More than eight months after nine Americans from a prominent local Mormon family were killed in northern Mexico during a deadly ambush, their family members are suing the drug cartel allegedly responsible for the “coordinated assaults.”
The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court of North Dakota Western Division last week, claims that the Juarez Cartel in Mexico “attacked” several family members of the LeBarón family because they were wealthy, vocal critics of the cartel who staged anti-cartel demonstrations. The lawsuit reveals horrific new details, including efforts by two children, including a 9-year-old girl shot in the arm, to walk miles and fend off snakes in order to find help.
The LeBarón family belongs to a Mormon offshoot group that had settled in Bavispe in the Mexican border state of Sonora more than 50 years ago. Officials said three cars packed with mothers, kids, and babies were heading to the Mexican state of Chihuahua on November 4, 2019, when they came under heavy gunfire that left the vehicles burned out and riddled with bullets. Three women and six children, including 8-month-old twins, died in the horrific attack.
The victims, many of whom had dual Mexican-American citizenship, were Christina Marie Langford, 29; Dawna Ray Langford, 43, and her two children, Trevor Langford, 11 and Rogan Langford, 2; and Rhonita LeBaron, 30, and her four children—Howard Miller Jr., 12; Krystal Miller, 10; and 8-month-old twins Titus and Tiana Miller. Eight children survived the deadly attack, including Langford's 7-month-old daughter who was found alive in a car seat about 10 hours after the attack.
“The November 4, 2019 attacks were the latest and perhaps most ruthless in the Juarez Cartel’s decades-long struggle to intimidate the civilian population and influence the Mexican government and local governments not to act,” the lawsuit states, adding that the cartel has been a terrorist force in the country since the '80s.
The lawsuit was filed by several family members, including Rhonita LeBaron’s widower, Howard Miller, and Christina Marie Langford’s widower, Tyler Edward Johnson. It seeks a minimum of $75,000 in compensation and asks the court to triple whatever damages are deemed “appropriate” from the cartel, arguing that the LeBarón family has been previously targeted by cartel violence.
“Members of the LeBarón family of Chihuahua... have been vocal, public critics of the Juarez Cartel, and they have staged anti-cartel marches and demonstrations,” the lawsuit says.
According to the lawsuit, the grisly slaughter began the morning of Nov. 4, when the three mothers and their children “formed a three-car caravan in La Mora, Sonora, Mexico for their travel to the United States and Colonia LeBaron, Chihuahua, Mexico.” That same morning, “La Linea members took control of the road” the family planned to travel on, “establishing two outposts in the hills above.”
Rhonita LeBarón and her four children were traveling back to Phoenix to pick up her husband at the airport after his month-long stay in North Dakota’s oil fields. Christina Marie Langford, the lawsuit states, was accompanying Rhonita “to the main highway” before heading to Colonia LeBaron in Chihuahua to meet her husband and five children while Dawna Ray Langford was planning to split off to attend a wedding.
The lawsuit states that soon after the three cars departed La Mora, the bearing of the front passenger wheel failed in the third car in the line-up—a black Chevrolet Suburban carrying Rhonita and her four children.
“After examining the vehicle and determining it could not be driven, Christina and Dawna helped Rhonita and her children exit the broken-down vehicle and Dawna drove Rhonita back to La Mora,” the lawsuit states, adding that Christina continued her trip to Colonia LeBaron and that the cell phone towers were not operating.
After dropping Rhonita and her children at her mother-in-law’s home in La Mora to borrow another car, the lawsuit states Dawna again attempted her journey to Chihuahua. About 20 minutes later, Dawna returned to the scene of the broken down car but drove on. The first La Linea hit team allowed her and Christina’s cars to pass, “knowing a second hit team was lying in wait further down the road,” the lawsuit claims.
Shortly after stopping at her broken-down car to pick up her belongings, Rhonita’s car “came under heavy gunfire from the first hit team.”
“For at least 10 minutes, assailants repeatedly fired automatic and belt-fed machine gun rounds into this Suburban,” the lawsuit states.
But the ambush did not immediately kill the 30-year-old mother and her four children, the lawsuit adds. Evidence shows her 12-year-old son “tried to escape the vehicle” because his car door was found open and his legs “hung outside the passenger side door.” Nearby bullet casings suggested that assailants had approached the car, it adds.
The lawsuit states that a “member of the Juarez Cartel videotaped part of the assault,” showing members as they approached the car. One hitman stated, “They’re going to finish it off dude... they’re still here,” while another said, “Shoot him, don’t trust... burn it.” Near the end of the video, another man in the background can be heard saying, “It’s in ruins now,” the lawsuit states. The car was later engulfed in flames.
About eight miles away and at approximately the same time, the cars carrying Christina and Dawna “also came under heavy gunfire.” The lawsuit states that after “taking gunfire and being shot in the hip,” Chistina exited her car with “her hands in the air to show the attackers that she was an unarmed and harmless woman.”
“The gunmen continued to fire, shooting her in the chest and murdering her,” the lawsuit states, adding that a 7-month-old was in a back seat while several bullets penetrated the car. The infant was unharmed.
Realizing her car was under fire, the lawsuit states Dawna tried to flee the scene, but her car would not restart.
“Knowing she was trapped and under unceasing attack, Dawna told her children to ‘get down right now,’” the lawsuit states, noting that seven children were in the car with her while “fifteen gunmen” continued to fire at them. Dawn and her two sons, aged 11 and 2, were killed during the attack. She was found “slouched over the steering wheel” with 13 bullet wounds.
Authorities later found over 200 shell casings at the scene of the two cars. According to the surviving children, the attackers wore masks and forced the children out of the car and onto the ground before driving off—forcing them to walk until they “couldn’t carry [the younger children] anymore.”
The oldest Langford, Devin, decided to walk for help because he had not been shot. He hid his six brothers and sisters in a bush near where the massacre happened. The 13-year-old walked about 14 miles back to La Mora, after hiding at the top of a ridge for an hour out of fear of another attack, to inform his family members of the attack and to get help for his injured siblings.
Worried her older brother would not come back, 9-year-old Mckenzie Langford, who was shot in the arm, also went to look for help with the other children but got lost before she was found hours later with a missing shoe after using it to “fend off a snake.”
“In the days following the attacks, some members of the Juarez Cartel involved in the attacks fled to the United States, demonstrating the international nature of the Juarez Cartel,” the lawsuit states. “Even after these murders, the Juarez Cartel continues to engage in repeated acts of terrorism.”
In January, Mexican prosecutors revealed seven suspects had been detained in connection to the massacre and three men had been charged with organized crime for drug offenses. It wasn’t clear if any were charged with homicide.
Fundamentalist Mormon communities in northern Mexico originated in the late 1880s and have long been unaffiliated with the mainstream church. Those communities moved to Chihuahua and Sonora to practice polygamy, which was forbidden by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They once included notable Mormon figures like Sen. Mitt Romney’s great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney. Polygamy has largely faded from the off-shoot communities.
In 1924, Alma Dayer LeBarón founded the Colonia LeBaron in the Mexican municipality of Galeana, Sonora—one of many family-run compounds created by Mormons excommunicated from the church. The mainstream church has more than 1 million members in Mexico, making it the church’s largest population outside the U.S., a church spokesperson confirmed to The Daily Beast.
While the Mormon church doesn’t recognize Colonia LeBaron, many in the community—including more than 5,000 descendants of Alma Dayer LeBarón—still consider themselves Mormons, according to The Wall Street Journal. The LeBarón family’s wealth has caught the attention of organized crime, making them targets of several tragic incidents, according to the BBC.