Innocents lost: Uvalde attack leaves broken lives, fractured public trust in law enforcement
Like any campus approaching the end of a school year, Robb Elementary was abuzz with excitement and anticipation.
There were field trips, a ceremony to honor the best in class and a “Footloose and Fancy” day for the young students to show off favorite outfits and “fun” shoes.
During an effusive video address to the entire school district last week, Superintendent Hal Harrell’s only concern appeared to be for the uncertain late-spring weather threatening outdoor graduation ceremonies in the small community on the edge of the famed Texas Hill Country.
That same day, May 20, an 18-year-old high school dropout visited a local gun shop and purchased the second of two assault-style rifles. Both weapons would be tagged as evidence days later after a shooting that left 19 Robb students and two teachers dead and a country grappling with the ramifications of yet another episode of horrific slaughter.
Until Tuesday, Uvalde’s brush with the national spotlight was largely confined to its most famous resident: John Nance "Cactus Jack" Garner, a onetime speaker of the House and vice president to Franklin Roosevelt whose resting place is not far from a ribbon of Highway 90 that cuts a well-traveled path between San Antonio and the Mexican border.
Before sunset, Uvalde had joined a growing list of communities now infamous after its innocence was buried forever by another mass shooting in America.
What joins Uvalde to places like Stockton, California; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Littleton, Colorado; Red Lake, Minnesota; Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania; Blacksburg, Virginia; Newtown, Connecticut; and Parkland, Florida during the past quarter century of campus attacks is a timeline charting a deadly collision between attacker and unsuspecting victims.
But what has now cast a further pall over this small Texas community is an acknowledged catastrophic failure by law enforcement not to immediately storm adjoining classrooms that a heavily armed Salvador Ramos had transformed into a killing field, even as terrified students inside placed repeated 911 calls pleading for help and frantic parents outside begged officers to let them by to save their children.
Instead, Texas Department of Public Safety chief Steven McCraw said Friday that the local school district's police chief – who had been the on-scene commander – waited on reinforcements for more than an hour, a decision that may have cost more young lives and now threatens to fracture public confidence in law enforcement's capacity to guard the community's most vulnerable.
The breakdown immediately recalled past missteps by law enforcement that have haunted responses to similar deadly attacks.
"With the benefit of hindsight, of course, it was the wrong decision," a shaken McCraw told reporters Friday, adding that an investigation would try to determine how many died while 19 officers waited in a hallway outside the locked classroom doors where Ramos continued shooting. "There is no excuse for that."
'A real happy little girl'
Tuesday was going to be a special day at Robb Elementary School. Amerie Jo Garza, 10, dressed up in a favorite white print top, pink nail polish, gold earrings and swept her long black hair back in a ponytail.
It would be the third-to-last day of school before the long summer break. But more important, the students in Eva Mireles’ and Irma Garcia’s fourth grade class were having an honor roll ceremony. Amerie knew she probably would be recognized for another year of good grades.
“She was a real happy little girl, always laughing and smiling and playing around,” her grandfather, Alfred Garza Jr., told USA TODAY.
“But she was a real good student. She would always go to school. She would never miss it.”
With her parents split up and living out of town, Amerie had spent the past few years living with her maternal grandmother, Dora Mendoza, on Nopal Street just a few miles from the school.
Mendoza, a manager at the nearby Stripes convenience store, had long doted on the little girl, whom she treated as her own daughter. With both sets of parents working and juggling custody visits, Amerie spent more time with "Ganny" Grandma Dora than anyone.
A week or two ago, Amerie moved back in with her mother, Kimberly Garcia, and stepfather, Angel Garza, to a small house on Villa Street, just a few hundred yards from the school.
On Tuesday, after a quick breakfast, she grabbed her new cellphone – a gift for her birthday – and got a ride to school from her stepdad on his way to work. “Like always, she asked me for a dollar to get snacks at lunch,” Garza said. “And to turn down the radio. I’m always jamming out, and she gets so embarrassed. So she turned it down to zero before getting out of the car.”
"She said: 'Daddy, I love you. Are you going to pick me up today?'" he said. "And that was the last time I spoke to her."
Hours later, with some parents and grandparents in attendance at Robb Elementary, the beaming girl proudly had her picture taken with her “A and B Honor Roll certificate." Her relatives began going their separate ways. Amerie asked her grandmother if she could leave school early and spend time with her.
"No hija, I have to work,” Mendoza replied. The girl was disappointed, her grandmother would later tell relatives. Amerie stayed behind with her teachers and friends.
'I shot my grandmother'
The first indication of trouble Tuesday exploded nearby on Diaz Street.
Eduardo Trinidad told USA TODAY that late that morning, local residents recalled hearing sounds resembling the pop of fireworks or maybe the echo of a nail gun – not an uncommon sound in a neighborhood where contractors were often busy maintaining aging homes.
What would set the incident apart, Trinidad learned, was the sudden appeal for help uttered by Celia Gonzales, Ramos' 66-year-old grandmother and a former teacher's aide.
Trinidad, 61, who was once related to Gonzales by marriage, had made his way to the neighborhood after learning that Gonzales had been seriously wounded by gunfire. When he got there, an elderly neighbor said Gonzales had emerged from her home urging someone to call police.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott would later acknowledge that Ramos, who was living with his grandmother at the time, shot Gonzales in the face. Gonzales survived the shooting and was being treated at a local hospital.
"I was shocked," said Trinidad, a local ranch and farm worker. "She is a good person, a good mother. She didn't deserve what she got. There had to be a lot of evil in him."
Indeed, Abbott later described the gunman as "pure evil," revealing that Ramos had declared his intentions in a chilling series of private social media messages:
"I'm going to shoot my grandmother."
"I shot my grandmother."
"I'm going to shoot an elementary school."
A separate set of texts messages Ramos reportedly sent to a teenage girl he had been communicating with in Germany were equally disturbing, according to screenshots obtained by CNN:
"I just shot my grandma in the head."
"Ima go shoot up a elementary school rn."
After wounding his grandmother, police said, Ramos commandeered her vehicle and drove it into a culvert near Robb Elementary.
After the wreck, first reported at 11:28 a.m., McCraw said the gunman exited the vehicle with a rifle and a backpack full of ammunition.
The time of the wreck is one of the few parts of a narrative law enforcement officials have offered up since Tuesday that remained unchanged, even as McCraw disclosed a new timeline of events Friday and called the failure to engage Ramos sooner the "wrong decision."
The DPS official said Ramos first fired on two bystanders looking on from a funeral home before he scaled a fence on the perimeter of the school property.
Neither of the two bystanders were hit. The gunman approached the school, apparently firing indiscriminately at the building about 11:31 a.m.
Although authorities first reported earlier this week that Ramos was confronted by an armed school resource officer, they later corrected the record to say that there was no such encounter and that no officer was at the school before the shooting.
At 11:33 a.m., Ramos slipped into a door that had been propped open by a teacher on the building's west side.
"He walked in unobstructed," DPS regional director Victor Escalon said earlier this week.
The DPS official said Ramos, whose motive remains unknown, eventually made his way to adjoining classrooms in the building. He ultimately confronted his victims, discharging more than 100 rounds.
Somewhere among them was Amerie Jo Garza.
'The students are safe in the building'
As word spread that law enforcement officers were converging on the campus, one source of information for anxious parents and family members were the periodic posts on the Robb Elementary Facebook page that didn’t come close to relaying the horror already underway inside.
Please know at this time Robb Elementary is under a Lockdown Status due to gunshots in the area. The students and staff are safe in the building. The building is secure in a Lockdown Status. Your cooperation is needed at this time by not visiting the campus. As soon as the Lockdown Status is lifted you will be notified. Thank you for your cooperation!
Please know at this time all campuses are under a Lockdown Status due to gun shots in the area. The students and staff are safe in the buildings. The buildings are secure in a Lockdown Status. Your cooperation is needed at this time by not visiting the campus. As soon as the Lockdown Status is lifted you will be notified.
There is an active shooter at Robb Elementary. Law enforcement is on site. Your cooperation is needed at this time by not visiting the campus. As soon as more information is gathered it will be shared. The rest of the district is under a Secure Status.
About eight minutes before the first lockdown notice was posted at 11:43 a.m., McCraw said, local Uvalde and school district officers were inside the school as gunfire continued to ring out from inside the classroom. By about 11:51 a.m., McCraw said 19 officers were in an outside hallway when the school district police chief made the decision to not pursue the shooter.
That decision is now at the heart of a firestorm of criticism, along with investigations by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. McCraw said the chief believed Ramos had barricaded himself in the classroom and no longer posed a threat to life.
At the same time, a barrage of 911 calls from young students, beginning at 12:03 p.m. from Room 112, were telling a more desperate story. One caller whispered their location to the dispatcher.
At 12:10 p.m., the child called back to report that multiple people were dead. Six minutes later, the caller reported that eight to nine people were still alive.
Another series of calls went out from Room 111, each appearing to express new urgency with every passing minute.
At 12:47 p.m., McCraw said a caller urged: "Please send police now!"
After describing the calls, a shaken McCraw was again at a loss to explain why action was not taken before authorities finally breached the door at about 12:50 p.m. and killed the suspect.
"There were plenty of officers to do whatever needed to be done," McCraw said.
The acknowledged lapse in time has raised questions about the police response and represented a departure from longstanding law enforcement strategy developed after the deadly 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado. The latest protocols urge first responders to immediately confront active shooters to prevent loss of life.
Javier Cazares was one of the parents who rushed to the school after hearing about the shooting, not immediately knowing about the fate of his 9-year-old daughter, Jackie.
Cazares said he arrived about noon, when he said several parents were yelling for officers to enter the building. When they didn't, he said, they begged officers to let them go in themselves.
After five or 10 minutes at the school, Cazares said he heard gunshots from inside the building. He estimated another 10 or 20 minutes passed before all tactical officers arrived.
'Something is wrong'
Amerie’s parents didn't need to get the Facebook alerts to know something was amiss.
Her mother, working from home, heard the first two gunshots from her house on Villa Street. About five minutes later, she heard multiple gunshots. She called her daughter on her new phone to alert her.
Each time, Amerie's phone went straight to voicemail.
“We make her turn her phone off when she goes to school,” Garza said, “to make sure she is paying attention.”
With the gunman in the classroom, Amerie – hunkered down with some other students – quietly pulled out her phone, turned it on and waited for it to boot up, a classmate later told Garza.
When she couldn't reach Amerie, her mother called Angel Garza, the girl’s stepfather who had helped raise her since she was a toddler. Garza was working at a medical clinic about 10 blocks from the school, and he was in with a patient when the call came in.
When he didn't answer, Kimberly Garcia called his boss, who intruded on Garza and his patient. “Something is wrong,” the supervisor said, pulling him out of the room.
Garza ran to his car and was at the school within minutes. Police were milling about, along with about a half dozen parents – most of them fathers who were demanding answers from authorities who would not give them.
“They didn't know anything,” Garza said.
Garza and the others waiting were growing more frantic. And they were getting upset with the police.
“They're telling us we can't just bust in, that we have to wait,” Garza said. “And we were saying, ‘We can’t wait.'”
The police on the scene insisted that they stand back and that they were waiting because without any shooting, they were focusing on evacuating those inside.
“They started breaking windows,” Garza said, "and getting out the kids.”
A trained medic, Garza rushed in to help.
“There were multiple kids coming out, blood on them. And there was one little girl who was head to toe just covered in blood,” Garza said. “She looked like she was sitting in a tub of blood. She had plasma on her head. I thought she was really hurt. She was hysterical.”
“Are you injured?” Garza said he asked her.
“No,” replied the girl.
But the girl sitting next to her was injured and distraught. “He shot my best friend,” she said between sobs. “She's not breathing. She was just trying to call 911. And now she's dead.”
Garza asked the girl the name of her friend. "Amerie,” she responded.
“There's 400 kids in that class," he said. "So the last thing I expected was for her to say my daughter's name.”
Still, Garza clung to the hope that his stepdaughter was being treated, and saved, by doctors.
Amerie’s father, Alfred Garza III, worked at a nearby car dealership and – after getting a call from his ex-wife – ran toward the school with other parents.
“The cops were telling us to get back, you know, that there was a shooter there,” Garza said. He moved toward the north side of the campus where everyone was waiting for the kids to come out.
“And somehow I actually ended up in the funeral home where they were storing all the kids when they were coming out of the school,” he said.
Alfred Garza also tended to the children.
“They had all the kids in there, they were all crying and stuff. And I was trying to get some of them to call their parents, the ones that were really upset,” he said. “I told them: 'Here’s a phone. Call your mom and dad – let them know you're safe.'”
Garza had heard rumors that his daughter – his only child – was injured, perhaps mortally. All he could think of, he said, was to try to find her, wherever she was.
The final breach
As calls went out for reinforcements, an estimated 80 Customs and Border Patrol agents were among those who responded to Robb Elementary, including specialized units representing the The Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC) and the Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue team (BORSTAR).
Created in 1984, BORTAC has seen its mission evolve from responding to riots at immigration detention facilities to serving warrants on "high-risk" suspects, gathering intelligence and conducting surveillance.
The companion unit, known as BORSTAR, has been in existence since 1998, leading search and rescue responses for Border Patrol operations.
It is not surprising that so many federal border agents responded to the call for help. Uvalde, about 75 miles from the Mexican border, sits within one of the busiest immigration corridors in the country.
When the reinforcements arrived, officials said, four agents from the elite border units were part of the team that eventually moved in to take out the gunman.
One of the agents, an official said, held up a shield while three others opened fire on the suspected attacker, ending the standoff about 1 p.m.
Some students managed to crawl through windows to safety. Amerie Jo Garza and Jackie Cazares were not among them,
Jason Amerine, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army's special forces, suggested the shooter's weapon and cache of ammunition was more suitable for a war zone. He said the .223 ammunition the gunman used "makes limbs blow apart if it hits bone just right."
"You can’t hunt with it due to the damage it causes to flesh," he told USA TODAY. "I wish I couldn’t imagine what the wounds look like. But it is the stuff of nightmares. Movies never show the real carnage."
'Help me find my daughter'
With no word coming from the police or the Texas Rangers, Amerie’s family mounted an increasingly frantic search for her.
A feeling of dread had settled over them, especially Amerie's maternal grandmother, Dora Mendoza. She told family she blamed herself for not taking the girl out of school early, as she had requested, even though she was needed at work.
For the majority of her life, Amerie had lived with Mendoza, at times alone but also with her mother and stepfather. Even in recent weeks, she was expressing hope she could return to her home and spend at least the summer there.
“Grandparents are fun to be with, right? But you know they’ll get spoiled rotten if they stay there all the time,” Garza, Amerie’s father, said.
Through the afternoon after the shooting, the family believed Amerie might still be alive and receiving treatment somewhere.
Her dad showed a picture of Amerie to a state police officer, who told him hopeful news.
“He remembered seeing her and said she got hurt, but she's alive," he said. "And so we were thinking, OK, she's going to make it. She's going to be at the hospital. Maybe the bullet grazed her and she wasn't injured that bad.”
They went to the local hospital and showed Amerie’s picture around. But no one had seen her. They sent her photo to other hospitals in the area. They hadn’t seen her either.
The extended family split up and canvassed the places where Amerie might be waiting for them. They went to the school, of course, and the neighboring funeral home where the kids were being kept, but no one had seen Amerie or knew where she was.
“That's what we were upset about. They weren't giving us any information,” Garza said.
At 8:46 p.m., Angel Garza – Amerie’s stepdad – posted a plea for help on Facebook. It was a picture of him with his little girl on his lap, her dark eyes sparkling and a wide smile on her face. “I don’t ask for much or hardly even post on here but please It’s been 7 hours and I still haven’t heard anything on my love,” he wrote, adding a broken-heart emoji.
“Please fb,” he asked, “help me find my daughter.”
Finally, close to midnight, authorities told the family Amerie was one of the 19 children killed in one of the deadliest mass school shootings in American history.
The hardest part, Amerie's father said, was breaking the news to Mendoza, her grandmother.
“I know what she's thinking, like if she had done something different, something different would have happened,” Garza said. “But I told her she can't blame herself. It's kind of like, this was God's will. There are things that happen in this universe that we just we don't have control over.”
His words were of little consolation to Mendoza, who was too distraught to comment for this story, relatives said.
During their fraught search, the family also learned from survivors – especially the girl covered in blood that talked to Amerie's stepfather – that she was shot while trying to call 911. They don't think her call went through.
"She was so protective and caring, I think she just wanted to do the right thing," Garza said. "In her mind, I'm sure she didn't think she was going to get shot."
At two minutes after midnight, Angel Garza put out an update on Facebook in response to many people who had sent messages of hope and support.
“Thank you everyone for the prayers and help trying to find my baby. She’s been found. “My little love is now flying high with the angels above,” Garza wrote.
“Please don’t take a second for granted,” he added. “Hug your family. Tell them you love them. I love you Amerie jo. Watch over your baby brother for me 🙏 💔”
Kevin Johnson and Josh Meyer are reporters on USA TODAY's national team. Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @bykevinj. Meyer can be reached at email@example.com and @joshmeyerdc.
Contributing: Rick Jervis and Trevor Hughes of USA TODAY, Rafael Carranza of the Arizona Republic and Tony Plohetski of the Austin American-Statesman