NEW: The San Jacinto Co. Sheriff says they possibly have Oropeza contained in a perimeter in a wooded area nearby.— Shelby Rose FOX 26 (@ShelbyRoseTV) April 29, 2023
He says there are 50-75 law enforcement officers in the area searching with dogs/horses. That includes FBI & Homeland Security pic.twitter.com/tdLExYc3kG
Jonathan Limehouse, Dug Begley
A manhunt was underway Saturday after a man killed five people “execution-style,” including an 8-year-old boy, using an AR-15 after he apparently got angry when confronted by neighbors who said his gunfire was disturbing a baby in a San Jacinto County home, authorities said.
Authorities spent Saturday searching a heavily wooded area near the home for the gunman, who was identified by officials as 38-year-old Francisco Oropeza, according to Rob Freyer, an assistant district attorney with the San Jacinto County District Attorney’s Office. A judge issued an arrest warrant with a $5 million bond for Oropeza.
“Our No. 1 priority,” San Jacinto County Sheriff Greg Capers said, “… has been to locate this suspect and put him behind bars where he belongs.”
Despite more than 100 police on the ground and in the air searching with dogs and on horseback for Oropeza, officials late Saturday said they were expanding their search from the roughly 2-square-mile area they combed most of the day near where the killings occurred in a tucked-in collection of homes down beaten country roads, deep in East Texas’ lush canopy.
Oropeza was allegedly firing his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle around 11:30 p.m. Friday in the front yard of his home on Walter Drive in the Trails End Subdivision, where chickens, dogs and horses are scattered across acre-sized lots separated by chain-link fences.
His neighbor went to the fence to ask him to shop shooting, saying his infant was trying to sleep, Capers said. The suspect allegedly went back inside his home and then reappeared, launching a shooting spree inside the neighbor’s home. He killed an 8-year-old boy, three women and the man who initially complained about the gunfire, authorities said.
“He cleared the whole house,” Capers said.
One female died at the front door and two other females died in a bedroom, lying across three small children whom they were apparently trying to protect, authorities said. All the shots were to the head or neck, police said.
The victims were identified as Daniel Enrique Laso, 8; Jose Jonathan Casarez, 18; Diana Velazquez Alvarado, 21; Sonia Argentina Guzman, 25; and Julisa Molina Rivera, 31.
“We do not believe they are all one family but they are living under one household,” FBI spokeswoman Christina Garza said.
Three children covered in blood were taken to a hospital, where exams determined they were uninjured and bloodied by the slain women protecting them, officials said. The children are now safe with family in the area, Freyer said.
San Jacinto County District Attorney Todd Dillon said two adults in the home were not harmed.
“My understanding is they tried to fight back by throwing a machete at the assailant and he fled,” Dillon said at the scene.
San Jacinto deputies called Montgomery County law enforcement officials and SWAT to determine if the suspect was armed inside his home. They obtained a search warrant and discovered the gunman had fled.
No vehicles were missing from either home, leading officials to believe the suspect was close by in a densely wooded area. Authorities launched a search that included aerial drones. FBI resources were used to track a cell phone Oropeza had used after the shootings, on which he talked to a witness who is cooperating with police. Capers said searchers found the device and clothing Oropeza likely took from the home when he fled in the woods. Dogs used to track him lost the scent, Capers said, because of water on the ground.
Officials collected a semi-automatic rifle and magazine from the suspect’s home and believe that was the weapon used in the killings. What’s unclear is whether he could be on the run with other firearms retrieved from the home.
“We consider him armed and dangerous,” said James Smith, special agent in charge of the Houston field off of the FBI.
Smith urged residents to call police if they see him, “and not take matters into their own hands.”
Deputies had responded to the location multiple times previously, but did not have specifics on the nature of the calls, authorities said. Capers said he believed at least one of the calls was for noise or gunfire.
Gunfire is frequent in this part of unincorporated San Jacinto County, about 45 miles north of Houston, neighbor Veronica Pineda, 38, said.
“I don’t like it, but it’s common,” she said.
The gunfire Friday night was no different, she said.
“I heard like five shots and then another moment and then more shooting,” she said. “We thought when we went to sleep it was nothing.”
Her twins, age 2, curled in a blanket, were a little frightened by all the noise, but fell back asleep.
Her husband awoke early to go to work, and that’s when they realized the shooting was across the street.
Pineda said most neighbors in the enclave — buried in the woods where Montgomery, Liberty and San Jacinto counties intersect near Texas 105 — keep to themselves. Most, including the suspect, moved in about five years ago, she said, and began fixing up the largely abandoned houses, which required significant work because wiring had been ripped from many of them.
She did not know either of the families across the street well, but said her 10-year-old played with some of the children at the house, including the 8-year-old who was killed Friday night.
Pineda said the incident reaffirmed her preference to keep to herself. Something as simple as asking someone to keep the noise down, or stop shooting, can erupt into violence.
“Sometimes we don’t know how someone is going to react,” she said.
Others along Walter Drive agreed. Rene Arevalo, 45, said practically everyone shoots in the area, but also knows not to intrude.
“Somebody firing an ARM is normal,” Arevalo said, using shorthand for the AR-15 rifle. “It happens all the time.”
What is uncommon is to have police swarm on the area because of a mass shooting. He and his family have lived on the street about six years, moving from California 11 years ago.
“It makes you think who your neighbor is,” said Arevalo, his 21-year-old son Rene Jr. at his side. “Texas is a place where you don’t know who could have a gun.”
A spate of recent “rage-induced” shootings over seemingly minor infractions have occurred across the nation just this month, including the shooting of two Woodlands Elite cheerleaders who got into the wrong car in Austin. Other shootings have targeted a 6-year-old whose ball rolled into a neighbor’s yard in North Carolina, a Missouri teenager who rang the wrong doorbell, and a 20-year-old girl who pulled into the wrong driveway in New York.
Condolences sent, vigil planned for victims
Texas Gun Sense, a nonprofit founded by survivors of the Virginia Tech shooting in April 2007, released a statement Saturday afternoon following the shooting.
“Just yesterday, we stood on the steps of the Capitol with survivors from Uvalde demanding that lawmakers act. This morning, we’ve learned of another senseless shooting that ended the life of a child and his family members,” Nicole Golden, Texas Gun Sense executive director, said in the statement. “People often ask ‘what is it going to take to do something?’ To that, we say, the unspeakable has already happened, and continues to happen, to our communities. We know that strong gun laws work, we know most Texans support them, and we know there is no excuse for inaction to save lives.”
The first anniversary of the Robb Elementary mass shooting in Uvalde is next month and gun legislation has been a hot button topic for lawmakers. The San Jacinto County Democratic Party held a vigil for the five victims at Saturday in Huntsville.
“San Jacinto County is devastated by the horrific events that happened last night,” John Michael Adams, chairman of the San Jacinto County Democratic Party, said in a news release. “We’ve decided that it no longer made sense to hold our annual fundraiser tonight, but still felt we needed to come together as a community — however we could — and send our love and prayers to the loved ones of the victims of this senseless shooting.”
This mass shooting comes two months after a 38-year-old gunman fatally shot three teenage girls at a home in Galena Park. The gunman also sexually assaulted a 12-year-old girl, who managed to flee the home in the 2000 block of Second Street with her niece during the February shooting.
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