“He could be anywhere right now,” James Smith, special agent in charge of the FBI Houston office, told reporters Saturday afternoon. “We consider him armed and dangerous. … We believe he’s on foot but we don’t know.” Smith added that the suspect could be somewhere within a 10-20 square mile search area but that dogs lost his scent. Authorities located the gun allegedly used in the killings but were unsure if the suspect was still armed.
The mass killing of a family in their home was the latest act of retaliatory gun violence to traumatize an American community. The shooting renewed calls from gun control advocates for a federal ban on assault weapons, which have a unique ability to destroy the human body. It was at least the seventh incident this month in which an armed American shot people in response to regular, everyday interactions.
The family in Texas had lived on Walter Drive for about two years.
Police released the names of the victims: Sonia Argentina Guzman, 25; Diana Velazquez Alvarado, 21; Julisa Molina Rivera, 31; Jose Jonathan Casarez, 18; and Daniel Enrique Laso, 8.
Their neighbor, Francisco Oropeza, 38, was charged with five counts of murder, San Jacinto County Sheriff Greg Capers told The Washington Post. Authorities believed he was about two miles from the area Saturday afternoon and were working to apprehend him, he said.
Ten people, all family members, were in the home during the shooting. Five survived, including three children. All the victims were killed at the scene, besides Laso, who died later at a hospital, the sheriff’s office said on Facebook.
Two of the women who were killed were found lying on top of the surviving young children in a bedroom, “trying to protect them,” Capers told The Post by phone from the scene.
All five victims were shot in the head, Capers said.
“It’s horrific,” Capers said. “No one should ever have to look at this scene, the blood, the trauma that went on in that house.”
Authorities had initially searched for Oropeza in a wooded area near the neighborhood early Saturday afternoon, Capers said. But law enforcement lost his trail, and the FBI said it was taking over the investigation hours later.
Oropeza frequently shot his AR-15-style weapon in his yard, Capers said, and was doing so Friday when his neighbors asked him to stop about 11 p.m. Oropeza allegedly became angry after they said their baby was trying to sleep and, after the conversation, went to their home. Authorities saw video footage of Oropeza walking to the victims’ front door before going inside.
“The neighbors walked over and said … ‘Hey man, can you not do that, we’ve got an infant in here trying to sleep’ or whatever,” Capers said. “They went back in their house and then we have a video of him walking up their driveway with his AR-15.”
It wasn’t the first time authorities had come to Oropeza’s home for similar behavior. Smith added at the news conference that there had been a “couple of calls” to Oropeza’s home in the past for firing weapons.
Vianey Balderas, who lives across the street from the family, said she first heard gunshots that night when a few people were outside. About 20 minutes later, Balderas heard about five more gunshots, then another 10, she told The Post.
“When I heard those gunshots, I didn’t think anything of it because in this neighborhood everyone has guns. Every weekend you hear gunshots,” she said in an interview in Spanish.
“People shoot in their backyards, after they drink alcohol, men take out guns at house parties and shoot the ground.”
Minutes later, Balderas, 27, heard a truck pulling away. She then saw one of her neighbors — the father of the children, she said — outside, begging for someone to call an ambulance. She said the family and Oropeza had quarreled before.
Law enforcement officers went to the home after receiving a report of “harassment” around 11:30 p.m., Capers told reporters. They found the four adults dead and took Laso, the 8-year-old, to the hospital. The three surviving children also were taken to a hospital, Capers said, but they were not injured.
The victims had moved to Cleveland from Harris County, where Houston is located. Cleveland is about 40 miles northeast of downtown Houston.
They lived in a “regular country neighborhood” known as Trails End, Capers said. All of the victims were from Honduras, Capers said.
In a tweet in Spanish, Honduran Foreign Minister Enrique Reina demanded that authorities apply “the full weight of the law” against the killer and expressed condolences for the family’s relatives.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) had not publicly responded to the news of the shooting by late Saturday afternoon.
Balderas, who has lived in the neighborhood for three years, described the family as happy. They moved in about two years ago, she said. The children’s father, an electrician, helped her around the house, and the family aided Balderas when her father died, she said.
“They were a very happy family. Christian. They were kind,” she said. “They would never say no to us. They were always helping us. … They were always there.”
Balderas said she stayed up until 5 a.m. in fear because the gunman had not been apprehended.
“It hurts a lot, because I did love the family a lot. I am now afraid to be at home,” she said. “This shatters the sense of safety of being in your own home, especially because they are neighbors whom I see every day. … [He] went in to shoot people who were getting ready to go to bed.”
This was the year’s 19th U.S. shooting to kill at least four people, not including the shooter, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks U.S. shootings.
The killings drew calls from gun control advocates for a federal ban of AR-15-style weapons, whose sale is banned in a few states. Washington became the latest on Wednesday, when its Democratic governor signed a ban into law.
President Biden urged Congress to pass a federal assault weapons ban after a shooter killed six people with an AR-15-style weapon at a Nashville school last month. Republicans in Congress have dismissed the idea of such legislation.
After Friday night’s shooting, Kris Brown, president of the Brady gun control organization, said AR-15s “have no place in civilian life.”
“These weapons of war were designed to kill as many people as quickly as possible, which is why they are the weapon of choice for America’s mass shooters — and why Congress must ban them immediately,” Brown said in a statement.
Texas has some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country, according to the nonprofit Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which supports stricter firearms laws. There are some restrictions, though, including a state law barring people from displaying “a firearm or other deadly weapon in a public place in a manner calculated to alarm.”
Texas gun rights advocates, meanwhile, said the shooting did not highlight any problems with the state’s firearm-friendly policies.
“It’s a tragedy but we need to get away from blaming guns which only answers the question of how and start asking the question why these shootings take place, why people feel the need to settle differences with violence and murder,” said C.J. Grisham, legal and policy director for Texas Gun Rights, a Second Amendment advocacy group.
Grisham said the gunman’s use of an AR-15 style gun was “meaningless” because “he could have killed those people just as easily with a handgun.”
The killings add to a growing list of recent shootings carried out by armed Americans who have fired in response to what could have been normal, everyday interactions.
This month, an Illinois man was fatally shot by a neighbor angry about his leaf blower; a 20-year-old woman was shot and killed by a New York homeowner after accidentally pulling into the wrong driveway; a 6-year-old and her father were shot by a neighbor in North Carolina after the child’s basketball rolled into his yard.
Those violent confrontations followed the April 13 shooting of Ralph Yarl, a Black teenager who was picking up his siblings and was shot by a White man when he accidentally rang the doorbell of the wrong home.
Cate Brown, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this developing story, which will be updated.
An earlier version of this report incorrectly said Ralph Yarl was fatally shot when he went to the wrong home. Yarl survived the April 13 shooting. It also misstated the location of a shooting after a basketball rolled into a man’s yard. That was in North Carolina, not Florida. This article has been corrected.