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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Fugitive accused of killing 5 in Texas was deported several times, officials say

A photo provided by the FBI shows Francisco Oropesa, 38, a Mexican national who the authorities say murdered five neighbors in Cleveland, Texas. Immigration officials revealed on Monday, May 1, 2023, that Oropesa had previously been deported four times; officials are offering up to $80,000 for information leading to his capture.

By Jesús Jiménez

Immigration officials revealed earlier this week that a fugitive Mexican national accused of killing five neighbors over the weekend had previously been deported four times. Even as he remained at large and the target of an extensive search, the case seemed sure to reignite bitter national debates over immigration policy and gun control.

It began Friday evening with a type of noise complaint not uncommon in rural Texas. Authorities said the suspect, Francisco Oropesa, was shooting a gun in his yard in Cleveland, Texas, when a neighbor, Wilson Garcia, approached him and asked him to stop so that his baby could sleep.

Oropesa, 38, responded by getting an AR-15 rifle from his house and walking over to Garcia’s home about 11:30 p.m., where he killed Garcia’s 8-year-old son, wife and three other people, authorities said.

Two women who were killed were shielding a 6-week-old boy and a 3-year-old girl. The gunman then chased Garcia, who escaped through a window and ran.

An official with U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Monday that an immigration judge had ordered ICE to deport Oropesa to Mexico in March 2009. He illegally returned to the United States, and he was caught and removed by ICE in September 2009, January 2012 and July 2016, the official said.

It was unclear what had led to his initial deportation order, but the immigration official said Oropesa was later convicted in Montgomery County, Texas, for driving while intoxicated in January 2012 and sentenced to jail.

Even while the FBI and several Texas law enforcement agencies sought the fugitive, attention turned quickly to the immigration status of the suspect and his victims.

Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a frequent critic of federal policy, said Sunday that the suspect was in the country illegally but on Monday walked back part of his initial comments that the victims were “five illegal immigrants.”

“We’ve since learned that at least one of the victims may have been in the United States legally,” Renae Eze, a spokesperson for the governor, said in a statement Monday. “We regret if the information was incorrect and detracted from the important goal of finding and arresting the criminal.”

ICE officials did not immediately respond to an email about the immigration status of the victims who were killed, all of whom were from Honduras. If survivors were in the country illegally, they would be eligible to apply for a special visa designated for witnesses of a crime.

Before Abbott walked back part of his comments, the League of United Latin American Citizens, a civil rights organization, called for him to apologize for his remarks about the victims.

“LULAC firmly believes that every human being, regardless of their immigration status, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect,” said Rodolfo Rosales Jr., the Texas LULAC state director.

Gun-control advocates, meanwhile, were quick to point out that the suspect had used an AR-15 rifle, the weapon of choice in many shootings, which critics call a weapon of war designed to kill as many people as possible.

It was not known where the suspect had obtained the gun, which authorities said had been discarded and found after the killings. It was possible, they said, that he had a second weapon.

Authorities have offered a total reward of $80,000 for information leading to the capture of Oropesa, and on Monday posted signs in Spanish in Cleveland and elsewhere in San Jacinto County seeking help in finding him.

The search Monday briefly extended outside Cleveland, Texas, which is about 45 miles northeast of Houston, when authorities in neighboring Montgomery County received two reports that a man who possibly matched a description of Oropesa had been seen in the area, prompting some schools to secure their campuses.

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office asked residents to stay indoors while deputies, dogs and helicopters scoured the area, but officials did not find him.

On Sunday, officials conceded that they did not know the suspect’s whereabouts, adding that they considered him to be a threat.

“We do not know where he is,” James Smith, the special agent in charge of the FBI in the Houston area, told reporters at a news conference. “We do not have any tips right now as to where he may be. Right now, we have zero leads.”

Adding difficulty to the search, authorities had initially identified the suspect as Francisco Oropeza, but on Sunday the FBI said that going forward his surname would be spelled as Oropesa “to better reflect his identity in law enforcement systems.”

An “incorrect” image of Oropesa had been “mistakenly disseminated,” the agency said on Twitter on Sunday. The FBI said it had since removed the image from its social media accounts and asked that others not share it.

Sheriff Greg Capers of San Jacinto County said 10 people were inside the house at the time of the shooting. He said that Oropesa had been drinking when Garcia asked him to stop firing. Capers said that Oropesa responded, “I’ll do what I want to in my front yard.”

The FBI identified those killed as Garcia’s wife, Sonia Guzman, 25; Diana Velazquez Alvarado, 21; Juliza Molina Rivera, 31; Jose Jonathan Casarez, 18; and Daniel Enrique Laso, 8.

“I have no words to describe what happened,” Garcia said in Spanish at a vigil Sunday evening, where dozens of people surrounded him and the other survivors of the shooting, joining them in prayer. “We are alive but there is no life,” he said. “I was able to escape by a miracle.”

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