CLEVELAND, Texas (AP) — Wilson Garcia hadn’t even asked his neighbor to stop shooting his gun.
People in their rural town north of Houston are used to people firing their weapons to blow off steam, but it was late Friday night, and Garcia had a month-old son who was crying.
So, Garcia said, he and two other people went to his neighbor’s house to “respectfully” ask that he shoot farther away from their home.
“He told us he was on his property, and he could do what he wanted,” Garcia said Sunday after a vigil in Cleveland, Texas, for his 9-year-old son who was killed in the attack that soon followed.
The suspect, 38-year-old Francisco Oropeza, remained at large Monday despite a search involving more than 250 law enforcement officers from multiple jurisdictions.
Garcia called the police after Oropeza rejected his request. The man shot some more, and now it sounded louder. In the neighborhood of homes on 1-acre lots, Garcia could see the man on his front porch but couldn’t tell what he was doing.
His family continued to called police — five calls in all, Garcia said. Five times the dispatcher assured that help was coming.
And then, 10 to 20 minutes after Garcia had walked back from Oropeza’s house, the man started running toward him, and reloading.
“I told my wife, ‘Get inside. This man has loaded his weapon,” Garcia said. “My wife told me to go inside because ‘he won’t fire at me, I’m a woman.’”
The gunman walked up to the home and began firing. Garcia’s wife, Sonia Argentina Guzman, 25, was at the front door, and the first to die.
The house held 15 people in all, several of them friends who had been there to join Garcia’s wife on a church retreat. The gunman seemed intent on killing everyone, Garcia said.
Also among the dead were Garcia’s son, Daniel Enrique Laso, and two women who died while shielding Garcia’s baby and 2-year-old daughter. Garcia said one of the women had told him to jump out a window “because my children were without a mother and one of their parents had to stay alive to take care of them.”
“I am trying to be strong for my children,” Garcia said, crying. “My daughter sort of understands. It is very difficult when she begins to ask for mama and for her (older) brother.”
On Monday, students in Laso’s third-grade class at Northside Elementary in Cleveland set up a small monument in his memory in their classroom. It included books and a soccer ball that all his classmates signed; soccer was Laso’s favorite sport, said principal Pete Armstrong. A memorial including flowers and stuffed animals grew at the foot of a flagpole in front of the school. Extra counselors were at the campus.
“It’s awful important that we let the students celebrate his life as they need to,” said Armstrong, who called Laso a model student whose “smile was contagious.”
“Times like these bring us closer together,” Armstrong said. “We are moving forward with his memory.”
Police recovered the AR-15-style rifle that they said Oropeza used in the shootings in the rural town north of Houston where the shooting took place just before midnight Friday. He likely fled the area on foot. Investigators found clothes and a phone while combing an area that includes dense layers of forest, but tracking dogs lost the scent, San Jacinto County Sheriff Greg Capers said.
Authorities were able to identify Oropeza by an identity card issued by Mexican authorities to citizens who reside outside the country, as well as doorbell camera footage. Capers said police have also interviewed the suspect’s wife multiple times.
The FBI in Houston said in a tweet on Sunday that it was referring to the suspect as Oropesa, not Oropeza, to “better reflect his identity in law enforcement systems.” His family lists their name as Oropeza on a sign outside their yard, as well as in public records.
Garcia, his slain wife and son and the other three victims — Diana Velazquez Alvarado, 21; Julisa Molina Rivera, 31; and Jose Jonathan Casarez, 18 — were from Honduras.
“We’re looking for closure for this family,” Capers said.
Asked about response time, Capers said officers got there as fast as they could and that he had only three covering 700 square miles (1,800 square kilometers).
Veronica Pineda, 34, who lives across the street from the suspect’s home, said authorities asked if they could search her property to see if he might be hiding there. She said she was fearful that the gunman had not yet been captured.
“It is kind of scary,” she said. “You never know where he can be.”
Pineda said she didn’t know Oropeza well but occasionally saw him, his wife and son ride their horses on the street. She said the family had lived there about five or six years and that neighbors have called authorities in the past to complain about people firing guns.
Garcia also did not know Oropeza well, though their wives sometimes talked. Once, he said, the man helped him cut down a tree.
Associated Press Writer Susan Haigh in Norwich, Connecticut, contributed to this report.