Jose Flores Jr. dreamed of being a police officer because he wanted to protect people. But the 10-year-old’s life was cut short when he, 18 of his classmates, and two teachers were killed in the May 24 massacre at Robb Elementary School.
Now, Jose’s uncle, Christopher Salazar, tells Rolling Stone he is looking to uphold his nephew’s legacy of wanting to protect others by holding law enforcement to account for the failures he says he witnessed during the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
Salazar was among the group of parents and other loved ones who pleaded with police outside the school as a gunman armed with an AR-15 roamed the classrooms inside, shooting.
“I was looking for my nephew and I even told [authorities] I’ll go in there myself,” he says.
He says that he can’t comprehend, from what he saw from his vantage outside the school, how so many officers did not immediately go inside to stop the shooter.
“’Hey look, our children are getting shot. They can’t defend themselves. Go in there! Go in there!’” Salazar says he and the other families called out to the police on the scene. “They really didn’t do anything, although they were there standing outside … Instead of reacting and saying, ‘Hey, look, he’s already shooting. Let’s go in.’”
Families of the Uvalde victims are still waiting for authorities to provide them and the rest of the community with answers about what happened during the state’s deadliest school shooting.
Officials have refused repeated requests for comment and denied records requests from various news organizations. It has been an agonizing time of mourning, made even more difficult by the lack of transparency about what happened the day an 18-year-old gunman with an AR-15 burst into the school and began to fire.
Since the first hours after the massacre, officials have relayed different and conflicting reports of what took place in Uvalde. Last week, Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District (UCISD) Chief of Police Pete Arredondo, a central figure in most official accounts, emerged to tell yet another version.
Arredondo, 50, heads up the six-person police agency charged with maintaining safety at Uvalde schools. He was one of the first to arrive at Robb Elementary school and the de facto scene commander, according to multiple reports. But as reported by Texas Tribune and The New York Times, the chief arrived on the scene without radios and no key for the classrooms where the massacre was unfolding. Without radio communication, he could not receive 911 dispatches that included the calls from terrified kids trapped inside pleading for police to come help them. Miah Cerillo, a fourth grader who played dead using her classmate’s blood during the mass shooting testified during a hearing on gun violence in Congress last week that she used her teacher’s phone to call 911. “I thought he would come back to the room, so I grabbed blood and put it all over me,” she said. She said the shooter told her teacher “good night” before shooting her in the head.
In his first interview discussing the mass shooting, Arredondo disputed claims he was in charge of the scene. “I didn’t issue any orders,” Arredondo told the Texas Tribune last week. “I called for assistance and asked for an extraction tool to open the door.”
Through the interview, which included input from his lawyer George E. Hyde, Arredondo said he didn’t consider himself the “scene’s incident commander” and told the Tribune he assumed someone else had taken control. He did not say who he believed had assumed control. He also denied instructing officers to not enter the classroom where the gunman was, as has been reported by multiple publications.
Arredondo has not responded to Rolling Stone’s repeated requests for comment and declined further comment following the Tribune story via his attorney.
Texas Department of Public Safety’s (DPS) Director Steven McCraw has said that the “incident commander” made “the wrong decision” when failing to enter the classroom sooner. The Justice Department has launched an investigation into the incident response, but U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said last week that the federal inquiry is to “assess what happened and we can make recommendations for the future” not to bring forward criminal charges. Texas DPS is also conducting an investigation, as is the local district attorney.
Uvalde District Attorney Christina Mitchell Busbee and Uvalde Chief of Police Daniel Rodriguez did not return Rolling Stone’s multiple requests for comment. DPS did not return a request for comment regarding Arredondo’s interview.
It took 77 minutes before officers breached the classroom and the gunman was fatally shot. Reports suggest Arredondo’s lack of a key and radio may have contributed to the delay and could have had dire consequences, according to a report by The New York Times, since those who needed medical care may have been saved if the classroom was breached sooner. Documents reviewed by the Times show officers waited for protective equipment even as they became aware that some victims needed medical treatment.
“If the stories might be true that 911 calls weren’t fed from dispatch into the commander of the hallway, whoever that was, how in the world did that happen?” Charley Wilkison, the executive director of Texas’ largest police union, Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (CLEAT), tells Rolling Stone. CLEAT recently made the striking decision to release a statement condemning the “false” and “misleading information” from government and law enforcement officials that has come to light.
Salazar believes, as multiple reports suggest, that there could have been more survivors had the authorities reacted quickly. “Look, if they would have went in right there those cops, at least one of them wouldn’t have passed away. And there would have been a lot more children and the teacher [that could have] survived.”
The relationship between the residents — the majority of whom are Latino — and law enforcement in the town of around 15,000 people has appeared mostly strong in recent times, though complicated. On one hand, many residents have relatives who work in law enforcement, but there is also conflict in its history. When the town was mostly white, Robb Elementary, whose students are primarily Mexican American, played a vital role for Mexican American equality in Uvalde, as NPR recently reported.
Historically, Uvalde was a segregated town and Robb was known as a “Mexican school” that was underfunded. After popular Mexican teacher George Gaza was rumored to not have his contract renewed in 1970, a walkout ensued. The events led to a federal lawsuit forcing Uvalde to desegregate. The region is now primarily Latino, but some say, as Michelle García recently wrote in Palabra, that the racism remains with “thousands of law enforcement lording over a largely Latino population.”
Texas has hundreds of law enforcement agencies, ranging from school district forces to police employed by the Southwestern Cattle Raiser Association and the railroads. On the day of the shooting, more than 140 officers from at least 14 agencies — including UCISD PD, Uvalde PD, Border Patrol, ICE agents and the sheriff’s department — arrived at the scene, according to the Times.
Wilkison says communication during a crisis can be hindered by the myriad agencies that each have their own guidelines and hierarchy and sometimes vie with one another for political power. This system can also make it difficult to sort out problems when things go awry.
“There’s so many fiefdoms,” Wilkison says. “You gotta go through a constable who wants to make sure everybody knows he got elected. A sheriff’s department who got elected. A police department who’s probably actually trying to do the work. The state police who need relevance, and Feds who come in and step all over everything.”
“When you fall into another agency’s world, then they call the shots. That’s just the way it is,” he says.
Wilkison would not say whether any of the police involved in the investigations are CLEAT members.
Meanwhile, legal actions surrounding the tragedy are already underway. The families of four students injured during the shooting are suing the suspected gunman’s estate, as ABC News reports. Attorney Thomas J. Henry said the initial lawsuit and their investigation may lead to including additional parties in the complaint. “The discovery process will focus on the school system, law enforcement, social media, and gun and ammunition manufacturers,” Henry said in a statement. The parents are seeking $100 million in damages.
Alfred Garza III, whose daughter Amerie Jo Garza was killed at Robb, has retained Connecticut lawyer Josh Koskoff, who successfully sued the manufacturer of the gun used in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and Texas-based attorneys Mikal Watts and Charla Aldous. The attorneys have sent a letter to Daniel Defense, the gun manufacturer of the AR-15-style rifle the Uvalde shooter used. Garza did not accept Rolling Stone’s interview request.
A petition for information on Daniel Defense is also being sought from the Uvalde school staffer who was accused by Texas DPS of leaving a school door open, which DPS said allowed the gunman in. DPS later walked back that statement.
A former prosecutor for Uvalde who previously worked with Uvalde police on cases tells Rolling Stone she believes the seemingly bungled police response is unsurprising.
“It may be shocking to the rest of the world, but the ineptitude, it’s not shocking,” criminal attorney Sara Spector tells Rolling Stone. Spector was a child abuse prosecutor in the 38th Judicial District, which Uvalde is in, from 2008 to 2013. Spector says that rural Texas generally suffers from a lack of funding, which can contribute to training issues.
Wilkison says in places like Uvalde where the department is small, leaving for training means less officers are available for community needs. He says political forces, like city council or a school district, also come into play. “So you have all this tension competing for resources and it’s just exacerbated when you get into those areas where it’s already smaller,” he says.
Whether it’s undertraining, a lack of resources, or the nature of who takes command amid agencies that contributed to the apparent missteps that may have caused more deaths in Uvalde is still unclear. What is clear is that without full transparency and changes to a seemingly broken system, Spector says there’s a chance that history will repeat itself.
“I think that’s what the world needs to know: It’s not safe for a lot of kids in rural Texas. They’re just sitting ducks in these schoolhouses,” she says.