A Texas man who ran a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility that has a history of abuse allegations is accused of fatally shooting an immigrant and injuring another while they drank water along a farm road.
Michael Sheppard, 60, was arrested last week after authorities said he fired two rounds from a shotgun at a group of immigrants in an area near the southern border, killing a man and injuring a woman. His twin brother, Mark Sheppard, was also arrested, and both face manslaughter charges.
On Tuesday near sundown, the brothers allegedly drove past a group of suspected undocumented immigrants who had stopped to drink water out of a reservoir in the desert near Sierra Blanca, Texas, according to law enforcement affidavits. Michael Sheppard is accused of backing up his truck and yelling at the group to leave before leaning over the hood of his truck and firing the shotgun. The brothers then drove off to a water board meeting without checking to see if the gunfire had struck anyone, the affidavits said.
An immigrant man died at the scene from his injuries, and a woman who was shot in the stomach was taken to a hospital. When authorities questioned Michael Sheppard about the shooting, he was reluctant to discuss it and left, according to the affidavit. His brother initially told investigators the pair weren't near the site of the shooting, but later admitted they were.
Mark Sheppard initially told authorities they had stopped at the water tank and were looking for ducks to shoot, then changed it to birds, and then to javelinas. His brother exited the truck and fired the shotgun, he said. Mark Sheppard told investigators he then asked his brother, "Did you get him?" But he then changed the "him" to "it," an affidavit said.
Immigrants in the group told federal agents they were hiding in the brush when a man shouted something to the effect of, "Come out, you sons of bitches, little asses!" before revving the truck's engine. The immigrants looked up to see if the vehicle had left, and that's when they heard the shots that ended up striking two of them, according to the affidavits.
The shootings come amid a contentious national debate about immigrants and asylum-seekers at the border. They also follow years of complaints by immigrants against Michael Sheppard, who was the warden at the West Texas Detention Center in Sierra Blanca, Texas. The facility operated by the for-profit prison company LaSalle Corrections held immigrants for ICE up until October 2019.
LaSalle Corrections and ICE didn't immediately respond to requests for comment, but the private prison company told the San Antonio Express-News that Michael Sheppard was the warden up until last week, when he was fired.
A 2018 report on the facility based on interviews with 30 African detainees who were set to be deported detailed physical assaults, sexual abuse, dangerously unsanitary conditions, and denial of medical care. All of the 30 men reported being pepper-sprayed at least once, and 14 reported being physically assaulted.
Dalmar, an African detainee, said the warden of the West Texas Detention Center hit him in the face four times while he was at the nurses station, according to the report. When Dalmar was sent to solitary, he said, he was forced to lie on the ground with his hands cuffed behind him while he was kicked repeatedly by the warden.
In another incident detailed in the report, an African detainee said the warden told him, "Shut your Black ass up. You don’t deserve nothing. You belong at the back of that cage,” when he asked for underwear and socks. Another detainee said he heard the warden say, "Now you belong to me, boy" to another Somali detainee.
Most of the immigrants, some of whom filed complaints with the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department, were later deported to an active war zone, the Intercept reported.
RAICES, one of the immigrant advocacy organizations that authored the report, said it had documented years of racism and abuse by Michael Sheppard and the jailers he oversaw.
"ICE’s failure to hold Sheppard accountable emboldened him to continue his pattern of abuse towards migrants," RAICES said in a statement. "Culminating in Sheppard and his brother harassing migrants in the street, shooting into a group of migrants, killing one man and wounding a woman."
Alex Miller, director of the American Immigration Council’s Immigration Justice Campaign, also called out ICE and LaSalle Corrections for allowing Michael Sheppard to continue running the West Texas Detention Center despite years of allegations.
"Unfortunately, racism, violence, and inhumane conditions are not unique to this facility," Miller said in a statement. "We need to stop treating serious allegations as outliers and understand that these issues are endemic and acknowledge that immigration detention cannot be made over."
DHS must also ensure that the survivors and witnesses of the shooting are not expelled or deported, Miller said, in addition to being offered protections as victims of a crime or other humanitarian relief.
Texas Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro called the shooting a hate crime and a murder, stoked by fears of an immigrant invasion by Republican politicians like Gov. Greg Abbott and conservative media personalities.
"There was no way for the killers to know who their victims were or what their legal status was," Castro said in a statement. "The division and fear that Greg Abbott and his fellow bigots have created has made Texas a more dangerous place for all Hispanics."