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Uvalde victims’ families get an official acknowledgement of botched shooting response — but some want criminal charges

By William Melhado, Madaleine Rubin and Pooja Salhotra, The Texas Tribune

Uvalde victims’ families get an official acknowledgement of botched shooting response — but some want criminal charges” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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UVALDE — Relatives of some of the 21 people killed in the deadliest shooting in Texas history sat in a community center on the outskirts of this town Thursday, clasping each other’s hands, nervously tapping their feet and passing around a box of tissues.

They sat in front of the nation’s top law enforcement official more than a year and half after some of them joined the throng of residents anxiously gathered outside Robb Elementary School, begging a swarm of law enforcement to go inside and save their kids trapped in a classroom with the shooter.

But responding officers waited 77 minutes to confront a gunman indiscriminately using an AR-15 against students and teachers in two adjoining fourth-grade classrooms. In the months since the May 24, 2022 massacre, the grief-stricken families of those killed have pleaded with local and state leaders to hold law enforcement accountable.

On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and other top federal officials finally acknowledged — in critical, explicit, unapologetic terms — that some of the Uvalde victims’ worst nightmares were true: Law enforcement’s delayed and bungled response cost lives.

“When he says that lives could have been saved, I just couldn’t believe it,” said Jerry Mata, who lost his daughter Tess in the shooting. “For these officers to sit there and not do anything, and still be out there on the streets like nothing happened, and my daughter’s gone — it was hard, it was hard.”

Garland and other national leaders traveled to this town straddling Hill County and South Texas about 80 miles west of San Antonio to release the U.S. Justice Department’s review of the police response. At a press conference Thursday, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta shared details that families remember all too well about the day of the shooting: Children with bullet wounds were put on school buses without medical personnel, state agencies shared inaccurate information and officials incorrectly assured families waiting at the reunification center that loved ones were on another bus of survivors that never came because their kids were actually among the dead.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at a press conference discussing the DOJ report detailing failures in the law enforcement response to the 2022 school shooting in Uvalde.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at a press conference discussing the U.S. Justice Department report detailing failures in the law enforcement response to the 2022 school shooting in Uvalde. Credit: Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune

While Thursday’s report did not reveal significant new information, families praised the Justice Department for the most comprehensive official report to date about the shooting — and putting what they already knew in “black and white.”

“Because the DOJ stamp is on there, maybe y’all will start taking us seriously now instead of telling us to move on, telling us to sweep it under the rug,” Brett Cross, who lost his son Uziyah in the shooting, said outside the Herby Ham Activity Center immediately after Garland’s press conference.

After enduring burial after burial, waiting hours at the Texas Capitol urging lawmakers in vain to raise the age to buy semi-automatic guns, watching media investigations confirm their assumptions and pressuring the local prosecutor to pursue criminal indictments, families are still waiting for what they consider justice — criminal prosecutions for at least some of the officers who fumbled the response.

So Thursday’s federal report and Garland’s comments were in some ways also a painful reminder that governmental reports can only have so much impact.

Brett Cross, guardian of Robb Elementary shooting victim Uziyah Garcia, listens as DOJ officials detail failures in the law enforcement response to the 2022 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
Brett Cross, who lost his son Uziyah Garcia, listens as U.S. Justice Department officials detail failures in the law enforcement response to the 2022 school shooting in Uvalde. Credit: Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune

“It’s hard enough waking up every day and continuing to walk out on the streets and walk to an H-E-B and see a cop that you know was standing there while our babies were murdered and bleeding out,” Cross said. “I also hope that this lights a fire up under the district attorney’s ass because we know that she has not done a damn thing and we refuse to accept that.”

The Texas Department of Public Safety has yet to make public their own investigation, and the city of Uvalde and the Uvalde County District Attorney’s Office are also still conducting their own investigations.

City officials said in a Thursday statement that they anticipate their independent investigation will be completed this month. Uvalde County District Attorney Christina Mitchell, meanwhile, has provided scant details on the status of her criminal investigation.

On Friday, a 12-person special grand jury was selected to determine if law enforcement officers who responded to the shooting will face criminal charges, the Uvalde Leader-News reported. The special grand jury will spend six months studying the shooting at Robb Elementary School, though it’s not clear what the focus of the investigation is or if officers will face charges.

Though the special grand jury was selected just one day after the release of the Justice Department’s report, the Uvalde Leader-News reported that the effort to convene the grand jury took several months.

Public officials and advocates echoed the sentiments of the families Thursday, saying they hope to see justice in the form of police accountability.

“There’s no justice until some cops get indicted for their malfeasance,” said state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, at the Uvalde town square on Thursday, prior to the DOJ press briefing.

In a statement, the president of The League of United Latin American Citizens expressed disappointment that federal investigators failed to prosecute anyone.

“Nineteen children and two teachers died, mostly Latino, and not one person is facing criminal charges yet,” said Domingo Garcia, LULAC president. “How can that be when this report affirms much of what we have known for the past 20 months.”

Garland on Thursday did not directly answer whether any officers responding to the shooting should face criminal charges. He said he would leave that to the local district attorney because the Justice Department only has jurisdiction over federal crimes.

Parents of Uvalde shooting victims react as DOJ officials detail failures in the law enforcement response to the 2022 school shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde.
Parents of Uvalde shooting victims react as U.S. Justice Department officials detail failures in the law enforcement response to the 2022 school shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde. Credit: Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune

Since the tragedy, family members have been demanding transparency and answers from government officials about the botched police response. Some of those demands created division within Uvalde, a town of about 15,000 near the Mexico border.

Vincent Salazar, whose granddaughter Layla died in the shooting, said deep division remains in Uvalde between those who are seeking answers and accountability and those who want to move on from the tragedy.

“Without justice this is going to be a split town,” Salazar told The Texas Tribune after families spoke to reporters.

Speaking of his granddaughter who was 11 at the time of the shooting, Salazar said she was an “angel” even before she died.

He remembers sitting in his recliner, the front door would slam open, Layla would rush past others in the house to greet her grandfather first. He still sits in the recliner everyday and is reminded of what was taken from his family.

After the shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott provided the first media briefing at 3:23 p.m., during which he announced an inaccurate number of victims and an incorrect last name of the subject, the DOJ report noted. The following day, the governor incorrectly stated that a Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District officer had engaged with the shooter outside the school.

At Thursday’s press conference, Garland also emphasized the need for gun control measures to prevent future tragedies.

“Our children deserve better than to grow up in a country where an 18 year old has easy access to a weapon that belongs on the battlefield, not in a classroom,” Garland said, to nods of agreement from family members.

Weeks after the shooting, federal lawmakers passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the most significant federal gun reform in almost three decades. The measure enhanced background checks, limited access to some guns and increased funding for mental health treatment.

During last year’s legislative session, the first since the Uvalde shooting, Texas lawmakers closed a loophole in state law that allowed people who had serious mental health issues as juveniles to later purchase firearms legally. But several other proposed gun control measures failed to pass, despite advocacy from families of Uvalde victims.

Notably, a bill to raise the minimum age required to buy a semi-automatic firearm from 18 to 21 did not pass. The Uvalde gunman purchased his firearm just days after his 18th birthday.

While families of victims acknowledged that the report contains the most extensive account of the shooting, many are still hoping for more accountability.

“We’re going to continue fighting that some type of change is made in honor of our kids,” Veronica Mata, mother of Tess, said. “We have nothing left but to fight for them. We are their voices now.”

Memorial crosses outside Robb Elementary in Uvalde on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. The school was the site of a mass shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead on May 24, 2022.
Memorial crosses outside Robb Elementary in Uvalde on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. The school was the site of a mass shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead on May 24, 2022. Credit: Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/01/18/uvalde-shooting-federal-investigation-families-waiting/.

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