LA MORA, Mexico — Funeral services were held Thursday for two of the women and six of the children ambushed and killed by cartel members in a remote mountainous region in Sonora.
In the first of two funerals, family members and friends of Dawna Langford, 43, and her two children, Trevor Langford, 11, and Rogan Langford, 2, honored their memory during an emotional service in the close-knit community of La Mora. Hundreds of people from the U.S. and Mexico showed up, packing row after row of seats set up in Langford’s front yard.
Family members carried the three wooden caskets out from the house to the front yard, with the smallest casket for 2-year-old Rogan coming out last. For more than 30 minutes, relatives paid their respects before the service began. Several of Langford’s 13 children shared memories of their mother and two siblings killed in Monday’s attack.
They described Langford as a caring mother who loved her coffee. Trevor and Rogan were recalled as “two beautiful boys.”
Bryce Langford, the second oldest of her children, said he felt helpless when he heard about the ambush. He was in North Dakota at the time, more than 1,500 miles away. Even before hearing any news on whether his family was OK, he got in his truck and began driving, praying to God to protect the family.
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“God didn’t answer my prayers that day. He took my mother and my two little brothers,” he said.
But the fact that seven of his other siblings survived that day is truly a miracle, he said.
“And I will always be grateful to God for that,” he added.
Four of his surviving siblings attended the funeral service, including two girls who had been transported to Tucson’s Banner University Medical Center for treatment after the attack. The girls were released from the hospital Wednesday and were able to travel to Mexico with their father.
Three of Dawna Langford’s youngest children continue to recover at UMC from wounds they sustained in the ambush. Xander, 4, is was shot in the back, while 4-month-old Brixton was shot to the chest. Both are in stable condition and “are doing well,” one relative said.
Their 8-year-old brother, Cody, was shot in the jaw and leg. He underwent surgery on Wednesday and is expected to have several other procedures to reconstruct his jaw, according to the family.
Crystal Langford, 17, the fourth oldest of the 13 siblings, described the guilt she felt because her mother initially did not want her to move from La Mora to Utah. If she had stayed, she could have been there for her brothers and sisters following Monday’s attack, he said.
“Now I know that it’s all in God’s plan, and he has a bigger plan for me,” she said. “So I could be there for his seven little survivors, and I could help raise them like my momma would.”
All three will be buried in La Mora following Thursday’s services.
A total of nine people — three women and six children — were killed in the ambush as they traveled near the Sonora-Chihuahua border where cartels have been fighting a turf war.
Langford’s husband of nearly 25 years, David Langford, concluded the funeral services saying his wife had died as a hero during Monday’s ambush. He shared additional details about how some of the last moments of her wife’s life were entirely focused on their children.
“When the bastards are firing on my children, she told them to get down to the floor,” he said. “And if you look back at the car, every one of them would’ve been dead if she didn’t tell them to act so quickly. Meanwhile, she risked her life and took a bullet in the head.”
Following the Langford service, attendees followed a procession to the community’s burial plot, located on the northern edge of La Mora. Three trucks carried each casket and hundreds of people followed.
At the burial plot, the three caskets were sealed and lowered into a large rectangular hole that family members had dug Thursday morning.
Surrounded by other relatives, several men began to cover them with shovelfuls of dirt.
At the same time, other family members and relatives scoured the nearby hill for large rocks and boulders, carrying them to the site of the burial where they will be used to create the tomb.
The second funeral service in La Mora began at 4 p.m., a short time after family members and relatives had finished burying Langford and her two children. Because the women were related, the attendees at the service for Rhonita Miller, 30, also had attended the earlier one.
One by one, family members eulogized Miller, whom they affectionately called “Nita,” as well as her four children, who also were killed in Monday’s ambush: Howard, 12, Krystal, 10, and eight-month-old twins Titus and Tiana.
Miller’s father, Adrian LeBaron, said that despite the tragic circumstances surrounding their sudden deaths, the families of all three women should seek strength.
“What happened here should be an example to all of Mexico, to each place and each town, that they cannot defeat us,” he said.
Father-in-law Kenneth Miller Sr. — grandfather to the four children — described Miller as “always bubbly.”
He said that during Langford’s service earlier, a thought popped into his head that he couldn’t shake off.
“They had some bodies that they can dress and touch, that’s a blessing. I wouldn’t never thought of that,” he said.
As Miller traveled with her children on Monday, gunmen shot at them and caused their vehicle to explode with their bodies still inside. The family had four caskets at the funeral service, but they lamented that all they have left to bury are their incinerated remains.
The Miller family said they will transport their remains on Friday morning to neighboring Chihuahua to be buried.
Sonora Gov. Claudia Pavlovich made a brief appearance at the first funeral service. She arrived by helicopter at about 9 a.m. and spent time with the family. Before leaving, she talked about the help her government is providing the families involved in Monday’s ambush, including mental health support for the survivors.
“After such a loss like this one, I think the best support I can provide is that we bring them justice, working jointly with all levels of government, of course, given the brutality and cowardice of this crime,” Pavlovich said.
On Friday, a third funeral will take place in Colonia LeBaron in Chihuahua for Christina Johnson, 32.
Johnson was traveling in a third SUV with her baby when she was killed. The baby was found unharmed about 12 hours later after relatives launched a search after learning of the attacks from two of the older children who walked more than 10 miles back to La Mora, relatives said.
All three families belonged to a fundamentalist offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and had dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship.
The three families were traveling in three separate vehicles from their homes in La Mora in Sonora to Colonia LeBaron in Chihuahua when they were ambushed in two separate attacks by gunmen hidden in the mountains, Mexican authorities said.
Some relatives have said the families were on their way to a wedding. Others have posted messages on Facebook that said two of the mothers were on their way to visit relatives in LeBaron and the third mother was on her way to pick up her husband at the airport in Tucson.
Mexican authorities have said the gunmen might have mistaken the group’s large SUVs for those of a rival gang amid a vicious turf war. Criminal investigators in northern Mexico on Wednesday said they arrested a suspect in connection with the deaths.
Eight children survived the attack by hiding or running away, and at least five of them were treated for their injuries in Arizona. All are in stable condition, and two girls were released on Wednesday from Banner University Medical Center in Tucson.
Most of the victims lived about 70 miles south of Douglas, Arizona, in the hamlet La Mora. Relatives traveled from the United States back to La Mora on Wednesday evening, accompanied by heavily armed escorts from the Mexican military. A checkpoint was set up outside La Mora that night.