Vekol Valley Deaths: PCSO Says at Least One Person From the Other Party of Five Was Found
As the Tempe Police Department got verification earlier this month that the five burned bodies found in an SUV in the Vekol Valley were identified as James and Yafit Butwin and their three children, another group of five people was still apparently missing.
Pinal County Sheriff's Office spokesman Tim Gaffney tells New Times at least one of the five people was found and is currently in the custody of U.S. Border Patrol, while information on the other four is still being gathered.
PCSO's theory that these five people could have been the ones in the burned SUV in the desert came out in a lengthy press release a few days after embattled Sheriff Paul Babeu declared all the evidence was pointing to a "violent drug cartel" hit.
Babeu gave this theory to media outlets shortly after the discovery of the bodies, and also talked up the cartel connection in a Facebook post.
"Thanks to all our Homicide detectives who are investigating this alarming 5 person murder and the torching of the vehicle (likely in an effort to destroy evidence)," Babeu typed up on Facebook. "All information is pointing that this is connected to the violent drug cartel smuggling in this high smuggling area."
In that same post, he played up the politics. "The border is NOT more secure than ever Ms. Napolitano!" he wrote.
A few days after that, the Tempe Police Department chimed in, saying the burned vehicle was found to be registered to a Tempe family of five. Tempe Police referred to the investigation as a "family murder/suicide" from the get-go, and that seemed to be more and more likely as the investigation continued.
The same day Tempe PD went public with that information, PCSO issued a lengthy press release explaining that the Sheriff's Office wasn't letting go of the theory that it still could've been the work of a cartel or "smugglers."
The press release noted that it appeared someone had tried to cover their shoe prints around the vehicle, explaining it as a tactic used by smugglers.
The press release from Babeu's office also pointed to an anonymous Border Patrol official who spoke to the "Boston Herald and other news entities," who purportedly said that his "guess" was that it was the work of a Zetas cartel member.
That same press release also introduced the second party of five.
The Sheriff's Office said a call came in from an "individual who asked to remain anonymous," and explained it as so:
The individual reported that he feared his brother-in-law was among the dead. The brother-in-law had told him the night before that he was "going to Vekol Valley to make money." The brother-in-law had left to Vekol Valley with four other acquaintances. Homicide detectives asked the reporting party if his brother-in-law was involved in drug or human smuggling and he said he didn't get involved in his business but he "knows its illegal." The reporting party said that when he tries to call his brother-in-law or his friends on their cell phones they go straight to voicemail.
On Sunday, a homicide detective again spoke with the reporting party who told us he still has been not able to get in touch with his brother-in-law or his acquaintances. The five men were last seen driving in a Ford SUV. Homicide detectives are also not able to locate the brother-in-law either. PCSO knows the names of the family members involved including those who are missing, but we've been asked to withhold as the family fears possible retaliation from the drug cartel.
Well, we never heard about that group of five again.
Gaffney tells New Times today that while he's getting with the investigators and other investigating agencies to get the whole picture of what happened to these five people, he knows one of them was found.
The man's brother-in-law -- who apparently went to the Vekol Valley to "make money" -- is in Border Patrol custody, although it's not immediately clear why.
Check back for updates.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.