Suspects in migrant shooting went to a meeting after firing fatal shots, police report says

Michael Sheppard, one of the suspects, was the warden of an immigration detention center that was the subject of several human rights abuse complaints in 2018.

click to enlarge Clothing left behind along a trail frequented by migrants in Hudspeth County. The former warden of a private detention center and his brother have been arrested after a migrant was shot to death and another was wounded Tuesday in the county. - Texas Tribune / Justin Hamel
Texas Tribune / Justin Hamel
Clothing left behind along a trail frequented by migrants in Hudspeth County. The former warden of a private detention center and his brother have been arrested after a migrant was shot to death and another was wounded Tuesday in the county.

EL PASO — After a group of 13 Mexican immigrants had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, they stopped on Tuesday evening to drink out of a reservoir south of Sierra Blanca, a small town in the Chihuahuan Desert nearly 100 miles east of El Paso.

A passing pickup truck stopped and backed up near the migrants, who hid behind brush. Someone from the truck yelled out in Spanish, “Come out you sons of bitches, little asses,” the migrants told police later.

An arrest affidavit from the Texas Department of Public Safety obtained Friday by the Tribune says Michael Sheppard, the warden at a private immigration detention center in Sierra Blanca, then got out of the truck with a shotgun, leaned against the hood and fired two rounds, killing a man and injuring a woman in the group.

“Did you get him?” asked his twin brother, Mark Sheppard, who was also in the truck, according to the affidavit. Mark Sheppard changed “him” to “it” while talking to the officer and claimed the brothers were hunting animals and didn’t know they had fired at people, the affidavit says.

The brothers, both 60, then drove off to a local water board meeting.

Both were being held in the El Paso County jail on suspicion of manslaughter on Friday. It’s unclear whether the Sheppards have an attorney.

A spokesperson for LaSalle Corrections, a company that runs 19 jails, prisons and immigration detention centers in Georgia, Louisiana and Texas — including the West Texas Detention Center in Sierra Blanca — has told news outlets that it fired Michael Sheppard after the incident.

The woman, who was shot in the stomach, is recovering at an El Paso hospital, according to U.S. Homeland Security Investigations. The other migrants are in federal custody “pending adjudication,” said Leticia Zamarripa, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Four years ago, migrants held at the West Texas Detention Center filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, claiming they suffered physical abuse by guards and the warden. In 2018, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, known as RAICES, Texas A&M University School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic and the University of Texas School of Law’s Immigration Clinic included the migrants’ complaints in a report that didn’t mention Michael Sheppard by name, but he was the warden at the time.

Lora Makowski, spokesperson for the U.S. attorney's office for the Western District of Texas, said, “At this time I don’t have any information for you,” when asked whether the FBI investigated the allegations.

Paige Hughes, another ICE spokesperson, said the agency stopped sending detained migrants to the West Texas Detention Center in October 2019. She didn’t say why.

She added that ICE takes any allegations of abuse against detained migrants seriously and said ICE investigated the allegations at the time but she didn’t know the outcome of the probe.

Immigrant rights advocates have described Tuesday’s shooting as a hate crime, and U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, demanded that the federal government investigate the shooting for potential civil rights violations. On Saturday, four other Democratic members of Congress from Texas called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the shooting.

"It's hard not to imagine that the victims were attacked in cold blood by two men who looked at the color of their skin and decided to make them targets," U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said during a press conference, joined by Reps. Sylvia Garcia and Al Green of Houston and Lloyd Doggett of Austin. They also denounced the "invasion rhetoric" they say Texas Republican leaders have used to describe migrants coming into the country, which they said has fueled violence against Hispanics.

A spokesperson for Homeland Security Investigations said it would work with local and federal law enforcement to investigate all leads “concerning the shooting and will pursue state murder charges and any other potential federal crimes.”

Renae Eze, a spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott, said the “shooting was a terrible tragedy, and violence of any kind will not be tolerated in Texas.”

Changing stories to police

According to the affidavit, the immigrants said they stayed hidden in the brush after they heard someone yell at them to come out, then heard the truck’s engine rev. They thought the truck had left and emerged from their hiding place, the affidavit said, and that’s when the shots were fired.

Police investigators checked footage from nearby cameras and identified the truck, which police later found parked at Michael Sheppard’s house. He told police the truck belonged to him and that no one else drove the vehicle, but declined to speak to officers, the report says.

Mark Sheppard initially told the officers that he wasn’t with his brother at the time of the shooting but “later changed his story and admitted” he was with Michael Sheppard, the report says. Mark Sheppard also told officers they had stopped near the reservoir looking to shoot “ducks, then changed it to birds and then to a javelina,” the report says.

Before Michael Sheppard fired, Mark Sheppard told police he used binoculars and spotted a “black butt thinking it was a javelina” the affidavit says.

Mark Sheppard told police they didn’t yell anything before his brother fired. He said they left for a local water board meeting without looking to see if Mike Sheppard’s shots had hit anything, the report says.

The case has been referred to the El Paso County district attorney’s office for prosecution. A spokesperson declined to comment because the case is still under investigation.

Abuse allegations by detained migrants

In the 2018 report, detailing alleged abuses at the detention center where Mike Sheppard was the warden, 30 men interviewed by RAICES who had been held at the facility said they suffered physical and sexual abuse, “excessive and arbitrary discipline,” and verbal and racist insults.

One detainee, identified in the report as Dalmar, alleged that the warden had hit him in the face in a nurse’s station.

“I asked two of the medical officers who were present, ‘Are you going to let this happen?’” he said, according to the report. “They responded, ‘We didn’t see anything.’”

Detention officials then put Dalmar in solitary confinement, the report says, where he was “forced to lie face down on the floor with my hands handcuffed behind my back while I was kicked repeatedly in the ribs by the Warden.”

All of the detainees interviewed by RAICES said they had experienced “indiscriminate use of pepper spray,” according to the report. One said conditions at the center were so bad, he preferred to return to Somalia, where he feared being killed.

A spokesperson for LaSalle did return multiple emails Friday seeking comment about what, if any, actions the company took following the publication of the RAICES report.

“RAICES has documented years of extensive racism and abuse at the hands of Michael Sheppard and his ‘leadership’ at West Texas Detention Facility, including abuse, racial slurs, and denial of 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.

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