MEXICO CITY – The boy comes down the mountain with news beyond comprehension.
His mother and siblings have been attacked and shot. Some are dead. Some have been wounded and are hiding in the brush, waiting for help.
His family, a collection of fundamentalists who live a frontier farming life in remote northern Mexico, responds the way families do.
They talk. They share their desperation. They sweep into action, relying on one another. And they pray.
This family conversation unfolds in a sequence of harrowing voice messages that were shared, cellphone to cellphone, on Monday.
That day, authorities now say, three mothers and six children were killed, and vehicles were found burned beyond recognition, in the high mountains about seven hours southeast of Phoenix. The attack may be linked to drug cartels.
The messages were exchanged using the mobile service WhatsApp, and later shared among other friends and political workers in the region, then with the USA TODAY Network.
Each one is a short snippet that does not always identify the speaker. The sequence of events is sometimes unclear.
Taken collectively, the messages paint an audible picture of heartbreak and heroism.
Relatives join forces to mount an armed search party, share information about nearby drug cartels, agonize over a lack of government support and quash false rumors.
By the end, some people weep for the women and children who were killed. Some rejoice as other children are found alive.
But the events begin in terror, in the voice of a woman who says:
"We don’t know anything. People are hiding in the bushes. Pray mightily for my family. We have no idea what’s going on."
'Pray mightily for my family'
The family exchange begins Monday about 11:30 a.m. That morning, three women had left a community called La Mora. One, according to a message, had a flat tire.
Her name is Rhonita Maria Miller, and she's traveling with four children.
Two other women are also on the road that morning.
Dawna Langford is traveling with nine children. Christina Johnson is driving in another vehicle with her 7-month-old baby, Faith.
Rhonita, after the flat tire, returns to borrow a vehicle from a woman named Loretta and leaves again.
Hours later, a family voice message reveals what relatives begin to discover after the search has begun.
"They got there and Loretta’s vehicle is full of holes and smoking. ... There’s not a sign of one person and we have no clue where Dawna and Christina are. We don’t know if Christina went on by herself, whether she waited there. We have no idea or where anybody is at this moment."
Soon, another message:
"It’s on fire on the mountain with bullets all through it. We don’t know anything. People are hiding in the bushes. Pray mightily for my family. We have no idea what’s going on.”
And then a woman, her voice breaking and inconsolable:
“Nita, the four kids, they’re gone and dead.”
In the background, other voices are wailing. The next message adds:
“They’ve been burnt to death in the vehicle.”
'Bigger than they’re going to be able to handle'
As the family tragedy unfolds, some people rally to search and to respond forcefully to whatever attack has befallen them.
They also push for help from authorities and share a sense of fury over what they see as a lack of support.
It's a strain of thought with deep roots in these communities.
The women's destination that day had been a community on the other side of the mountain range, in Chihuahua. There, a place named Colonia Lebaron embodies both the distant history of Mormon offshoot groups in Mexico and the recent history of the family's stand against drug cartels.
In 2009, a boy, Eric LeBaron, was kidnapped from a family ranch. Cartels demanded a million-dollar ransom. The family refused to pay, and the boy was released after hundreds of people organized to protest at the capital of Chihuahua. But other relatives were later killed in retribution.
That sense of activism emerges even as the family's Monday messages circulate.
A frustrated man in one message:
“I’ve been calling the (U.S.) consulates in Juárez and Nogales and they keep taking down my name and number, saying they’re having phone problems. They’ve been having phone trouble all day, but they’ll have somebody call me back. And I told the guy we have women and children being burned alive and killed and missing and everything else and we’re under attack right now by the cartel – and we need help.”
While children are still missing, a man muses about how they might need to use public activism to recover children who may have been kidnapped.
"Right now the problem is that we have to come up with a game plan to try to get those that are out there back. The only thing this government is going to understand is protest. ... It needs to go big so that we can raise the value of these girls so that these guys turn them over and realize it’s something bigger than they’re going to be able to handle. So a protest would be a good thing."
A man identified as Adrian LeBaron, Rhonita's father, urges caution.
"It’s very important to understand that we are receiving a lot of support from the Federal Police. We cannot do anything against that. … Get together and discuss what we can do."
In another message, a woman relays that help seems to be on the way. Rhonita's family has been killed, but there is hope for Dawna and Christina.
"They have a helicopter on its way. They called the American embassy and Mexican embassy. They got everyone, they’re getting everything involved. They still haven’t found Christina and Dawna and hopefully they’re still alive. So they’ve got a helicopter over there, hopefully to find them."
'The grave mistake they made'
On the same day, speculation and misinformation are swirling.
Family members believe cartel gunmen – sicarios – are on the move, and some seem uncertain whether the gunmen are pushing the killers back or are turning on the family.
One woman fears the violence is closing in.
"A message was sent to my dad’s important group and it says that the sicarios have gone to La Mora and they circled around it and they’re going into the people in La Mora’s houses now."
Another man, a brother to the missing woman Christina, shuts down the rumor.
"No. This is not true. There’s no truth to that whatsoever. The Sonora sicarios are fighting back the Chihuahua sicarios right now and they’re headed up the mountain. The workers heard a bunch of gunshots going off, but that was clear up the road, when you’re going up the mountain basically, they could hear the gunshots. ... Christina and her little baby are missing right now, my sister Christina."
He also speculates on how a cartel shooting might have led Christina and Dawna – still missing at the time – to be kidnapped.
"What we think happened is after they realized, Chihuahua mafia, when they realized they shot up a family and killed a bunch of kids, then what happened is right behind them, Christina and Dawna came. ... So what we’re thinking is from there they basically, they basically took hostage Cristina and Dawna’s vehicles so they could get out of here because they realized the grave mistake they made in killing a family."
Soon, though, it will become clear that Christina and Dawna are not kidnapped. They are dead, and relatives must rally to save their surviving children.
'We need everyone up here now'
Devin Langford, Dawna Langford’s 13-year-old son, was uninjured in the attack and has walked 14 miles back to La Mora.
But he is the bearer of bad news.
Both of the other mothers are not missing, they now hear. They have been killed. So have some of Dawna's nine children, Devin's siblings. And so has Christina's 7-month-old baby.
A man in a voice message spreads the word.
“Dawna and Christina are dead. And Christina’s baby is dead and two more kids."
Devin has walked out to find help – but he has cared for his wounded siblings, too. Before leaving, he hid them in the bushes, covered them with brush to keep the killers from finding them. Now the family will have to find them.
Another man rallies for action.
"All the adult guys with guns ASAP. There’s five kids sitting on the side of the road. Got shot in the mouth, shot in the foot, shot in the leg. We have the oldest boy of Dawna’s with us right here and he’s going to show us where they are. … We got the ambulance. It’s going to meet us here. We need everyone up here now, to come with us to get the kids."
"Devin hid five kids in the bushes, but we don’t have them yet, so pray for children. … These children are hidden."
Later, a man:
"Cody’s hurt really bad. He’s shot in the face, Xander shot in the back and Kylie shot in the foot."
As the search ends, a man driving down a bumpy road gives a grisly update.
“We’ve got Dawna, Trevor, Rogan and Christina in the back of our truck and we’re taking them to La Mora.”
On Thursday, the families prepared for a funeral for Dawna along with her two children killed in the attack: 11-year-old Trevor Harvey Langford and 2-year-old Rogan Jay Langford.
Also to be buried are Rhonita along with her 8-month-old twins, Titus Alvin Miller and Tiana Gricel Miller; and Krystal Bellaine Miller, 10; and Howard Jacob Miller Jr., 12. Christina's funeral is Friday.
A final message near the end of the sequence summarizes a view of the events. One man explains why he does not believe the women and children were caught in a crossfire – they were, he says, gunned down. The speaker apparently is Kenneth Miller, grandfather of Rhonita's children:
"It all happened in Sonora. Chihuahua invaded Sonora. They literally had men on that first hill, right when you get off the highway going to Chihuahua from here. ... The were on top of that hill and they shot the s--t out of my Suburban, my grandchildren, my daughters, daughter-in-law — just burned them to a crisp. There’s nothing left just a few bones."
"They had ambushed and killed them. Then up on the road at the top of the hill, they ambushed Christina and Dawna. Christina got out waving her hands, and they shot her down because she was near the rear of the vehicle, while Dawna was slumped over her steering wheel. … They were not caught in a crossfire. Period."
But even in the shock and sorrow of their discovery, the final messages contain the sounds of hope.
One child, McKenzie, is 9 years old. She has walked on her own after her brother Devin left the surviving children. Thus, she hasn't been found with the others, and relatives are searching frantically.
Finally, she's found. A man sends a message:
"They found Kenzie love and she’s OK. They found her, God."
But he can't finish speaking. He's sobbing.
And the family learns one other piece of information was wrong.
Christina Johnson, driving with her 7-month-old daughter, was indeed shot and killed. But the baby is alive.
Later, posts to social media will describe how the baby's car seat seemed to have been hurriedly tossed to the floor of the vehicle – a last move, perhaps, to save her.
A woman sends a message.
"Christina’s baby is alive! Praise God! We’ve got Faith; she is alive. Do you understand me? God is so good you don’t even know."
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Mexico ambush, aftermath detailed in WhatsApp messages from family