HERRIMAN, UT – The three women who were gunned down with six of their children in northern Mexico by suspected drug cartel members were remembered Tuesday as good people who loved their families and enjoyed quiet lives centered around a successful pecan farming operation south of the U.S. border.
Austin Cloes, a Utah relative of the victims, said during an interview at his home in a Salt Lake City suburb that he saw all the victims at a family reunion in Mexico last summer, where they played basketball and spent time together.
"These sorts of people shouldn't just be buried without their names being put out there," Cloes said. "These are great people. These are U.S. citizens."
Cloes knew Dawna Langford, 43, the best and called her a loving and caring woman who was proud of her children. He choked up talking about hearing reports that another victim, Christina Langford, might have saved her baby Faith's life by placing her on the car floor.
Cloes said the members of his extended family did not follow the doctrine of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints he follows, but they were religious and believed in Jesus Christ.
Cloes said none of the family members he knows practice polygamy, even though the tiny community in La Mora in Sonora, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of Douglas, Arizona, was founded long ago by people who left the mainstream church in the U.S. to escape its 19th century ban on the practice.
A number of similar American farming communities are clustered around the Chihuahua-Sonora state border with many members born in Mexico, giving them dual citizenship with the United States.
Many members of the La Mora community don't live in the hamlet full time, with a lot of the men traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico to work, said Aaron Staddon, whose wife, Leah, grew up there.
In those days, La Mora was so isolated his wife didn't have to learn Spanish, Staddon said.
"My wife loved it, my kids love it," said Staddon, who now lives with his wife and children in the Phoenix suburb of Queen Creek, Arizona. "We go down there because they can go out and just run and be kids."
Staddon said he and his wife had even planned to take their children there for Thanksgiving despite growing concerns about safety by some relatives looking into buying land in Arizona.
The rule of thumb was "travel during the day, nothing will happen," Staddon said. "Travel in a group, nothing will happen."
Taylor Langford, who splits his time between the Mexican community and his home in the Salt Lake City suburb of Herriman, Utah, said the three women killed were his aunt and two cousins.
His father and uncle, who were both in Mexico when the attack took place, told him each woman was driving a separate car when they were ambushed on a quiet dirt road they often traveled without problems.
He said Rhonita Miller, and her four children, including 8-month-old twins, were traveling about 10 miles (6 kilometers) behind the other vehicles when their car was struck by gunfire and engulfed in flames.
The gunmen then attacked the other cars, one carrying Christina Langford and her baby and the other carrying Dawna Langford and nine children. He said several children survived, including a 9-year-old girl who was shot in the arm and found hours later.
Miller's father, Adrian LeBaron, said in a brief telephone conversation from Sonora state that the family had requested help from the Mexican government but had not yet heard back. He spoke during a break providing information to authorities at the medical examiner's office.
"She was fired at, all shot up, burned," LeBaron said of his daughter.
Miller and her children were remembered fondly Tuesday in North Dakota, where they had previously lived.
State Sen. Jordan Kannianen said Miller had attended the Sunday school class he taught in Stanley. He said she was kind and "very earnest about her faith."
The Miller and Kannianen children had also attended Sunday school together, the senator said.
He said Miller, her husband and their two older children left North Dakota before the twins were born earlier this year.
Kannianen's wife, Elizabeth, said she cannot bring herself to tell her own children about what happened.
"I haven't told our kids about it," she said. "I fear it's too much."
Snow contributed from Phoenix. James MacPherson in Bismarck, North Dakota, Rosa Ramirez in Washington and Astrid Galvan in Queen Creek, Arizona, also contributed to this report.