(PCSO Press Release) – This past Saturday, around 4:30 am, a U.S. Border Patrol Agent working in conjunction with the “West Desert Task Force”, located a Ford SUV along Interstate-8 in the Vekol Valley area. The Vekol Valley area is known as a major drug and human smuggling corridor. As the agent turned his vehicle around to contact the occupants of the vehicle it fled. The vehicle was not located again until approximately 8:30 am.
U.S. Border Patrol tracked the vehicle and determined it left the roadway northbound near milepost 147. Vehicle tracks indicated it was driven a northeasterly direction through the desert for several miles. When Border Patrol found the vehicle at 8:30 am, the vehicle had been badly torched; the fire was out but the vehicle was still smoldering. Inside of the vehicle were five severely charred human remains. Four of the human remains were in the rear storage compartment of the vehicle and one was in the second row passenger seat.
The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office Homicide Unit was called to the scene to investigate. The area had several shoe prints and also “sleepy feet” (shoes made of carpet remnants or burlap by smugglers to hide their footprints). It also appeared that an accelerant was used when the vehicle was torched as it and its contents were so badly burned.
The crime scene was processed and the five human remains were taken to the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office for autopsies. The vehicle was so badly torched; detectives at the scene were not able to locate any information to determine who the registered owner was. A massive tarp was wrapped around the vehicle to preserve evidence and it was towed to the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office so detectives could process it.
On Saturday afternoon, PCSO received a phone call from an individual who asked to remain anonymous. The individual reported that he feared his brother-in-law was among the dead. The brother-in-law had told him the night before that he was “going to Vekol Valley to make money.” The brother-in-law had left to Vekol Valley with four other acquaintances. Homicide detectives asked the reporting party if his brother-in-law was involved in drug or human smuggling and he said he didn’t get involved in his business but he “knows its illegal.” The reporting party said that when he tries to call his brother-in-law or his friends on their cell phones they go straight to voicemail.
On Sunday, a homicide detective again spoke with the reporting party who told us he still has been not able to get in touch with his brother-in-law or his acquaintances. The five men were last seen driving in a Ford SUV. Homicide detectives are also not able to locate the brother-in-law either. PCSO knows the names of the family members involved including those who are missing, but we’ve been asked to withhold as the family fears possible retaliation from the drug cartel.
On Monday, an autopsy was conducted on the five human remains by the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office. Gregory Hess, the chief medical examiner of the Pima Medical Examiner’s Office, said the bodies were badly burned and that it may be difficult to determine whether they were killed before the vehicle was set afire or died in the fire. Hess added that the victims’ identities can only be determined by dental records and at this point they still have not determined if they are males or females.
According to the Boston Herald and other news entities, “A Border Patrol official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still under way, said the driver could have fled on foot, driven off in a vehicle stashed nearby or phoned someone to pick him up. My guess, he’s an illegal, maybe a Zetas cartel member and he was doing a hit for the Zetas.”
It was also theorized by Federal law enforcement officials in this same article that these individuals were hostages killed by a Mexican drug cartel. PCSO is not able to confirm this information as our investigation is still ongoing.
On Monday afternoon, PCSO was notified by the Tempe Police Department of a missing persons case they are working. The Tempe Police Department advised us that they had responded to a residence and the husband, wife and three children were all missing. All five individuals were confirmed missing along with their full size Ford SUV. Any additional requests for information regarding the details of this investigation will need to be directed to the Tempe Police Department.
The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office is still investigating the homicide case and is looking at both of these other cases to see if either is linked to it. We will continue to work with the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office and the Tempe Police Department with this investigation.
(Photos: Pinal County Sheriff’s Office)