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Editor’s note: This story contains strong language.
EL PASO — After 13 Mexican migrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, they stopped for a drink Tuesday evening at a reservoir south of Sierra Blanca, a small town in the Chihuahuan Desert about 100 miles east of El Paso.
A pickup truck stopped near the settlers hiding behind the brush and backed up. Someone from the truck yelled in Spanish, “Girls, you little asses, come out,” the migrants later told police.
Michael Shepherd, a warden at a private immigration detention center in Sierra Blanca, then got out of the truck with a shotgun, leaned over the hood and fired two rounds, according to an arrest affidavit from the Texas Department of Public Safety obtained by the Tribune Friday. A man of the group was killed and a woman was injured.
“Did you get him?” his twin brother, Mark Shepherd, who was in the truck, was asked in the affidavit. Mark Sheppard changed “he” to “it” while talking to the officer and said the brothers were hunting animals and didn’t know they were shooting at people, the affidavit said.
The 60-year-old brothers later went to a local water board meeting.
Both were being held at the El Paso County Jail on suspicion of homicide Friday. It’s unclear if the Shepherds have an attorney.
A spokesman for LaSalle Corrections, the company that operates 19 jails, prisons and immigration detention centers in Georgia, Louisiana and Texas, including the West Texas Detention Center in Sierra Blanca, told news outlets that Michael Shepherd was fired.
A woman shot in the stomach is recovering at an El Paso hospital, US Homeland Security Investigations said. Other immigrants are in federal custody “pending adjudication,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa said.
Four years ago, immigrants held at a West Texas detention center filed complaints with the US Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, claiming they were physically abused by guards and a warden. In 2018, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, known as RAICES, the Texas A&M University School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, and the University of Texas School of Law’s Immigration Clinic The report, which did not name Michael Sheppard, included complaints from settlers, but he was warden at the time.
Asked if the FBI had investigated the allegations, “You don’t have any information at this time,” said Laura Makowski, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas.
Another ICE spokeswoman, Paige Hughes, said the agency stopped sending detained immigrants to the West Texas Detention Center in October 2019. They didn’t say why.
She added that ICE takes allegations of abuse against detained immigrants seriously and that ICE was investigating the allegations at the time, but she did not know the outcome of the investigation.
Immigrant rights advocates called Tuesday’s shooting a hate crime, and U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, called for the federal government to investigate the shooting for possible civil rights violations. Four other Democratic members of Congress from Texas on Saturday asked the US Justice Department to investigate the shooting.
“It’s hard to imagine two men attacking victims in cold blood who decided to target them based on the color of their skin,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said at a press conference. Joined by representatives Sylvia Garcia and Al Green of Houston and Lloyd Doggett of Austin. She condemned the “occupation rhetoric” used by Texas Republican leaders to describe immigrants coming to the country, which she said has fueled violence against Hispanics.
A spokesman for Homeland Security Investigations said it will “cooperate with local and federal law enforcement to investigate all avenues related to the shooting and will pursue state homicide charges and other federal crimes.”
Rene Ease, a spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott, said, “The shooting was a terrible tragedy and violence of any kind will not be tolerated in Texas.”
Transferring stories to the police
According to the affidavit, the settlers said they were hiding in the brush when they heard someone calling them to come out and then heard the truck’s engine rev. According to the affidavit, they thought the truck had left their hideout and came out of their hiding place, and that’s when the shots were fired.
Police investigators reviewed footage from nearby cameras and identified the truck, which police later found parked at Michael Shepherd’s home. He told police the truck belonged to him and that no one else was driving the vehicle, but refused to talk to officers, the report said.
Mark Shepherd initially told officers he was not with his brother at the time of the shooting, but “later changed his story” and admitted he was with Michael Shepherd, according to the report. “They stopped by the reservoir looking to shoot ducks, then switched to birds and then a javelina,” Mark Shepherd told officials.
Mark Shepard told police he used binoculars and saw a black butt he thought was Javelina before Michael Shepard opened fire.
Mark Shepard told police they didn’t make any calls before his brother opened fire. He said they went to a local water board meeting without looking to see if Mike Shepard’s shots hit anything, the report said.
The case has been referred to the El Paso County District Attorney’s Office for prosecution. A spokesman declined to comment because the case is still under investigation.
Allegations of Abuse of Detained Immigrants
In a 2018 report detailing abuses at the detention center where Mike Shepherd was warden, 30 men interviewed by RAICES said they experienced physical and sexual abuse, “excessive and arbitrary discipline,” verbal and racial abuse.
An inmate, identified in the report as Dalmar, alleged that the warden hit him in the face at a nurse’s station.
“I asked the two medical officers who were there, ‘Are you going to allow this?'” he said, according to the report. “They responded, ‘We didn’t see anything.'”
Detention officers placed Dalmar in solitary confinement, where “the warden repeatedly kicked me in the ribs, tied my hands behind my back, and forced me face down on the floor,” the report said.
All inmates interviewed by RAICES said they experienced “indiscriminate use of pepper spray,” according to the report. One said the situation at the center was so bad that he preferred to return to Somalia, fearing he would be killed there.
A spokesman for LaSalle did not return multiple emails Friday seeking comment on the steps the company took following the publication of the RAICES report.
“RAICES has documented years of widespread racism and abuse at the hands of Michael Shepherd and his leadership at the West Texas Detention Center, denying abuse, racial slurs, and medical and mental health care,” the organization said in a statement Friday. . “The immigration system was created to criminalize and dehumanize asylum seekers while turning a blind eye to their mistreatment and suffering. That is unacceptable.”
William Melhado contributed to this story.