CLEVELAND, TEXAS (AP) – Wilson Garcia hadn’t even asked his neighbour to stop shooting his gun.
People in their rural town north of Houston are used to people firing their weapons to blow off steam, but it was late on Friday night, and Garcia had a month-old son who was crying.
So, Garcia said, he and two other people went to his neighbour’s house to “respectfully” ask that he shoot farther away from their home.
“He told us he was on his property, and he could do what he wanted,” Garcia said on Sunday after a vigil in Cleveland, Texas, for his nine-year-old son who was killed in the attack that soon followed.
The suspect, 38-year-old Francisco Oropeza, remained at large late on Sunday despite a search involving more than 200 police from multiple jurisdictions.
Garcia called the police after Oropeza rejected his request. The man shot some more, and now it sounded louder. In the neighbourhood of homes on one-acre lots, Garcia could see the man on his front porch but couldn’t tell what he was doing.
His family continued to called police – five calls in all, Garcia said. Five times the dispatcher assured that help was coming.
And then, 10 to 20 minutes after Garcia had walked back from Oropeza’s house, the man started running toward him, and reloading.
“I told my wife, ‘Get inside. This man has loaded his weapon,” Garcia said. “My wife told me to go inside because ‘he won’t fire at me, I’m a woman’.”
The gunman walked up to the home and began firing. Garcia’s wife, Sonia Argentina Guzman, 25, was at the front door, and the first to die.
The house held 15 people in all, several of them friends who had been there to join Garcia’s wife on a church retreat.
The gunman seemed intent on killing everyone, Garcia said.
Also among the dead were Garcia’s son, Daniel Enrique Laso, and two women who died while shielding Garcia’s baby and two-year-old daughter.
Garcia said one of the women had told him to jump out a window “because my children were without a mother and one of their parents had to stay alive to take care of them”.
“I am trying to be strong for my children,” Garcia said, crying. “My daughter sort of understands. It is very difficult when she begins to ask for mama and for her (older) brother.”
Police went door to door on Sunday in hopes of finding any clues that would lead them to the suspect. Governor Greg Abbott put up USD50,000 in reward money and local officials and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also chipped in, bringing the total to USD80,000 for any information about Oropeza’s whereabouts.
“I can tell you right now, we have zero leads,” FBI Special Agent in Charge James Smith told reporters while again asking the public for tips in the rural town north of Houston where the shooting took place just before midnight on Friday.
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, but said he should be considered armed and dangerous.
He likely fled the area on foot. During the early hours of the search, investigators found clothes and a phone while combing an area that includes dense layers of forest, but tracking dogs lost the scent, San Jacinto County Sheriff Greg Capers said.
Authorities were able to identify Oropeza by an identity card issued by Mexican authorities to citizens who reside outside the country, as well as doorbell camera footage. He said police have also interviewed the suspect’s wife multiple times.
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. Garcia, his slain wife and son and the other three victims – Diana Velazquez Alvarado, 21; Julisa Molina Rivera, 31; and Jose Jonathan Casarez, 18 – were from Honduras.
“We’re looking for closure for this family,” Capers said.
Asked about response time, Capers said officers got there as fast as they could and that he had only three covering 1,800 square kilometres.
By Sunday, police crime scene tape was removed from around Garcia’s home, where some people stopped by to leave flowers.
In the neighbourhood, an FBI agent, Texas Department of Public Safety troopers and other officers were seen going door to door.
One trooper stopped a red truck and asked to look inside a travel trailer the truck was pulling before letting the driver continue on his way.
Veronica Pineda, 34, who lives across the street from the suspect’s home, said authorities asked if they could search her property to see if he might be hiding there. She said she was fearful that the gunman had not yet been captured.
“It is kind of scary,” she said. “You never know where he can be.”
Pineda said she didn’t know Oropeza well but occasionally saw him, his wife and son ride their horses on the street. She said the family had lived there about five or six years and that neighbours have called authorities in the past to complain about people firing guns.
Garcia also did not know Oropeza well, though their wives sometimes talked. Once, he said, the man helped him cut down a tree.