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Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric Fueled Sierra Blanca Migrant Shooting, Advocates Say

This article was originally published by the Texas Observer, a nonprofit investigative news outlet. Sign up for their weekly newsletter, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

As darkness descended on a remote ranch in far West Texas, a migrant from Mexico sat bleeding from a shotgun blast to her stomach. She texted a farewell to her aunt: “I am dying. They shot me. Please don’t tell my mother. Everyone else is OK, except for one other guy that they shot. He’s dead, and I might be soon.”

Twin brothers Mike and Mark Sheppard, 60 years old and living in nearby Sierra Blanca, claimed in an affidavit to police they had been hunting out at a reservoir on the ranch on the evening of September 27 when Mike fired twice with a shotgun at what he said he thought was a javelina in the bushes. One migrant from Mexico, Jesús Sepúlveda Martinez, 22, was killed while another, Berenice Casias Carrillo, was hit in the stomach and hospitalized. The Sheppards were later arrested at their Sierra Blanca home 5 miles north for manslaughter, with additional charges later filed for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Residents of Sierra Blanca—a town of about 800 in far West Texas—interviewed by the Texas Observer painted a troubling picture of the Sheppard brothers, both of whom have been accused of racism and acts of violence. A nonprofit report and a lawsuit also reveal that, while working as a prison warden, Mike Sheppard faced allegations of racist and violent behavior toward Hispanics and Blacks. The failure of officials to act on these accusations fueled a hate crime that resulted in death, according to immigrant rights group RAICES. 

While Governor Greg Abbott’s statement called the shooting a “tragedy,” families of the victims are demanding justice and say it was an intentional killing. 

As authorities have kept tight-lipped about their investigation into the shooting, Democratic elected officials have said Republicans’ dehumanizing of immigrants contributed to the killing. They say that repeated calls by conservatives to label migrants invaders and criminals have created an atmosphere that puts targets on the backs of those crossing the border. In the gubernatorial debate on October 3, Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke said Abbott’s “hateful rhetoric” was responsible for the migrant’s death. 

Other Democratic officials made the same assertion. “When you continuously use language like ‘invasion’ to describe what is happening at our border, the only logical conclusion is that you want migrants and asylum-seekers to be treated like ‘invaders,’” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. 

U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from El Paso, and 15 other members of Congress wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice last week urging it to investigate the shooting as a hate crime. The letter noted, “This attack also comes at a time when once-fringe white supremacist propaganda is being embraced and regurgitated by Republican leadership, boosting resentment, hatred, and, in this case, violence against migrants.”

Sierra Blanca residents had divergent views of the Sheppard brothers: Some acquaintances called them “outgoing” and “helpful” while others characterized them as reclusive. 

“I thought I knew [Mike Sheppard] real well,” Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West said. The sheriff said the shooting shocked him, but he was also surprised by both Sheppards’ casual demeanor after the incident. “If he in fact did it, there was no expressions from him. If I went and just shot somebody, I’d be scared shitless, you know? Even if I did it in the line of duty, just the fact that I took somebody’s life.”

West knows both the men but is closer to Mike because he was the warden at the West Texas Detention Facility, which used to house U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees but now is a privately run prison. (LaSalle Corrections, which now runs the prison, released a statement after the shooting saying that Mike Sheppard no longer worked for the company.) While the shooting occurred within his jurisdiction, Sheriff West said he’s leaving the investigation to the Texas Department of Public Safety, the FBI, and Homeland Security Investigations. “We need to stay out of it because of the relationship that I had with the facility and operator of the facility,” he said.

As warden, Mike had a history of accusations of racial animus against him. A 2018 report by the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) documented allegations of significant cases of abuse and racism directed at a group of 80 African inmates awaiting deportation for minor criminal offenses. Detainees accused Mike of punching a Black prisoner in the face four times, then repeatedly kicking him in the ribs while he was lying facedown on the floor. 

“Racial slurs by officers were also common, according to the men we interviewed,” the report said. When one detainee asked for socks and underwear, Mike allegedly replied, “Shut your black ass up. You don’t deserve nothing. You belong at the back of that cage.” The report said the warden also told another Black detainee, “Boy, I’m going to show you. You’re my bitch.” And he reportedly told another, “Now you belong to me, boy.”

The detention facility later lost its federal contract, but it’s unclear if it suffered consequences related to the RAICES report. An attorney who worked on the report—Elissa Steglich, co-director of the University of Texas Law Immigration Clinic—said the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties conducted an investigation at the request of the clinic. A brief letter in July of 2021 informed the report authors that the federal office had made recommendations to the West Texas Detention Center, but it did not list those recommendations or any other actions taken, and it concluded there was no evidence of abuse. Steglich said the Office of the Inspector General also conducted an investigation. Its report showed it investigated each incident but also concluded that no violations of detainee rights had occurred. That report noted that Mike Sheppard told investigators that “all personnel were trained to de-escalate every situation with a type of ‘verbal judo.’”

In a separate federal civil rights complaint from 2021, a 37-year-old Black inmate, Jonathan Webb, said that a correctional officer removed him from his cell in October 2019, handcuffed him, and pepper-sprayed his face. When another guard on the scene asked what Webb had done, the officer replied, “Just another dumb nigger.” Webb wrote that Mike Sheppard then blocked a local deputy from taking a statement from him and said, “The term ‘nigger’ is a freedom of speech term as far as he was concerned.” 

Sheriff West said that Mike’s brother, Mark Sheppard, was a maintenance worker at the Hudspeth County Jail for the few months prior to the shooting and that his responsibilities included taking trustees out to volunteer at the local food bank. The sheriff’s brother, Wayne West—who served as a Hudspeth County Commissioner for almost 25 years—runs the food bank and said Mark Sheppard was always willing to help on food distribution days and was a good guy. Wayne said he is still in “disbelief” after the shooting. 

“I’m thinking, ‘What the hell happened here?’” he said.

But Bill Addington, a local resident who also helped out at the food bank, said he witnessed a different Mark Sheppard: “He would just sit on his fat butt with what we called his ‘standing bitch face’ and sneer at everyone. And then, when we spoke Spanish, he would yell at us not to speak Spanish. And we’d say, ‘We have every right to. … We can talk Spanish anytime we want.’ Yeah, that was an indication to us that he’s racist.” 

Addington said he believes the shooting was intentional. “There’s no way they didn’t know it was human beings out there,” he said.

Longtime Sierra Blanca resident Concha McMillan said Mark Sheppard had a reputation among Hispanics in town for hating “Mexicans.” “Mark would kick [county inmates] in the butt really hard if he heard them speaking Spanish,” she said. 

McMillan said it’s unfathomable to her that the Sheppards, as hunters, would really shoot at something without knowing what it was and not even follow up to see what, if anything, they hit. “I live out that way, and I see people go out there to shoot things all the time, and these guys [the Sheppards] had to have known they were shooting at people,” she said.

Addington is adamant that it wasn’t even dark at the time of the shooting. “No, it had to have been light,” he said. “And there’s no way to confuse a javelina with a human.”

The facts surrounding the shooting remain murky since investigators have not given interviews, and most of what is known publicly comes via a probable cause affidavit filed by Texas Ranger Juan Torez, which contains accounts from several migrants and from the Sheppard brothers. The 13 migrants stopped to get water at the ranch reservoir and hid in the brush when they heard a truck coming. According to the affidavit, “The illegal immigrants stated they overheard one of the males shout something in Spanish to the effect of, ‘Come out you sons of bitches, little asses!’ then revved the engine of the truck.” Then, two shots rang out. 

Later, the Border Patrol used surveillance footage to identify a truck on the road at the time of the shooting, which led them to its owner, Mike Sheppard. 

The affidavit said Mike Sheppard initially denied being at the location of the shooting, but then later admitted he was. According to the affidavit, “[Mark] said they were looking for ducks then changed it to birds and then to javelina’s [sic]. Mark Sheppard told us he used binoculars and saw a ‘black butt’ thinking it was a javelina. Mark Sheppard told us Michael Sheppard exited the truck with a shotgun, leaned on the hood of the vehicle, and fired two rounds. Mark Sheppard told us he asked Michael Sheppard something to the effect of, ‘Did you get him?’ Mark Sheppard then changed ‘him’ to ‘it.’”

Residents and officials in Sierra Blanca said the land where the shooting occurred is private property, but that it has been a popular hunting spot for locals because it’s right off a county road and easy to access. Sheriff West said the owner did not object to hunting on the land. He said Mike was an avid hunter and told him that he used to go alligator hunting frequently back in Florida.

The sheriff and his brother said Mike Sheppard had been in the corrections industry for decades, but they didn’t know specifics. They said Mike came to Sierra Blanca around 2015 or 2016 and was hired as the assistant warden before becoming the warden a year or so later. They were uncertain about when Mark arrived, but it was less than a year ago. 

Both men live in a small house in town that LaSalle, the prison corporation, owns. A young man opened their door on Friday but declined to identify himself. Two neighbors also refused to comment on the twin brothers. A board member of the local water district, Nestor Mendoza, said he knew Mike Sheppard well and that he had a girlfriend, but he declined to give her name “out of respect for her family.” Mendoza said Mike was just a regular, “nice guy.” But, Mendoza said, “I also don’t understand how they can call this manslaughter because if he shot at a migrant it should be murder.” He described Mark Sheppard as “quiet” and said he only saw him when he was with his twin brother.

The Sheppards previously resided in Washington County, Florida. Records there show Mike went through a divorce or custody proceeding, wrote two bad checks, and was fined for failing to appear for a traffic citation in 2011-2012. Mark was charged with DUI in Panama City, Florida, in January 2021 with the conviction reduced to reckless driving. No other records were found in online searches of civil or criminal proceedings in Hudspeth County, Texas, in Florida.

Records show that the brothers are registered to vote as Republicans in Florida and have voted in that state’s general elections since 2006. Wayne West said he didn’t see them involved in politics, and no social media accounts were found for the Sheppards that might betray their politics. Mendoza agreed, at least from what he knew of Mike. “He wasn’t political at all,” he said.

Politics are complicated in Hudspeth County, a remote border county with just under 3,300 residents. Those voting recently for Republicans outnumber those for Democrats almost three-to-one, and Trump won the county in 2020 by 35 points. But Hispanics also outnumber whites five-to-one. Sierra Blanca residents and officials said there is a tradition of empathy for migrants because of the strong ties many have with relatives in Mexico. Although local ranchers are confronting a huge increase in migrants crossing through their properties, Hudspeth County has not joined the 33 Texas counties that have passed resolutions supporting a conservative campaign to get Abbott to declare that Texas is under invasion by illegal immigrants.

Sierra Blanca residents debate whether political rhetoric played a role in the killing and whether it was a hate crime.

“This is the same thing as when we lost 17 people at the Walmart in El Paso,” said Sierra Blanca resident Addington. “That’s why this [shooting] happened because people like Trump and others with their damn racist dog whistles have dehumanized these people to the point where people think they’re less than humans and have the right to kill them. Quoting Trump, ‘There’s invasion, Mexicans coming over here to take over and spread disease and rapists,’ and all that.”

Sheriff West, a Republican, said he expected the reaction and claims of racism from Democrats and immigrant-rights groups, but he thinks it is too early to judge. “All of a sudden this became a headline that it’s a hate crime,” he said. “We don’t know if it was a hate crime or not yet. We don’t know if it was an accident. We don’t know if they deliberately did it. Let the investigation get completed.”

The Sheppards were initially charged and jailed for manslaughter and released on a $250,000 bond each on October 3. In a somewhat unusual move, authorities then rearrested the brothers less than two days later on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and set another bond for $250,000. That meant each brother would have to come up with the money, usually 10 percent or about $25,000 a piece paid to a bond company, for yet another bond.

It’s uncertain whether the prosecution will have the migrants as witnesses cooperating in the investigation since ICE is detaining them in El Paso, and they could be deported. Attorneys for the migrants are looking into a U nonimmigrant status for them, which allows for migrant victims and those helpful to law enforcement investigations to remain free in the United States.

As for the Sheppards, they remained in the Hudspeth County Jail as of Monday. Sheriff West said he was thinking about sending them somewhere else. “I’m probably going to transfer them out of here to another couple of jails. Just because I’m tired of the media.”


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