10. Their bodies were burned beyond recognition.
"It appeared that one tried to escape as the front passenger door was open and the remains were partially in and out of the vehicle," Kendra wrote in the post.
Rhonita's husband, Howard, was in North Dakota at the time of the attack, while the couple's three other children were being babysat by their grandparents, according to Kendra.
"These were innocent civilians, American citizens simply trying to live peaceful lives," she said.
'WHAT KIND OF MONSTERS HURT WOMEN AND CHILDREN?'
Sonora governor Claudia Pavlovich Arellano posted on Twitter about her determination to find the killers.
"As a mother, I feel courage, repudiation and deep pain for what cowards did in the mountains between Sonora and Chihuahua," she wrote. "I don't know what kind of monsters dare to hurt women and children. As governor, I will do everything to make sure this does not go unpunished and those responsible pay."
Manuel Añorve Baños, a Mexican senator, described the slayings as "a despicable, merciless and savage act" in a tweet, adding: "We demand justice."
In response to Monday's killings, US President Donald Trump tweeted that a "wonderful family and friends from Utah got caught between two vicious drug cartels, who were shooting at each other, with the result being many great American people killed."
Mr Trump added that the US was "ready, willing and able" to help Mexico "in cleaning out these monsters," should Mexico want assistance.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that while he had not seen Mr Trump's tweet, he was sure it was "in the spirit of co-operating … I am sure he has not been disrespectful. Every time we talk it is with that spirit of helping, which we appreciate very much."
He later added that he was against war.
"The worst thing is war … those who have lived war, suffered from war, know what that means … It is the opposite of politics, war is synonymous to irrationality, war is irrational," he said.