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 Paul Babeu's theory was that these five people in the burned SUV in the desert could have been involved in smuggling activities, as the embattled sheriff declared all the evidence was pointing to a "violent drug cartel" hit.
Babeu kept up with the theory into the next week that these five unidentified people could all be dead thanks to a cartel, even as the Tempe Police Department's evidence indicated the bodies were the result of James Butwin killing his wife and three children before lighting up the SUV and killing himself.
Really, Babeu never conceded defeat on the topic, instead referring questions about the Butwin family -- indeed, the actual investigation -- to the Tempe Police Department.
So, what happened to these five other people?
Based on PCSO and federal court documents obtained by New Times, two men from this apparent group of five were arrested together near the border a day before the charred bodies were found.
The same day Tempe PD went public with the information that its detectives believed the bodies were from the Butwin family murder/suicide, PCSO issued that 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 Sheriff's Office proposed a theory based on a phone call that 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.
According to a police report, the man called the Sheriff's Office during the evening of June 2, as accounts of the bodies found in the desert -- and Babeu's immediate blame on the cartels -- started hitting the news.
The main said his brother-in-law, 40-year-old Peter Rodriguez, had left for the Vekol Valley with four other people the morning of June 1, according to the report.
According to a federal complaint, Rodriguez and a man reported to be missing along with him, Rudy Hendricks, were picked up by Border Patrol agents near the border around 1 p.m. on June 1.
The complaint states that the agent saw a grey Chevrolet Silverado and a green Ford Explorer -- neither a white Ford SUV, like the one found in the Vekol Valley -- driving together on the highway for a while, until the Ford stopped at a store near the Sasabe Port of Entry, and the Chevy drove the pickup out of sight.
Later, the agent saw these two vehicles driving together again, and he pulled over the Chevy.
Rodriguez and Hendricks were the ones in that truck -- which belonged to Rodriguez -- but the men gave conflicting statements about their relationship to the people in the Ford and what they were doing around the port of entry, the complaint says.
The agent says he noticed that the truck's spare tire looked suspicious, and Hendricks gave consent for the agent to search the tire.
A drug-detection dog sniffed it, tipped off the agents, and the agents found more than 55 pounds of marijuana in the tire, the complaint says.
About 15 hours after that -- around 4:30 a.m. on June 2 -- the Butwins' SUV was seen by Border Patrol agents cruising in the Vekol Valley, but the agents couldn't catch up. They'd find the SUV again around 8:30 a.m., as the smoldering vehicle held the charred bodies of James and Yafit Butwin and their three children.
By June 6, a pair of PCSO detectives went to the apartment of the man who reported his brother-in-law Rodriguez missing.
Detectives had left messages on the man's phone asking him to call them back, but he hadn't.
He said he "meant to," but then informed the detectives that Rodriguez had called him after his arrest, saying he was in federal custody.
The man -- whose name is redacted from the report -- didn't know what Rodriguez got popped for, and claimed to not know what kind of stuff Rodriguez was involved in, despite knowing that it was "illegal shit."
The man reiterated that he thought this "illegal shit" Rodriguez was involved in occurred in the Vekol Valley, despite Rodriguez's arrest taking place hours away, near the border.
His reasoning for calling the Sheriff's Office, he told detectives, was that "he was very worried when he heard the news and prompt[ed] him to [call PCSO] because he didn't hear from [Rodriguez] and thought [Rodriguez] got caught up doing some 'stupid shit,'" the report states.
Rodriguez is an American citizen, according to the police report, and has a prison record that includes a stint of a little more than a year for burglary. He was ordered to be released from custody on June 4.
Hendricks doesn't have a prison record, and his immigration status wasn't available in the report.
More information from this case will be coming soon. Stay tuned for updates.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.