Brutal deaths of North Dakota mother, 4 kids in Mexico 'heart-wrenching,' says state senator who knows family

A woman and four children who were murdered in Mexico lived in Williston, N.D., according to a family member's Facebook post.

Children run past a supermarket belonging to the LeBaron family in Chihuahua, Mexico, on July 16, 2009. The brutal killing of nine members of the American family in northern Mexico on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, highlights the long history of religious fundamentalist settlers in the region. (Adriana Zehbrauskas/Copyright 2019 The New York Times)

MEXICO CITY — A Williston, N.D., woman and four of her children were among those killed during a series of brutal attacks in northern Mexico on Monday, Nov. 4, according to a family member's Facebook post. The onslaught has sent shock waves through two countries and prompted impassioned responses from political leaders.

Kenny LeBaron posted that his cousin, Rhonita Maria Miller, and four of her children were among nine U.S.-Mexico dual citizens killed. LeBaron, who lists Dickinson, N.D., as his place of residence on Facebook, said Miller lived in Williston.

LeBaron did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Forum News Service.


North Dakota state Sen. Jordan Kannianen (R-Stanley) said he met the family several times last year and the beginning of this year at church in Stanley, about 70 miles east of Williston. They didn't know each other well, but Kannianen's wife, Elizabeth, and Miller shared a bond, he said. Miller was pregnant with the twins at the time, and Kannianen had already given birth to a pair of her own.

Kannianen said he thought the family's father was working in the oilfields, but Miller had left for Mexico to give birth to the twins. He said news of the slayings was "heart-wrenching."

The victims were all members of a fundamentalist Mormon family that has a long-established presence in Mexico, according to The Washington Post.

Miller, her children and 12 other distant family members were traveling in several SUVs from a Mormon community known as La Mora, in the Sonora state, according to the Post. Attackers ambushed Miller's Chevrolet Tahoe, shot Miller and her children and burned the car with the family still inside.

Family member Kendra Lee Miller posted on Facebook the names of those killed in the attack, which included 30-year-old Rhonita and her children, 12-year-old Howard, 10-year-old Krystal and 8-month-old twins, Titus and Tiana. The relative also said the family's husband and father, Howard Sr., was in North Dakota during the attack, and the couple's three other children were being looked after by grandparents in La Mora.

Four others, including two children, were killed during attacks on the other cars, while eight survived.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D, called the killings "a horrible tragedy" and said the congressman has been in touch with the U.S. State Department about the attack.

“My heart breaks for this family. The loss and horror is unspeakable," Armstrong said in a statement. "Those who perpetrated this evil must be brought to justice. We are working to gather as much information as we can to ensure that that the survivors are being cared for in the best way possible under these circumstances.”


North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven also released a statement calling for cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico to stop ruthless drug cartels.

"Mikey (the senator's wife) and I send our deepest condolences to the family and friends of the Miller family," Hoeven said in a statement. "The senseless killing of these women and children is despicable. The ruthless violence of the drug cartels in Mexico is abhorrent, which is why our nations should work together to stop the violence at the border."

President Donald Trump tweeted that "the wonderful family and friends from Utah got caught between two vicious drug cartels, who were shooting at each other, with the result being many great American people killed." Trump also said the U.S. would be willing to help Mexico "wage war" on Mexican drug cartels. The offer was declined by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who thanked Trump for the support but said his country would pursue the criminals independently, the Post reported.

A GoFundMe page set up to raise money for the families of the victims had raised over $46,000 as of 3 p.m. Tuesday.


Baby found alive

The vicious attacks on the women and children — some of whom were traveling to a wedding — stunned a nation still reeling from a series of violent incidents in recent weeks. Obrador has been heavily criticized for the botched attempt last month to arrest a son of former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. Soldiers briefly detained Ovidio Guzmán in Culiacan, but Sinaloa cartel gunmen took control of the city and the government released him.

Mexican officials said cartel gunmen might have mistaken the women's SUVs for those of rival traffickers. But relatives of the victims said the gunmen knew that was not the case.

"There's been a lot of rival cartels fighting up in this area," said Lenzo Widmar, one of the community members who found two of the destroyed vehicles. But he said a child who witnessed one of the shootings saw one of the mothers get out of her vehicle and put her hands up.

"They shot her anyway," Widmar said. "They knew it was women and children."

More than 200 bullet casings were found near the vehicles, state authorities said.

Widmar said the community had not received any threats recently. He said all the victims lived in Mexico.

Another family member posted video of a charred vehicle in which a mother and her four children had been traveling.

"This is how we live under the government of @lopezobrador," Alex LeBaron tweeted. "Mexican Mormons, innocent women and children were ambushed in the Chihuahua sierra, shot and burned alive by the Cartels that rule in Mexico!"


Widmar said the attacks began Monday morning after the women left the community of La Mora. The other two vehicles were going to accompany her as far as a main highway near the border, he said, and then head for the community of LeBaron, in nearby Chihuahua state, to attend a wedding.

Miller had car trouble, Widmar said, and the convoy returned to La Mora. When the vehicles set out anew, he said, Miller fell behind the other two women.

Miller was just outside the village of San Miguelito when her Chevrolet Tahoe came under attack, Sonora state security officials said.

About 11 miles east, toward the Chihuahua state border, authorities found the second vehicle, a white Chevrolet Suburban, with the bodies of a woman and two children. Relatives identified them as Dawna Langford and her 11- and 3-year-old children. They said several other children escaped from the vehicle.

The third vehicle, also a white Suburban, was found about a mile east of the Chihuahua border. The body of a woman was found nearby. She was identified as Christina Langford Johnson.

Another member of the clan, Julian LeBaron, said he discovered Christina Langford's body and her infant when he reached her vehicle.

"I found Christina," LeBaron told Ciro Gómez Leyva, a news host on Radio Formula. "She was outside her car, face down, murdered, and I found her baby, who was still alive."

"I don't know if there's a war here or what's happening," LeBaron said.


Johnson's cousin Leah Staddon said Johnson's 6-month-old baby was found on the floor of the vehicle.

"It's amazing because we first heard that she was dead also, then they found her alive," said Staddon, who once lived in La Mora but has moved to Queen Creek, Ariz.

One of the children is still missing, she said. Five of the surviving children were flown to Tucson, Ariz., for treatment.

"I think we're all still in shock, just trying to survive minute by minute," she said.

The LeBarons describe themselves as Mormons. They're part of a polygamous offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Washington Post contributed to this report

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
What To Read Next
Get Local