Investigators Revisit 1960s Mass Slaying on Lonely Texas Road
When the tire on their 10-year-old Buick went flat in this rugged, isolated stretch of West Texas about 40 miles north of the Mexican border, it seemed merely an inconvenience for Manuel Arellano and his family.
Arellano fixed the flat, but had another one a few miles farther north. They relied on a good Samaritan to take them about 30 miles up the lonely road to Sonora to get that tire repaired and return them to their car.
What happened next has baffled authorities for almost 40 years.
A mile-long stretch of U.S. Highway 277 became a killing field, with family members shot, stabbed, raped and robbed. Five people died in what remains Texas’ oldest unsolved mass slaying.
The killings are among more than 900 mass slayings in the 20th century, and several remain unsolved, according to Grant Duwe, a senior research analyst with the Minnesota Department of Corrections who has studied the subject. Among them is one that occurred two months after the Arellano family slayings in 1968, when a vacationing family of six was killed in a Michigan cabin.
But thanks to an anonymous tip that reinvigorated the stalled Arellano investigation, a Texas Ranger assigned the case now believes authorities are close to cracking it.
“I couldn’t give you a numerical value on our chances of solving it,” said Sgt. Brooks Long, who is responsible for a four-county area of vast West Texas. “But I can tell you this: In 1998, law enforcement wasn’t even in the ballpark. And today we’re on third base.”
It was daylight on April 16, 1968, when the Arellano family piled into the blue four-door 1958 Buick Special for a 190-mile drive to San Angelo from Villa de Fuente, just inside the Mexican border south of Piedras Negras, to visit a relative who had just given birth.
Along with Arellano, 25, were his wife, Monica, 25; their children, Manuel Jr., 5, Leticia, 2 1/2 , Eduardo, 15 months; and Arellano’s sister, Rosa Elia, 19.
It wasn’t expected to be a difficult journey. Arellano was familiar with the United States, spoke fluent English and had been a migrant farmworker in Iowa. The couple had other relatives in Texas, and their car carried Texas license plates and election stickers promoting a relative running for sheriff in Zavala County.
By daybreak, though, the family was dead.
A ranch hand discovered the carnage -- Arellano’s body was found near a water trough, inside a barbed wire fence line not far from Highway 277. His wife’s body was in a ditch about a mile south. Her sister-in-law’s body was in some brush a few feet away. The children were nearer their father, in the rocks and shrubs usually occupied by goats, snakes and armadillos.
Amazingly, Leticia, shot twice between the eyes, was alive. So was her brother, Manuel Jr., also shot in the head and stabbed. Leticia died two days later. Manuel Jr. survived, and underwent multiple brain surgeries.
Some two weeks after his attack, the boy was able to tell authorities about a white man, “a big cowboy,” who was helping them, then killed his father.
Based on information from a Sonora service station attendant who repaired the tire for the family, police distributed a sketch of a possible suspect -- a tall, sandy-haired man in his 30s, wearing a straw cowboy hat and driving a pickup truck. He apparently had given the family a ride 30 miles north to the service station before heading back with them to where the car was stranded.
The car was found about eight miles south of the bodies, still with a flat tire.
Several people were brought in for questioning. The attendant couldn’t identify any of them as the man he saw. No charges were filed.
The .22-caliber murder weapon never was found. Investigators weren’t even certain how many suspects to hunt.
By 1982, the investigation had turned cold after producing thousands of pages of documentation, Long said.
“It had been worked to exhaustion,” he said.
That’s how it stayed until 1999, when a caller told the Texas Department of Public Safety he knew the identity of the killer. Detectives eventually dismissed the caller as an unreliable source, but the tip renewed interest in the case.
“We had to go look, start digging things up, find reports and start piecing things together,” Long said. “We came to realize this is a case that needs to be looked at” again.
Rangers tracked down the ranch hand who found the bodies, but he had nothing new to add. Long looked for two years for the old Buick, finally convincing himself it was destroyed in a salvage yard.
The lead investigator at the time, Ranger A.Y. Allee Jr., died in January, but Long has a sworn statement from him that could be used in court.
The investigation has taken Long all over the country and to Mexico, where he found Manuel Jr. The boy was taken to Mexico and raised by his grandmother after recovering. He’s now about 42, married, a father, and working in the financial industry.
Long said Manuel Jr. wasn’t sure what to make of authorities contacting him decades after he lost his family.
“You can only imagine what went through this gentleman’s mind,” Long said. “Initially he was skeptical. After I was able to meet him in person, I think he realized we were for real.”
But he could provide little help, even after questioning under hypnosis.
“His memory of the incident was basically nonexistent, except for what he has been told or read,” Long said.
He did, however, lift his shirt and show Long the five or six scars from stab wounds.
Long, who is about Manuel Jr.'s age, said authorities had collected some physical evidence years ago, like pieces of the victims’ clothing. Some were recently submitted for DNA testing that wasn’t available in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
“If we could find the person that DNA fits, then we will probably have a person that either killed those people or was present,” said Don Letsinger, since 1987 the sheriff in Edwards County, where the killings took place. “We’re hopeful of a chance.”
Long believes more than one person was involved, which differs from the beliefs of his peers decades ago.
“Back in ’68, I think with the information they had, probably they looked at a hate crime as the motive. Sexual assault was secondary, thirdly would have been theft,” said Long, referring to the rape of at least one of the women. “I think now we put that reversed. I think you have a robbery that kind of gets out of hand that leads to murder and sexual assault.”
Long said the attacker or attackers may have killed again.
“Experience is, definitely you don’t do this and stop,” he said. “And if it was just a one-time event in some individual’s life, that’s questionable how somebody rational could do something like this and just carry on with his normal routine in life.”
Few in the sparsely populated area remember the case, though it seems to have spawned a legend from Sonora to Mexico.
Carol Finegan, who with her husband owns the Loma Alta store where the Arellano family repaired their first flat, has heard talk about how Mexicans won’t stop here or travel the road.
“It seemed like a ghost thing they were talking about, or something like that,” said Finegan, whose store is the lone oasis on the winding 90-mile highway between Del Rio and Sonora.
Duwe, the research analyst, said that among the other notable unsolved killings in the last century were the ax killings of eight people in Villisca, Iowa, in 1912; the deaths of 39 people in a bombing on Wall Street in New York City in 1920; and the gunning down of seven mobsters in Chicago in the St. Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929.
Long said he hoped to one day get answers to what happened in that West Texas field.
“If anything this case did do, it showed me the importance of how not to quit,” he said. “There’s always something to follow.”