Behind a Migrant Shooting in Texas: A Warden and a Troubled Jail

After Mr. Sepúlveda’s death, some of his relatives, including his mother, Luz María Martínez Castro, left, his partner, Sandra Lizeth Cárdenas Ramírez, and his 6-month-old daughter, Sofía, have been holding a vigil in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.Credit...Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times

SIERRA BLANCA, Texas — Jesús Iván Sepúlveda Martínez started his fateful journey to find work in the United States in his father’s car before catching a bus from Ceballos, Mexico, to the border. The 22-year-old soon slipped into Texas and, with a group of about a dozen migrants, began traversing the parched landscape east of El Paso on foot.

Three days after Mr. Sepúlveda texted his father that he had made it across the border, the group stopped for water at a small pond along a rural road. Around sunset, two men in a pickup truck drove by, and the migrants took cover in the brush. Suddenly the truck stopped, backed up and stopped again.

One of the men emerged with a gun and opened fire, fatally striking Mr. Sepúlveda, wounding a young Mexican woman and making the southern border region around Sierra Blanca a new focal point in the nation’s increasingly contentious immigration debate.

What inflamed the already combustible situation was that the men charged with the shooting were familiar local fixtures: Michael Sheppard, the warden of a deeply troubled private prison in town who works closely with the sheriff, and his twin brother Mark Sheppard, an employee at the county jail that the sheriff runs.

The Sept. 27 killing drew broad condemnation, raising questions about the rule of law in the cactus-studded high plains of West Texas and the real-world impacts of a bitter political divide over how to handle a record number of unauthorized crossings at the southern border.After Mr. Sepúlveda’s death, some of his relatives, including his mother, Luz María Martínez Castro, left, his partner, Sandra Lizeth Cárdenas Ramírez, and his 6-month-old daughter, Sofía, have been holding a vigil in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

During the recent debate in the race for governor, the Democratic candidate, Beto O’Rourke, said the killing could be traced to Gov. Greg Abbott’s “hateful rhetoric” on immigration. In a news conference last week, Mr. Abbott called the shooting “horrific” and “completely wrong” but blamed President Biden for the spike in arrivals and the need for Texas to deploy National Guard troops to the border and bus thousands of migrants to northern cities.

Days after the killing, yellow plastic evidence numbers still marked the dust near the man-made pond where Mark Sheppard told investigators that he and his brother mistook the men and women hiding in the brush for animals before opening fire.

More on U.S. Immigration

“I’ve never gone hunting with them. I don’t hunt animals. I hunt man,” he added in a grinning reference to the nature of his job in law enforcement.

The Sheppard brothers, both 60, were taken into custody late last month, and charged with manslaughter. The killing is being investigated by the Texas Rangers along with agents from the F.B.I.

In his interviews with investigators, Mark Sheppard said he and his brother had been out looking to shoot animals and thought they had spotted some javelinas, similar to wild hogs. Michael Sheppard fired two shots with a shotgun, according to the affidavits.

“Did you get him?” Mark Sheppard recalled asking his brother, in his statements to investigators, before changing the word “him” to “it,” according to the affidavit. They said they did not go to see if they had in fact hit a target.

But the migrants told investigators that the two men had taunted them in Spanish as they were hiding. They said the men used profanity as they shouted at them to come out and opened fire when they emerged.

Mr. Sepúlveda suffered a fatal gunshot to the head. Ms. Casias, 31, was shot in the stomach and, though seriously wounded, was expected to survive.

The sprawling county, home to some 3,200 people, is more than three-quarters Hispanic, and spreads over an area nearly the size of Connecticut.Credit…Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times

“That warden always had a good relationship with that sheriff down there,” said Mr. Johnson, the former LaSalle employee.

Hudspeth County, which sprawls over an area nearly the size of Connecticut, has faced a larger number of migrants trying to cross through the dangerous desert terrain, as the number of people seeking refuge in the United States has climbed sharply over the past few years. “We’ve had a lot of serious problems with the illegals coming across getting lost and dying in the desert,” said Thomas Neely, 95, the Hudspeth County judge.

Joanna Mackenzie, the county administrator and also its emergency manager, said officials found more than 15 bodies of migrants in the desert last year, an increase from two or three a year in previous years. “We’ve gone from you see a few a week to hundreds crossing property — it is like nothing anyone has ever seen,” she said.

On the evening of the killing, both Michael and Mark Sheppard attended a meeting of the local water board. They arrived around 7:30 p.m., roughly 30 minutes after the shooting. Sheriff West was there, too.

“I saw them that same night at the water board, nothing out of the ordinary,” the sheriff said. “We were finishing the meeting when the call came in,” he added, speaking of the 911 call about the killing. “And I didn’t see their demeanor change.”

Word of the shooting spread rapidly through Sierra Blanca, a pit stop for truck traffic along Interstate 10. The sprawling surrounding county, home to some 3,200 people, is more than three-quarters Hispanic. Some people in town have expressed shock, saying the brothers had never displayed any sort of racial animus.

“I have a Mexican-Native American background, but Mike was never ugly to me,” said Paula Barrios, 39, who lived near the two brothers. “Once you get to know them, they are nice people.”

Others recalled interactions that seemed to take on new meaning in the wake of the arrests.

“We were speaking Spanish, and Mark said, ‘Don’t speak Spanish around me,’” said Bill Addington, 65, a longtime resident who volunteered at a local food bank where Mr. Sheppard would supervise county inmates on work detail in striped uniforms. Waitresses in town also remembered Mr. Sheppard objecting to hearing Spanish spoken in his presence while eating.

Michael and Mark Sheppard were transferred from the El Paso County jail, where they had been taken last month, to a jail in Hudspeth County, and then released last week after each posted bond of $250,000, according to the chief deputy sheriff in Hudspeth County, Lasaro Salgado. Neither responded to requests for comment.

They were then rearrested the following day, Deputy Salgado said, after the Texas Rangers issued a warrant on new charges related to the shooting: aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. As of Tuesday, both men were again in custody, this time closer to home at the Hudspeth County jail. The deputy said Mark Sheppard no longer had a job there. ttps://


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