The killing of a migrant on the border looms over this West Texas town
The Dallas Morning News May 18, 2023
SIERRA BLANCA, Texas (Tribune News Service) — The shooting looms over this West Texas town like a storm cloud in the spring.
“We don’t want to talk about it because we don’t want to be defined by it, but this really happened,” said Bill Addington, a resident of Sierra Blanca, about 90 miles southeast of El Paso. “We have to face the facts, because there will be more shootings.”
Addington was referring to the killing of a man and wounding of a woman last September at a reservoir known as Fivemile tank, just miles from the Texas-Mexico border. Both victims were migrants, part of a larger group that had crossed the border.
The two men allegedly behind the shooting are twin brothers, Michael and Mark Sheppard. They told investigators they thought they were firing from their truck at wild animals, perhaps ducks, birds or javelinas.
Michael Sheppard, the man who pulled the trigger, was the warden at the nearby West Texas Detention Center. His brother Mark Sheppard worked for the sheriff in a civilian job.
The Sheppard twins were accused of manslaughter and assault with a deadly weapon, released on bond and returned to Florida, their home state, according to a complaint affidavit and their lawyers. They have not been indicted, according to their lawyers, the Hudspeth County Clerk and District Attorney’s office.
“It was nothing more than a tragic accident,” said Brent Mayr, an attorney for Michael Sheppard, adding his “client feels remorse and sympathy for the harm that was caused, and that it’s never been in his nature to want to take the life of a human being.”
Lawyer Richard Esper said his client, Mark Sheppard, “did nothing wrong. Period.” He called the shooting “a hunting accident.”
Was it an accident?
“Of course not. They saw us,” said Berenice Casillas Castillo, a migrant who was wounded in the shooting, speaking in a phone interview. She was hit by one of the bullets.
She and 11 other migrants at the scene later told investigators the men yelled profanity at them in broken Spanish before the shooting and drove off without rendering aid, according to Casillas.
“No one, no one deserves this,” she said. “No one deserves to be greeted like this.”
Two women in the group helped Casillas get up and they tried to walk toward town to get medical help, according to Casillas. She said they were so afraid the men would return, “every time we heard a car, we crouched down so they wouldn’t see us.
Casillas said she “almost bled to death” from a bullet wound under her rib cage.
The town remains paralyzed by fear, residents said. Tensions along the border are rising, with concern about violence against migrants. The number of migrants at the border has been increasing with the expiration of Title 42, a pandemic-era health order that allowed border agents to expel tens of thousands monthly back across the southern border.
Amid concerns about a large influx of migrants, Texas Republicans are proposing legislation that would make it a state felony to enter the country from Mexico without documents and would deputize private citizens to create a new border police force.
The controversial bill, known as HB 20, was killed last week by Democrats, but Republicans successfully added the border unit to different legislation that passed the House and is now in the Senate. The new unit was added on amendment to a bill by Rep. Ryan Guillen, R-Rio Grande City, but only after agreeing to Democrats’ demands that everyday residents who joined the unit would pass background checks and not be allowed to detain or repel migrants. Only commissioned officers of the unit would have the power to arrest migrants.
It’s the latest attempt by the state to assume a role in border enforcement and immigration control, despite multiple court rulings that only the federal government has that authority.
The Republican proposals in the Texas Legislature would continue support for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s $4 billion border mission known as Operation Lone Star. That has included the deployment of up to 10,000 National Guard troops to the border with Mexico, “enhanced safety inspections” of commercial trucks arriving from Mexico, slowing down cargo shipments, and fundraising to build a new wall along the Texas border.
“President Biden’s open border policies are going to cause a catastrophic disaster in the United States,” Abbott said on May 8, as he deployed the “Texas Tactical Border Force” to assist federal authorities with the aftermath of the lifting of the pandemic rule.
Last September, investigators used Border Patrol surveillance cameras in the area to locate the Sheppard brothers’ truck. But Michael Sheppard refused to answer questions, according to the Texas Rangers.
According to an affidavit taken on Sept. 29 by a Texas Ranger, two days after the shooting, Mark Sheppard initially denied he was at the location but later told investigators he and his twin Michael were out on a Tuesday afternoon looking for ducks. Later, they said they were hunting javelinas, a breed of wild pigs.
The affidavit noted that the shooting occurred at 7 p.m., though Mark Sheppard said he and his brother had been hunting and later attended a water board meeting, according to the affidavit. Officials said the water meeting began at 5 p.m.
Mark Sheppard said he was using binoculars when Michael got out of the truck, placed the shotgun on the hood and fired two rounds, according to the affidavit. The men then drove away.
Some residents like Addington are concerned that without accountability, there could be other incidents. “Life just can’t go on, like if nothing happened,” he said.
District Attorney Bill Hicks said the “case has not been presented to our office. However, our standing position is that we do not comment on pending litigation.”
Sierra Blanca is located in Hudspeth County, just off Interstate 10. Most drivers zoom by without stopping. It has no traffic lights and a declining population of about 800 residents, according to the U.S. census.
The town is surrounded by striking landscape: desert, mountains, a shooting range and large detention center that’s usually the talk of the town, unless outsiders come in and inquire about the shooting.
Many are reluctant to talk for fear of reprisal. After some convincing, waitress Alejandra Luna spoke.
Luna said she often served Mark Sheppard breakfast. “He was like, ‘You people,’ meaning I guess Mexican people, ‘That y’all come over here and want everything free. Well, first I was, like, I wasn’t born in Mexico. I’m a U.S. citizen. Secondly, I have always worked. That comment is out of place.’”
Residents like Luna call on politicians to be careful with their rhetoric. Some Republican leaders including Abbott refer to the growing number of migrants as an “invasion.”
Hudspeth County Commissioner Mike Sheets agrees with Abbott. “I call this an invasion and a war. I really believe we should take Fort Bliss and put them on the border,” he said, referring to soldiers. “... There are too many people getting away.”
But he also questioned how the killing happened and lamented that a life was taken. “To me it was senseless,” he said. “Young kid … should never die over something like that.”
Residents say the shooting has shaken their close-knit community, where people know their neighbors. Some newcomers regret their decision to relocate here. Sara Villatoro and her husband moved their family from Dallas to rural West Texas looking for a quiet life in the country, a place to own some land. They opened a small café.
“We thought this was a tranquil place,” she said. “But everyone lives with a prayer on their lips.” She said she was “surprised and afraid” after learning the man who shot the migrants was the warden.
Villatoro said she worried her family was at risk and they stopped venturing out to the countryside. “We no longer go out there on our own,” she said. “Because of our skin color, they might say we just crossed the border.”
Villatoro recently closed the restaurant and her family left town. The building now sits empty like so many others in Sierra Blanca.
A drink of water
One recent afternoon, following a downpour, sunlight reflected off Fivemile tank reservoir.
The reservoir was originally created for cattle. Wild animals also come here. Increasingly, migrants stop for a drink of water after crossing a rugged stretch of desert.
Standing near the edge of the road, Addington pointed to the watering hole and called it one of his favorite spots growing up. “It just makes me sad to come here,” he said. “I’ll never look at it the same way as I did before.”
He plans to put up a memorial to mark the spot where a man lost his life.
The scar left by the killing stretches into Mexico. Hundreds of miles south, Napoleon Sepulveda said his family is devastated.
His son Jesus was the man killed. Reached by phone in Durango, Mexico, Sepulveda said the 22-year-old left their small farming community headed for Austin to earn money to build a house for his wife and two little girls.
“I ask the U.S. government for justice,” he said. “As for us, we’ve been decimated.”
Angela Kocherga is news director at KTEP Public Radio and a reporter for El Paso Matters. Staff writer Aarón Torres contributed to this report.
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