FARGO — A civil lawsuit has been filed in U.S. District Court against a Mexican drug cartel by surviving family members of individuals killed late last year when vehicles they were riding in came under attack while traveling between the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua.
Plaintiffs in the suit filed in federal court in North Dakota include Howard J. Miller and Tyler Edward Johnson.
Miller's wife, identified in the suit as Maria Rhonita LeBaron, and four of the couple's seven children, all of whom lived in Williston, N.D., were killed during the attacks on Nov. 4, as was Johnson's wife, identified in the suit as Christina Marie Langford.
Also killed in the attacks were Dawna Ray and two of her children, according to the suit.
It is not exactly clear how the plaintiffs would recover any damages awarded as a result of the lawsuit.
Fargo attorney Tatum O'Brien, who is among the lawyers representing the surviving family members, said it is hoped the plaintiffs will recover compensation of some form, as well as justice for the loss of their loved ones.
She said the case is based partly on anti-terrorism law that allows Americans to sue parties outside of the U.S.
O'Brien acknowledged that deciding to sue a drug cartel was likely a daunting step for those involved, but added: "Given what they went through, it's a scary deal all the way around for the families."
Miller is a citizen of the United States and Mexico who resides and works in North Dakota, according to the suit, which says Johnson and his wife lived in Williston for many years. At the time of the attacks, his wife was driving from one location in Mexico to another to pick up her husband as they prepared to relocate permanently to North Dakota.
The suit names the Juarez Cartel as a defendant, describing the cartel as one of Mexico's oldest and most infamous criminal organizations. It also states that members of the LeBaron family of Chihuahua have been vocal critics of the cartel and of government corruption in Mexico and that they have become symbols of Mormon resistance to the cartel.
According to the lawsuit:
Prior to the attacks, the Juarez Cartel sent out gunmen to establish ambush sites at two locations several miles apart with orders to attack any vehicles that came by, civilian or otherwise.
On the morning of Nov. 4, 2019, mothers Maria Rhonita LeBaron, Christina Marie Langford, and Dawna Ray formed a three-vehicle convoy, with LeBaron and four of her children in one vehicle; Ray and nine of her children in another vehicle; and Langford and her 7-month-old daughter in another vehicle.
Soon after departing, LeBaron's vehicle broke down and Ray drove LeBaron and her children back to where they had started from in order to get a working vehicle for LeBaron, while Langford continued on ahead.
After dropping LeBaron and her children off so they could get a working vehicle, Ray headed back on the road to catch up with Langford.
After securing a fresh vehicle, LeBaron also took to the road, intending to catch up with the vehicles carrying Ray and Langford.
According to the suit, Ray's vehicle had nearly caught up to Langford's vehicle when Langford's vehicle came under fire from ambushers.
At about the same time, LeBaron's vehicle, which was several miles behind the other two vehicles, was attacked by a separate group of ambushers.
All told, nine people died in the violence, either from bullets or flames that erupted after vehicles caught fire.
Eight children survived, including Langford's 7-month-old daughter, who was found alive in a car seat about 10 hours after the attack.
One child who survived later said that after the shooting stopped the gunmen "got us on the floor and they just drove off."
The suit seeks a minimum of $75,000 and asks the court triple whatever damages are ultimately determined to be appropriate.