The 911 calls began long before the killing started.
Wilson Garcia said he and his wife first called police late Friday night after their neighbor refused to stop shooting a gun outside and threatened them.
Then the neighbor turned up at the house, occupied by several members of an extended family from Honduras. He had a rifle. He began shooting.
Ramiro Guzman said he ducked into a closet with his wife and infant son. He called 911 over and over. Each time, he said, a dispatcher told him that deputies were already there.
“They would cut off the call. I would call back again,” Guzman recalled in an interview. “Then I called my aunt who lives two blocks away to see if they’d answer her. I thought maybe they didn’t believe me and that’s why they didn’t want to help, but maybe they’d believe her.”
By the time San Jacinto County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrived, five people — including Garcia’s wife and 9-year-old son — had been mortally wounded. And the gunman had gotten away.
Garcia and Guzman recalled their ordeals Monday as the hunt for the suspected killer, Francisco Oropesa, dragged into a third day. Both questioned why deputies didn’t arrive earlier.
“It was half an hour after we first started calling,” Guzman said. “I wonder if they had come in those 30 minutes this wouldn’t have happened. Maybe my family would still be alive.”
Authorities in San Jacinto County, where the shooting happened, have not responded to requests for records that would show how many calls for help were made from the house and how long it took for officers to arrive. San Jacinto County Sheriff Greg Capers, whose deputies responded to the scene, could not be reached for comment Monday.
Capers told reporters Saturday that “a few seconds” passed between the harassment call and others reporting a shooting. The Associated Press quoted him as saying that he had only three deputies covering a county spread across 700 square miles. The county has about 27,000 residents.
The location of the shootings, in the southern tip of the county, makes it hard for law enforcement to reach, San Jacinto County District Attorney Todd Dillon said. More than half of the county is the Sam Houston National Forest, with few roads that cut through. In ideal conditions, with no traffic, it would take no less than 45 minutes to reach the scene from the county’s northern boundary, Dillon said. The neighborhood where the shooting took place has dirt roads pocked with potholes, he added.
Dillon also noted that the 911 calls began as a harassment complaint, a fairly common allegation that would not typically be prioritized. But after the callers reported violence, that triggered a full-scale response from the sheriff’s office and nearby agencies.
“They swarmed to get there as soon as the information was put out,” Dillon said. “It just took them a while to get there because they were not staged to get there quickly.”
David Brandon, a San Jacinto County commissioner who lives in Cleveland, said the county, like many rural Texas counties, doesn’t have the money to pay for more coverage.
“We’d love to have 50 deputies per shift. Can we afford it or sustain it? No,” Brandon said. “We can only give what we can support and sustain.”
Guzman said the police response has weakened his confidence in American law enforcement. “So much time passed,” he said. “The whole thing was about an hour. Why did they have to come when it was already too late?”