Six people, including a 6-month old baby, her teenage mother and an elderly woman, were killed Monday in a Central Valley farming community in what the local sheriff said was likely a targeted attack by a drug cartel.
The massacre occurred around 3:30 a.m. in and around a residence in the Tulare County town of Goshen near Visalia. Authorities said they were searching for two suspects and that the killings may have been related to a search warrant carried out last week at one of the homes that resulted in one arrest and the seizure of guns, marijuana and methamphetamine.
“I think it’s specifically connected to the cartel,” Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux told The Times without specifying a particular criminal organization. “The level of violence … this was not your run-of-the-mill, low-end gang member.”
Authorities did not release the names or ages of all victims, but said it appeared some were family members.
Several were shot in the head, including the baby, Boudreaux said. A sheriff’s deputy responding to reports of wild gunfire found the infant cradled in the arms of her 17-year-old mother in a ditch outside the homes. Both had gunshot wounds to the head.
The third victim, an elderly woman discovered in a bed in one residence, also was shot in the head.
“It appeared she was shot in her sleep,” Boudreaux said.
Three men were also killed. One was alive when deputies arrived; he was given CPR and taken to the hospital, where he died from his injuries.
It was unclear whether the man arrested last week during the search by a gang and narcotics unit of the sheriff’s department was one of the victims, Boudreaux said. DNA testing will be required to identify at least one of the men because of damage done to his face by the gun or guns used, the sheriff said.
Two women survived the attack by hiding in a trailer on the property. Boudreaux said they told investigators that people on the property saw intruders approaching on surveillance cameras.
“They could see two men sneaking onto the property … but by the time they came on [the video feed], it was too late to do anything,” he said.
The door of the home had been kicked or pushed in and one man shot in the doorway. It appeared the teenage mother was trying to run away with her child when killed, Boudreaux said.
Investigators did not release the names or descriptions of the suspects.
The “manner and swiftness” of the attacks suggested experienced killers, Boudreaux said.
“If [they] are specifically shooting everyone in the head, they know what they are doing … [and] they are comfortable with what they are doing,” the sheriff said.
The first indication that something was wrong on the property on Harvest Road just east of Highway 99 came about 3:38 a.m.
A woman who said she was in a trailer next to the main residence reported that “a male Larry shot her boyfriend,” according to a recording of Sheriff’s Department dispatch.
“She believes somebody may be inside the house,” a dispatcher told responding deputies. “She’s scared.”
Additional 911 calls were coming in from neighbors “across the street advising they’re hearing gunshots,” the dispatcher said.
Deputies arrived and began assessing the carnage.
“How many total ambulances do you need out there?” the dispatcher asked.
“Four,” a deputy said. Later, he told her they had found more victims and needed a fifth and sixth ambulance.
The last one, he said, “It’ll be [for] a child.”
The slayings stunned the quiet community of Goshen, a mostly Latino community of about 5,000.
One man, who asked not to be identified because he was fearful of retribution, said he was awakened by a volley of gunfire. That gave way to “on and off shots” and the sound of a car speeding away, he said.
After learning from the news that six people had been killed, some apparently as they tried to escape, he concluded that those final sporadic gun blasts were the killers “chasing people.”
“Basically hunting,” the man said.
County Supervisor Eddie Valero, who represents the town, called the deaths “everyone’s worst nightmare.”
“These senseless acts of violence, especially with infants, children and young adults, have no place in our communities,” Valero said in a statement.
For a small agricultural area of less than half a million people, Tulare County has long played an outsize role in the transnational business of moving drugs from Mexico to markets around the United States.
Bisected by the 99 Freeway, with a sparse law enforcement presence, acres of wide open land and a heavily mobile population of farmworkers, the area has served as a smugglers paradise since at least the 1970s.
In more recent decades, the area has been home to the production of meth and the cultivation of marijuana, both legal and illegal.
Some of the most prominent — and most violent — figures of Mexico’s recent drug wars have ties to Tulare, including Jose Maria Guizar Valencia, a former leader of the brutal Zetas cartel, who was born there.
Anyone with information is asked to call the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office at (559) 733-6218.