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Mexico police capture suspect in killings of Arizona family members

By
Nicholas Sakelaris & Danielle Haynes
Agents of the Rural Tactical Operations Forces search for people responsible for an attack on a family in Bavispe, Mexico, Tuesday. One suspect has been arrested. Photo by Luis Torres/EPA-EFE 
Agents of the Rural Tactical Operations Forces search for people responsible for an attack on a family in Bavispe, Mexico, Tuesday. One suspect has been arrested. Photo by Luis Torres/EPA-EFE 

Nov. 6 (UPI) -- Mexican police have arrested a man holding two hostages believed to be connected to a highway massacre that left nine members of the same family dead.

The Ministerial Agency for Criminal Investigations said the suspect was arrested with several rifles, including large-caliber guns and a stockpile of ammunition. He was found in the hills of Agua Prieta in the state of Sonora.

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Police seized two vehicles in the Tuesday raid -- a white Dodge pickup truck that had been reported stolen in Phoenix and a GMC Yukon.

Three women, four small children and twin infants were killed in their vehicles Monday while traveling to Chihuahua state. All had dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship.

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Kendra Lee Miller said her brother was fixing one of the family vehicles that had broken down on the road when he saw a fire on the horizon.

"Then [he] saw the explosion, went to check it out, saw it was my mother's vehicle, full of bullet holes, completely ablaze," Miller told CNN. "My dad Andre, and couple of uncles and relatives went to check up on the vehicle. All they found was charred remains, ash and bones. There were remains inside and outside of the vehicle."

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Several children were injured in the ambush Monday, including an 8-year-old who was shot in the jaw and leg; an 8-month-old infant shot in the chest; a 4-year-old, who was shot in the back; and a 14-year-old with a foot wound. They were flown to Douglas, Ariz., where they were transported to hospitals in Tucson.

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One family member said a 13-year-old boy walked 14 miles for help after hiding his siblings in the bushes and covering them with branches. When he took too long to return, a 9-year-old sister walked for hours in the dark before she was found.

Mexico Attorney General Cesar Peniche Espejel acknowledged the arrest but could not confirm details of the suspect's involvement in the attack. He said the drug cartels have likely splintered since drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was arrested.

"We are waiting for some more intelligence in order to issue an official statement," he said.

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The victims are part of the extended LeBaron family, which has owned a ranch in Mexico for decades. Former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda told CNN the family has a history of conflict with the drug cartels and may have been targeted. He didn't believe this was a case of mistaken identity.

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"They had stood up to the drug cartels and they did have certain frictions either with the cartels or with neighboring communities over water rights," Castaneda said.

The driver of the first vehicle in the convoy was known as an activist who defended her family and the community against the cartels on the issue of water rights, Castaneda said.

Mexican authorities were aware of the feud and have had 90 federal police stationed around the community since 2011 due to tensions between the family and cartels. The security was scaled back under the governor but it's not clear how many were there Monday.

Miller said cartels have "taken too many of our family members" and those killed Monday were "not the first."

The family had been threatened recently on where they could travel, Miller added.

The attack could be the work of a newly formed cartel, Los Jaguares, an offshoot of Guzman's Sinaloa cartel, Espejel said. U.S. officials have said a rival cartel, La Linea, could be to blame.

"These very cartels of Sinaloa, after the arrest of Guzman 'El Chapo' have suffered fragmentations," Espejel said. "They have been growing near the border with the United States and are heavily involved in trafficking of immigrants into the United States and drug trafficking."

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The LeBaron family have had a history of violence and run-ins with the law in Mexico since fundamentalist Mormon Alma Dayer LeBaron moved his family across the border in 1924 to escape the United States' ban on polygamy. The practice of taking more than one spouse was outlawed in Mexico, too, but authorities there were believed more likely to look the other way.

Infighting among Alma Dayer LeBaron's sons caused a split in the family. His granddaughter, Anna LeBaron, told NBC News she was familiar with the family members who died Monday, but didn't know them well.

One of Alma Dayer LeBaron's sons, Ervil LeBaron, formed his own church that ultimately became cult-like -- from which Anna LeBaron escaped when she was 13.

"My father would order mob-style hits and those would be carried out by his cult members if they stopped believing in him or his practice or religion and left, or sometimes it was rival cult leaders that were blood-atoned for being false prophets," she said.

Ervil LeBaron died in 1981 while serving a life sentence for ordering the killing of Rulon Allred, the patriarch of a large polygamist sect in Utah's Salt Lake Valley. A note found next to his body read, "I've gone to meet my maker," UPI reported at the time.

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Ervil LeBaron also was convicted of plotting to kill his brother, Verlan LeBaron. Jacqueline LeBaron, Ervil's daughter, was sent to prison in 2011 for plotting to kill families who'd broken with her father. The family was also suspected in the 1988 deaths of four people -- including a 10-year-old girl -- who broke away from the LeBarons' sect.

Anna LeBaron, though, said the violence that led to Monday's deaths doesn't appear to be connected to the LeBaron family's sordid history.

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