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Guatemala hunts for highway robbers

The police in Guatemala set up roadblocks and searched the countryside in an effort to find gang members who robbed a mini-bus full of American tourists, and killed one.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Police set up roadblocks and searched the countryside on Thursday for a gang that attacked and robbed a minibus carrying U.S. tourists, killing a Utah man.

Thirteen members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were traveling from the mountain city of Quetzaltenango to the Mexican border on Wednesday when five men with automatic weapons intercepted their bus about 120 miles west of the capital.

Most of the tourists were from Ogden and Salt Lake City.

Survivors told police that the gunmen opened fire to halt the bus, wounding the driver and Ogden architect Brett Richards, 52, who died en route to a nearby hospital.

The other passengers were taken back from the roadside and were forced to lie face-down while their belongings were stolen.

“It seemed like about a month,” said Richards’ cousin Ed Allen, who spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune from his hotel Wednesday night. “Most of us felt like we were going to be murdered.”

He said the organizer of the tour, Joseph Allen, was kicked in the face several times, but he seemed to be “doing OK.”

Sergio Maldonado, president of the Mormon church in Retalhuleu, some 25 miles from the site of the attack, said the tourists spent the night there and would later come to Guatemala City.

Maldonado said the survivors “seem more relaxed, although a little frightened,” on Thursday.

Police said the group was on vacation, not a formal religious mission.

Many Mormons believe archaeological ruins in Central America were built by people described in the Book of Mormon, which church founder Joseph Smith claimed to have translated from a set of golden plates. Travel agencies arrange tours to visit these sites, focusing on how they might fit in with the scripture.

Family friend Mark DeCaria told the Standard-Examiner in Ogden that Richards and his family often visited Guatemala because his father’s wife is from the country.

Also on the tour were Brett Richards’ brother Reed Richards, a former chief deputy Utah attorney general.

Richards was a partner in Richards Bott Architects P.C., and had served previously as a bishop, the lay leader of a Mormon congregation.

“We’re just all numb,” Bernie Allen said. “He is just one of the neatest guys you could be around.”

The trip was organized by Book of Mormon Tours of Orem, Utah.