See more of the story

Some of the family members who were gunned down and burned to death in northern Mexico this week, apparently by drug cartel members who mistook them for rivals, were visiting for an upcoming wedding from their home in Williston, N.D., according to a relative.

The family has a ranch near the borders of the states of Sonora and Chihuahua. About 150 to 200 extended family members live there, and many others from the U.S. visit regularly, said Kenny LeBaron, 32, who owns a trucking company in Williston. LeBaron said he got updates Monday and Tuesday from relatives on the scene through WhatsApp, an encrypted messaging system.

“They’re hard to listen to but you get the whole story from them,” LeBaron said.

He said his cousin, Ronita Miller, of Williston, was on her way to the airport to pick up her husband, Howard Miller, when her vehicle was struck by gunfire from the nearby hillsides. The road she and four of her children were traveling runs along the border between the states of Chihuahua and Sonora, where rival cartels are fighting for territory.

The Millers had planned to go shopping for a wedding gift for Kendra Miller — Howard’s sister and a student at Williston State College — who was to be married this week, LeBaron said.

“Everyone thinks it was mistaken identity. We think that they were simply driving and they [saw] the vehicles coming by and one of the guys got trigger-happy. Once they started they didn’t stop and let the people go in and save the living.”

LeBaron said he hasn’t been able to speak with Howard Miller, who is in Mexico, but he sent a message saying he was hurting.

LeBaron said after the shooting, two more vehicles pulled up carrying more family members. Christina Langford Johnson, who was driving one of the vehicles, jumped out and tucked her infant baby under the seat. She tried to signal to the gunmen that she wasn’t a threat, LeBaron said, but was killed on the spot. The gunmen also killed Dawna Ray Langford, who drove the second vehicle. The gunmen moved the two vehicles to another location with some of the wounded children inside. Then they kicked them out and drove away, LeBaron said.

The eldest child covered the younger ones in bushes and hid them, “then he ran for everything he was worth the 5 miles back to town,” LeBaron said. Family members, local residents and police made several efforts to rescue the children but came under fire. Several people were shot in the process, LeBaron said. Finally, the Mexican military joined the rescue effort and they were able to extract the wounded children, he said.

They found the Johnson baby alive, still hidden beneath the car seat.

“Everyone feels real grateful that they decided to rush up the hill because that was a life they didn’t know was up there,” LeBaron said.

LeBaron, who lives in Killdeer, N.D., said he has about 200 family members in North Dakota and many others in Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana.

The family descended from Ervil Morrell LeBaron, who led a controversial polygamous offshoot of the Mormon faith. He died in prison in 1981 while serving a life sentence for killing an opponent. In 2009, the family got into a running dispute with the Mexican drug cartels. In a strikingly similar incident, three women and six children were fatally shot and burned in three vehicles as they traveled on a road between Chihuahua and Sonora that year.

“This is by far the most hideous thing that’s ever happened,” LeBaron said of the recent attack. “It’s hard, especially because it was all women and children.”

Unfortunately, he said, such attacks are common in Mexico and the government won’t do anything about it “because it’s corrupt.”

“We’re not able to really protect ourselves down there. The Army and police, most of them are paid off by the cartels,” said LeBaron, who like many family members has dual citizenship.

LeBaron thanked President Donald Trump for his tweets supporting the family. He said he hopes that the Trump Administration will tell Mexico that if doesn’t protect the family, the U.S. will do so.