PHOENIX — About 10 hours after the massacre that claimed the lives of his grandchildren, Kenneth Miller drove his ATV through the northern Mexico wilderness in a frantic search for one last missing relative — a 9-year-old girl who had gone in search of help.
Following a path off the dirt roadway where three vehicles had been hit with a barrage of gunfire, Miller and fellow searchers found small footprints in the sand — one foot bare, the other with a shoe on it. They followed the tracks for miles, at times losing the trail on harder rock, then picking it back up again in softer soil.
Then, through the darkness, Miller saw her. McKenzie was alive.
“I ran out and grabbed that little girl and just hugged her,” Miller recalled. “I said, ‘It’s your Uncle Kenny.’ The first thing she said was, ‘We’ve got to go back and get the others.’”
The search ended a day of wrenching trauma for Miller, who earlier that morning had found the burned remains of his daughter-in-law and four of his grandchildren in their bullet-riddled vehicle. In the northern Mexico community of fundamentalist Mormons, where large families are the norm, it was children — including some less than a year old — who faced the brunt of the carnage.
In the days since, as they undergo hospital treatment here in Arizona, the children have also become the face of the community’s bond and resilience as the once-tranquil enclave grapples with the fallout from Monday’s attack.
Mckenzie Langford, 9, and her sister, Kylie, 14, who was shot in the foot, were released from a hospital in Tucson on Wednesday and were being taken to Mexico for the funeral of their mother and siblings on Thursday, said Leah Staddon, a family member.
They would be returning to a conservative Mormon community that some family members who were raised there described as an idyllic place to grow up.
Children often roam free, they said, learning how to fish and hunt and garden. Some go to local public schools, while others are home-schooled. For fun, they ride horses or ATVs and, like young people the world over, have time for video games and time on the internet that their parents try to regulate.
“It used to be a very peaceful place,” said Staddon, who grew up in the community of La Mora, Sonora, where most of those involved in the attack came from. She now lives outside Phoenix with her husband and five children. “But we knew something was changing,” she said. “It was impossible to ignore the increasing violence around us.”
The morning of the tragedy began with a three-car caravan journeying along a dirt road that members of the Mormon communities had used for decades. Three mothers drove, with a total of 14 children along for the trip.
But reports began coming in that something had gone wrong. Kenneth Miller and the others drove out to find out what happened. They first came upon a vehicle that had been driven by his daughter-in-law, Rhonita Miller, 30, with four of her children inside. Their remains, he said, were charred to the point of being unrecognizable.
Family members identified the children who died there as Howard, 12; Krystal, 10; and 8-month old twins, Titus and Tiana.
Rhonita Miller, who split her time between the northern Mexico community and North Dakota, had three other children who had stayed home with her father-in-law and the rest of the family. Her husband, Howard Miller, has since flown in from North Dakota, but family members said the children hadn’t yet grasped the news of what had happened.
“It’s all a nightmare,” Kenneth Miller said.
After finding the shell of the burned-out SUV, Kenneth Miller said, the family worried about what had happened with the other two vehicles, which had been traveling farther ahead. It had been hours since they left, no one had heard from them, and evening was approaching.
That was when 13-year-old Devin Langford showed up at the outskirts of La Mora — exhausted after a 14-mile trek through rugged terrain for help. He was hungry and dehydrated after walking for hours, and he had a chilling story about what had happened to the other vehicles.
Devin told his family that the group was driving down the road when gunmen — some of them standing on a nearby hillside — suddenly opened fire.
When the shooting stopped, the gunmen approached the vehicles and pulled the surviving children out, gesturing and telling them in Spanish to leave the area, said Lafe Langford, a family member. Dawna Langford, Devin’s mother, was slumped over the steering wheel, dead. Christina Johnson, who was driving the other vehicle, was lying dead on the road. Two of Devin’s siblings — Trevor, 11, and Rogan, 2 — had also been killed.
“The kids had no choice but to start walking,” Lafe Langford said.
Dawna Langford’s children who remained alive — Devin and six siblings — began a trek away from the scene, but one of them, Cody, had been shot in the hip and leg and couldn’t walk. Another had been hit in the foot. The group eventually decided they wouldn’t make it home and decided to seek cover.
Devin led them down a hillside and under a tree, and the children used bushes to create a hiding place, Lafe Langford said. Then Devin went for help.
Eventually, members of the community, accompanied by Devin and police, made it out far enough to find the two remaining SUVs, which were together.
Video provided by the family showed the two white vehicles riddled with bullet holes. There were about a dozen holes in the windshield of Dawna Langford’s vehicle, and the interior was covered in blood and strewn with foam puzzle pieces used by her children.
They also found six more children alive, though some of them were injured: a 14-year-old shot in the foot, an 8-year-old shot in the jaw, a 4-year-old shot in the back and a 9-month-old shot in the chest. A 6-year-old was uninjured. And, at the time, McKenzie was missing; she, too, had set out to find help after hours had passed and Devin had not returned.
Then there was Christina’s baby, Faith, just 7 months old, who was still strapped in her car seat. Kenneth Miller said the car seat had two bullet holes in it, and shots had pierced the interior of the car all around her. But the baby was uninjured.
“That child was miraculously protected,” he said.
A video of some of the injured children, recorded after the attack, shows them in a medical facility. A baby girl wrapped in a pink patterned blanket shrieks as a man tries to comfort her. A bandage covers her chest. Another girl sits on a bed, her face drawn into a deep frown, blood covering her jeans, her long brown hair tousled and loose. Her foot is wrapped in bandages.
The staff at a Mexican hospital treated the injured children until a helicopter provided by the Mexican military transported the children to the U.S. border; from there, they were taken to a hospital in Tucson, Arizona.
Lafe Langford said Cody had been scheduled for surgery Wednesday and might need a series of surgeries to recover.
“Cody is still not off the hook,” he said. “We still need him lifted up in prayer.”
In the aftermath of the attack, the Mexican government was providing a military escort to family members attending the funerals of the women and children killed Monday.
“Otherwise some families on the American side would be afraid to go,” said Leah Staddon, the relative standing watch at the hospital with the wounded boys. “I wonder if the place where I grew up will ever feel safe again.”