CLEVELAND, Texas (AP) — The search for a gunman in Texas who killed five neighbors from Honduras dragged into a third day Monday with false alarms and few apparent leads, while Republican Gov. Greg Abbott faced backlash over drawing attention to the victims’ immigration status.
An FBI agent on the scene near Houston acknowledged they have little to go on in the widening manhunt for 38-year-old Francisco Oropeza, who has been deported four times since 2009, but who neighbors say lived on their street for years prior to Friday night's shooting in the rural town of Cleveland.
Twice on Monday, a sheriff's office in a neighboring county alerted the public about possible sightings, but neither turned up Oropeza.
Abbott offered a $50,000 reward over the weekend for any tips that might lead to the gunman, and while doing so, the three-term governor described all the victims as “illegal immigrants" — a potentially false statement that his office walked back and apologized for Monday. Critics accused Abbott, who has made hard-line immigration measures a signature issue in Texas, of putting politics into the shooting.
“We’ve since learned that at least one of the victims may have been in the United States legally,” Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement. “We regret if the information was incorrect and detracted from the important goal of finding and arresting the criminal.”
Eze said information provided by federal officials after the shooting had indicated that the suspect and victims were in the country illegally. Her statement did not address why Abbott mentioned their status and she did not immediately respond to questions about the criticism.
More than 250 law enforcement officers from multiple agencies, including the U.S. Marshals, are now part of a growing search that has come up empty despite additional manpower, scent-tracking dogs, drones and a total of $80,000 in reward money on the table. On Monday, a heavy presence of police converged in Montgomery County after a possible sighting, but the sheriff's office later said none of the persons were found to be Oropeza.
A few hours later, the department reported another possible sighting, tweeting that several schools had “secured their campuses” and again asked residents to avoid the area. But that search, too, turned up nothing.
Both were among the first times since the shooting that authorities had announced a possible sighting.
"I can tell you right now, we have zero leads,” James Smith, the FBI special agent in charge, said Sunday.
The FBI in Houston said in a tweet on Sunday that it was referring to the suspect as Oropesa, not Oropeza, to “better reflect his identity in law enforcement systems.” His family lists their name as Oropeza on a sign outside their yard, as well as in public records.
Oropeza is considered armed and dangerous after fleeing the area Friday night, likely on foot. San Jacinto County Sheriff Greg Capers said authorities had widened the search area beyond the scene of the shooting, which occurred after the suspect’s neighbors asked him to stop firing off rounds in his yard late at night because a baby was trying to sleep.
At a Sunday vigil in Cleveland, Wilson Garcia, the father of the 1-month-old, described the terrifying efforts inside his home by friends and family that night to escape, hide and shield themselves and children after Oropeza walked up to the home and began firing, killing his wife first at the front door.
Police recovered the AR-15-style rifle that they said Oropeza used in the shootings. Authorities were not sure if Oropeza was carrying another weapon after others were found in his home.
The alleged shooter is a Mexican national who has been deported four times, according to a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the case who spoke on condition of anonymity because public disclosure was not authorized.
The official said the gunman was first deported in March 2009 and last in July 2016. He was also deported in September 2009 and January 2012.
Law enforcement on the scene have not confirmed the citizenship status of the victims. By describing them as “illegal immigrants” on Sunday in his first public statement about the shooting — and perhaps incorrectly — Abbott came under criticism from immigrant rights groups and Democrats.
“It is indefensible to any right-hearted Texan to use divisive language to smear innocent victims," said Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
The victims were identified as Diana Velazquez Alvarado, 21; Julisa Molina Rivera, 31; Jose Jonathan Casarez, 18; Sonia Argentina Guzman, 25; and Daniel Enrique Laso, 9.
Capers said he hoped the reward money would motivate people to provide information and that there were plans to put up billboards in Spanish to spread the word.
Veronica Pineda, who lives across the street from the suspect’s home, said authorities had stopped by her house over the weekend to ask if they could search her property to see if the gunman might be hiding there. She said she was fearful that the gunman had not yet been captured.
Associated Press reporter Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Jake Bleiberg in Dallas contributed to this report.