More than a year and half after the school massacre in Uvalde, Texas, a US Justice Department report detailing failures at every level of the law enforcement response may have a provided a small measure of hope for the victims’ families in their quest for accountability.
While the lengthy report released Thursday did not address their demands for a criminal investigation and possible charges against law enforcement officers involved in the botched operation, it seems that process indeed has begun.
A special grand jury was reportedly empaneled Friday to investigate what the nation’s top law enforcement official described as a disorganized and chaotic response by hundreds of local, state and federal agencies.
The timing appeared to be unrelated. A pool of potential grand jurors had previously been summoned to appear Friday, reported The Uvalde Leader-News. CNN has reached out to the local prosecutor and court officials for comment.
“The community now has the kind of report necessary to make sure accountability occurs,” US Attorney General Merrick Garland said Thursday. “I think it’s now up to the community, the state and local officials to make the appropriate determinations.”
A grand jury investigation would represent the first publicly known criminal proceeding related to the highly scrutinized response to the May 25, 2022, shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead.
The selection of a grand jury had been highly anticipated. But families of the victims have been frustrated by the delay in convening the panel.
“I feel like everyone’s just been pointing fingers at each other,” said Berlinda Irene Arreola, whose 10-year-old step granddaughter, Amerie Jo Garza, was killed at the school. “No one wants to take responsibility. Nobody wants to take accountability.”
District Attorney Christina Mitchell told the San Antonio Express-News the grand jury would review evidence related to the mass shooting, but declined comment on the focus of the investigation. Jurors are expected to spend at least six months investigating the case, according to The Uvalde Leader-News.
“Let the DA know we’re not going to go anywhere,” Jesse Rizo, whose 9-year-old niece Jacklyn Cazares was killed, told CNN Friday. “We’re going to stay here until charges are filed.”
‘The first step of accountability’
The DOJ report is the fullest official accounting of what happened, though much had already been reported by CNN. Still, the assessment was limited in its scope.
“These families didn’t need a 400- or 500-page government report to learn that law enforcement failed them in a historic way,” Joshua Koskoff, an attorney representing some of the victims’ families, said Thursday.
The report does not make recommendations for punitive steps and its examination of the actions of federal officers at the scene is limited. The review was requested by the then-mayor of Uvalde, Don McLaughlin, who within weeks of the horror said he feared a “cover-up” and being shut out of other investigations amid changing narratives of what happened that day and who took on key decisions.
The Critical Incident Review said the continued gunfire, reports that a teacher had been shot, and a desperate call from a student trapped with the gunman should all have prompted law enforcement officers to move to stop the bloodshed far sooner.
Instead, it took 77 minutes from when the 18-year-old shooter walked into Robb Elementary School until he was stopped. The carnage remains among the deadliest episodes in America’s ongoing scourge of campus shootings.
“Law enforcement can learn what happened in Uvalde to make sure something like this never happens ever again,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta told CNN Friday. “The first step of accountability – any basis for accountability – has to be truth and transparency, and that’s what we’ve tried to do.”
The DOJ said the victims “experienced unimaginable horror” and “witnessed unspeakable violence” as a result of the lack of courage and “cascading failures of leadership, decision-making, tactics, policy, and training” on the part of law enforcement officials.
“The report concludes that had the law enforcement agencies followed generally accepted practices in an active shooter situation and gone right after the shooter to stop him, lives would have been saved and people would have survived,” Garland told reporters Thursday.
Uvalde County Sheriff Ruben Nolasco was one of a handful of law enforcement officers named in the DOJ report, in which he was heavily criticized for not taking a leadership role. The report also confirmed CNN reporting that Nolasco knew the name of the gunman and that he had shot his grandmother before going to the school, but did not share that information.
“Sheriff Nolasco did not seek out or establish a command post, establish unified command, share the intelligence he learned from [the shooter’s] relatives, nor did he assign an intelligence officer to gather intelligence on the subject,” the DOJ report said.
“At one point, Sheriff Nolasco and UPD Acting Chief Pargas were within 10–15 feet of each other outside the exterior door of the northwest hallway; however, they were not coordinating with one another and continued to act independently.”
Then-school Police Chief Pete Arredondo, then-acting Uvalde Police Chief Mariano Pargas and Nolasco are singled out in the report for failing to lead. Arredondo was described by the Justice Department as the de facto on-scene commander.
Pargas resigned as acting police chief in November 2022 as the city was preparing to terminate him. A CNN report found he was aware students were alive in the classrooms and needed to be rescued but failed to organize help. Families of the victims have demanded that Pargas quit as a Uvalde county commissioner, a position he still holds.
CNN has reached out to Pargas for comment.
Arredondo, who was fired, has said he did not see himself as the incident commander and instead was “responding as a police officer.”
Nolasco should have questioned the decisions and lack of urgency shown by both Arredondo and Pargas toward entering the classrooms, the report said.
“I entrusted in the man with the gold badge,” Nolasco told CNN after the release of the report, referring to Arredondo. “I acted based on the information that was given to me.”
He told CNN he has already implemented some of the recommendations in the DOJ report, including increased training for his deputies.
Nolasco is running for reelection this year as county sheriff.
“We’re going to wait and see what the voters say. They have the last word,” he said.
Arreola said Thursday: “They have the audacity to run for reelection … knowing that they failed. And it’s there in black and white.”
‘Being afraid is not a crime’
State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, said the reckonings had to go beyond the local officers, particularly to the state Department of Public Safety.
“There has been no accountability at the Department of Public Safety,” Gutierrez told CNN. “Nothing has been done to keep this from happening again.”
Asked about the possibility of the local justice system helping to deliver accountability, Gutierrez was scornful.
“This district attorney has had this case for 20 months,” he said. “There’s been nothing new. There’s no smoking gun. The shooter is dead. There’s no accomplices. There’s no nothing.”
He added, “Cops should have been indicted a long time ago for failure to render aid, for possibly criminal negligent homicide, so many different things. For 77 minutes those kids waited. … The errors that occurred were many. It wasn’t just against the local cops, the local police chief and the sheriff. We need to look at the Department of Public Safety and their head officers that were there on the scene that absolutely did nothing to safeguard these children.”
Some police officers have been convicted for their actions during encounters that resulted in death. But prosecutions and convictions of law enforcement personnel for failing to protect the public during mass shootings are uncommon.
Scot Peterson, the former school resource officer who stayed outside during the February 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was found not guilty last year of seven counts of felony child neglect, three counts of culpable negligence and one count of perjury.
“That is going to be hard,” John Miller, CNN’s chief law enforcement and intelligence analyst, said of the likelihood of criminal charges related to the law enforcement response in Uvalde. “Being afraid is not a crime, having bad tactical judgment is not a crime, and neither is incompetence under pressure.”
President Joe Biden, who said Thursday he had not yet read the full report, added that he didn’t “know that there’s any criminal liability.”
‘We’re going to continue fighting’
The DOJ report also questioned the actions of the Texas Department of Public Safety. For instance, the initial crime scene investigation, which was the responsibility of the DPS, was hampered by too many people walking into the two classrooms.
Col. Steve McCraw, DPS director, told CNN in September 2022: “I’ll be the first to resign. I’ll gladly resign. I’ll tender my resignation to the governor if I think there is any culpability in the Department of Public Safety. Period.”
McCraw was responding at the time to minutes of a meeting obtained by CNN that quoted him telling highway patrol captains “no one is losing their jobs” over the inept law enforcement response.
A month later, McCraw told angry families of slaughtered Robb students calling for him to resign: “If DPS as an institution failed the families, failed the school, or failed the community of Uvalde, then absolutely, I need to go. But I can tell you this right now: DPS as an institution right now did not fail the community, plain and simple.”
In a statement Thursday, DPS thanked the Justice Department for its report. “As DPS Director Steven McCraw first stated in the weeks after the shooting, the law enforcement response that day was an abject failure, and this report’s observations underscore those failures,” the DPS said.
DPS has not responded to requests for comment on the findings in the Justice Department report.
Seven of 91 DPS officers who responded to Robb Elementary were referred for investigation to the agency’s inspector general for their actions the day of the massacre. At least two have left voluntarily. The department did move to fire a Ranger, but he is still on the payroll as he challenges the termination.
Separately, DPS and the county district attorney continue to fight a request by CNN and other media organizations to release public records related to what happened at Robb Elementary.
Gutierrez said accountability should also include stricter gun control legislation. He said the law enforcement officers were afraid of the power of the assault-style rifle used by the gunman, and bought legally days after his 18th birthday.
“Politicians need to stop being cowards. They need to see the videos that I’ve seen, they need to see what this gun does,” he said.
Politicians “need to fully and finally pass an assault weapons ban in this country so that we do not see this happen again to another child,” said Gutierrez, who is running in the Democratic primary to be the challenger to Republican Texas US Sen. Ted Cruz this fall.
Koskoff, the attorney representing some of the victims’ families, said: “The questions that are not answered in this report are significantly more important than the questions that are.”
On Wednesday night, the frustrated parents of Khloie Torres, who was 10 when she survived the 2022 massacre at Robb Elementary, walked out of a meeting with Garland and other families before it was over.
Ruben and Jamie Torres left the meeting after about an hour. They expressed disappointment at what they heard ahead of the official release the next day of the DOJ report. They hadn’t heard anything new, the parents said.
Veronica Mata, whose 10-year-old daughter Tess was killed in the shooting, said the families will not stop their demands for accountability.
“I think we’re going to continue fighting,” she said. “We’re going to continue fighting that some type of change is made in honor of our kids.”
CNN’s Shimon Prokupecz, Carolyn Sung, Ashley Killough, Mathew Hilk and Matthew J. Friedman contributed to this report.
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