La Mora lays victims to rest, but Mormon community’s future in Mexico isn’t clear

Mourners accompany the caskets of several victims on the procession to the cemetery at La Mora, Sonora. (Photo by Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ)

After completing their morning chores, three boys head home to prepare for the funerals of nine members of their offshoot Mormon community of La Mora, Sonora. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

Mourners from the U.S. and Mexico pay their respects to the nine victims of La Mora, Sonora. Authorities suspect the nine were gunned down by drug cartels. (Photo by Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ)

LA MORA, Sonora, Mexico – The day this town buried its dead began like many others. As mourners poured in from around Mexico and the United States, daily chores still needed to be done, including feeding the chickens and milking the cows.

“You guys already got two gallons!” one young boy yelled during morning milk duty.

“I got probably a gallon right now,” another replied.

For those young boys, this river valley in remote northeastern Sonora is an idyllic place to grow up. Rugged mountains tower over acres of pecan and pomegranate trees, heavy with ripe fruit. The 30 or so large, U.S.-style homes speak to the success the offshoot Mormon community has found there.

“We all love this place,” one of them said. “We have the best place here.”

Family members grieve at a funeral for the three women and six young children who were gunned down Nov. 4 in northern Sonora. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

“Normal. Gardening, school, taking care of things, lots of family,” said Amelia Sedgwick, summing up her nearly four decades in La Mora. “Big Thanksgivings, celebrations for a week. Christmas, everybody home. Swimming in the river, hiking, going to the ranches to camp out. Life has been beautiful.”

Her daughter, Christina Langford, was one of three women killed in attacks Nov. 4. Six children were also among the victims of the suspected drug cartel ambush.

“Home here is a paradise. And now it’s scary,” she said. “The only thing you can rely on is God. Just hoping that there’s some sort of a purpose. Maybe there’s a greater good for the whole of Mexico and the people that live here that might come out of this. Who knows?”

On the morning of Nov. 7, Sedgwick’s sons and other relatives were in the town’s woodshop, putting the final touches on Christina’s coffin. The men then carried the coffin to Sedgwick’s nearby home, where family was gathered to say goodbye. Christina would ultimately be buried in her husband’s Mormon community in Chihuahua.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints does not recognize these groups as a part of its church. After the U.S. banned plural marriages in the 1880s, Mormons were encouraged to resettle in northern Mexico to continue the practice. Others moved to Mexico after the church officially renounced poligamy in the early 20th century.

What comes next for Sedgwick’s family is an open question.

“A lot of people are going to move out,” she said. “For now because … we believe the war between the mafia, the cartels, is actually going to get worse at this point. A lot of them do not want to be in the middle of it.”

She has a lot of reasons to stay, but some family members would like to see her go to the United States, for the time being at least.

“I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I haven’t decided,” Sedgwick said.

Final goodbyes

On the other side of La Mora, mourners sang and held each other close as they said farewell to Dawna Langford, 43, and her sons, 11-year-old Trevor and 2-year-old Rogan. Their two small coffins flanked their mother’s beneath a wreath of red roses spelling out “LOVE.”

Through tears, family members told loving stories about the generous, spirited mother of 13.

Her husband, David Langford, spoke of the family’s sorrow. The children still recovering from bullet wounds in a Phoenix hospital. And the struggle to forgive, or even understand, the vicious attack.

“My children were brutally, brutally murdered. And my beloved wife. And a lot of you don’t know this, but she was a hero that day, too,” he said. “She told them all to duck and get down to the floor. If you look at that car, every one of them would have been dead if she didn’t tell them and act so quickly. Meanwhile, she risked her own life and took a bullet in the head.”

La Mora is forever changed, he said.

“One of the dearest things to our lives is the safety of our family. And I don’t feel safe, I haven’t for a few years here,” Landford said.

Jay Ray, the father of Dawna Langford, speaks at the funeral for his daughter and two of her children in La Mora, Sonora. (Photo by Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ)

‘There’s no other place’

The tragedy already has pushed some families to leave. For Adrian LeBaron and others, it’s strengthened their resolve to stay.

“If I leave this town, I’m going to die of sadness in some other place in the world,” he said. “I’d rather die here for the cause of liberty and freedom and life. That’s my point. There’s no other place. There’s no other option.”

LeBaron was preparing to bury his daughter, Maria Rhonita LeBaron, and her four small children. He was the first to find the charred SUV with their five bodies still inside on the rough dirt road between La Mora and his home in Chihuahua.

“I’m still there,” he said. “I’m very indignant. Impotente. Una impotencia increíble.”

He feels incredibly powerless, LeBaron said, but he won’t be run out of his home.

“We cannot let this stop us from living. I live in memory of Maria and Dawna and Christina and those children who died,” he said. “We need to continue traveling that road, as unsafe as it might be.”

He called on his community to rise up and hold the Mexican government accountable for their safety. And if the government doesn’t protect the community, he said they’ll have to do it themselves.

“If that’s the last resort, of course we will,” he said. “We’re not going to promote it and we don’t even consider it. But who knows. … We need to find reasons to live, or reasons to die. And both are very honorable.”

LeBaron called the Mormon communities in Sonora and Chihuahua resilient. And he credits their faith.

“If justice is not given here, justice will be served eventually,” he said. “That’s my faith. That’s my hope. And I live with that certainty. And most of these people, the same. That’s why we’re not afraid.”

Mourners sing a hym at a service for the nine people killed Nov. 4 in northern Sonora. (Photo by Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ)

Dreams undeterred

As the funeral for the Langfords ended, family and friends carefully loaded the three simple caskets onto trucks and slowly processed through La Mora toward the cemetery.

Eldon Spencer came from Utah to pay his respects. His family is from nearby Colonia LeBaron in Chihuahua. He said he knew most of the victims.

“It’s family,” he said. “That car that got burned, she used to be my babysitter. I’ve known her my whole life. And I knew her kids, too. And this is my best friend’s aunt, so it’s tough.”

But despite everything, he said, he still dreams of moving here someday.

“Buying a piece of land, having some trees, building a house somewhere.”

Walking with hundreds of mourners, Spencer said in his community, you’re never alone.

“There’s just a lot of people. A lot of support. So everyone keeps going.”

And for many, it will continue to be the place they call home.