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Texas Gov. Abbott issues retraction after calling mass shooting victims 'illegal immigrants'

Here’s what we know about the arrest of the suspect and the backlash to the governor’s response.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott at a news conference in March. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office issued a retraction on Monday after facing intense criticism over his assertion that all five victims of the deadly mass shooting in Cleveland, Texas, were “illegal immigrants” despite evidence that at least one was not.

The suspect, Francisco Oropesa, 38, was arrested on Tuesday night in Montgomery County, Texas, and charged with five counts of murder.

Abbott announced Sunday that he was offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Oropesa, who he said "killed five illegal immigrants.”

The governor’s reference to their immigration status was met with immediate backlash from critics, who also noted that one of the victims, Diana Velazquez Alvarado, appeared to have been a permanent resident of the United States.

In a statement on Monday, Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said that “we’ve since learned that at least one of the victims may have been in the United States legally.”

“We regret if the information was incorrect and detracted from the important goal of finding and arresting the criminal,” Eze said, adding: “Any loss of life is a tragedy, and our hearts go out to the families who have lost a loved one.”

However, Abbott’s tweet referring to the victims as “illegal immigrants” was not deleted.

How the shooting unfolded

A half dozen law enforcement members, some with FBI or U.S. Marshal emblazoned on their clothes, stand near several cars and in front of a row of trees.
Law enforcement personnel search on Saturday for the suspect in the mass shooting in Cleveland, Texas. (Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

Authorities say the suspect, identified by the FBI as Oropesa, was firing a gun in his yard late Friday night when he was asked by his neighbors to shoot farther away so their baby could sleep.

Wilson Garcia, the father of the 1-month-old, told the Associated Press that he and two other people had gone to “respectfully” ask Oropesa to shoot his gun farther away from the house.

Oropesa refused. “He told us he was on his property, and he could do what he wanted,” Garcia said.

Garcia said he walked away and called police. About 10 to 20 minutes later, he said, he saw Oropesa walking toward his house with an AR-15.

“I told my wife, ‘Get inside. This man has loaded his weapon,’” Garcia said. “My wife told me to go inside because ‘he won’t fire at me. I’m a woman.’”

According to Garcia, Oropesa walked up to the house and opened fire, fatally shooting his wife, Sonia Argentina Guzman, at the front door. The suspect then entered the home and continued firing, killing four other people, including Garcia's 9-year-old son and two women — identified as 21-year-old Diana Velazquez Alvarado and 31-year-old Julisa Molina Rivera — who died while shielding his baby and 2-year-old daughter.

The fifth victim was identified as 18-year-old Jose Jonathan Casarez. All five were originally from Honduras.

Garcia said one of the women had told him to jump out a window “because my children were without a mother and one of their parents had to stay alive to take care of them.”

Oropesa fled the scene on foot before police arrived.

The FBI said it has ‘zero leads’

San Jacinto County Sheriff Greg Capers and FBI Special Agent in Charge James Smith stand outside near microphones.
San Jacinto County Sheriff Greg Capers and FBI Special Agent in Charge James Smith at a news conference in Cleveland, Texas, on Saturday. (Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

More than 250 law enforcement officers from multiple jurisdictions, including the FBI, joined in the search for Oropesa, a Mexican national who immigration officials said had been deported from the United States four times since 2009.

On Saturday, authorities said they believed he was still in the area after recovering his phone and clothes while combing a nearby forest.

But by Sunday they admitted the search had gone cold. Tracking dogs lost the scent, San Jacinto County Sheriff Greg Capers said at a news conference.

“He could be anywhere now,” Capers said.

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That was until Tuesday night, when Capers confirmed that Oropesa was taken into custody without incident. He said authorities received a tip about his location, and that Oropesa was arrested by task force agents in the city of Cut and Shoot.

"He was caught hiding in a closet underneath some laundry," Capers said at a press conference Tuesday evening.

Governor’s ‘illegal immigrants’ label triggers backlash

Francisco Oropesa.
Francisco Oropesa, in an undated photo released by the FBI. (FBI via AP)

Abbott’s initial labeling of the victims as “illegal immigrants” triggered intense backlash from critics who accused the Republican governor and immigration hard-liner of politicizing the massacre.

“They were part of a family, @GregAbbott_TX — and one of the victims was a child,” Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, tweeted. “What a disgusting lack of compassion and humanity.”

“TX @GovAbbott decides to dehumanize & delegitimize the lives of those killed in this horrific attack by calling them ‘illegal’ immigrants,” tweeted the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “Just horrible.”

“It is indefensible to any right-hearted Texan to use divisive language to smear innocent victims,” Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said in a statement, per the AP.

“There is no limit to the depravity of Greg Abbott and his Texas Republican cronies,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement, according to the Austin American-Statesman. “This type of sick behavior is truly beyond the pale.”