UVALDE, TEXAS - Over the past year we have sat down with families of the Uvalde victims several times. This is a compilation of their stories.
They sit down, one by one, about an hour before the library is set to close. The bright March day allows for the sun to peer through the windows.
It’s the main light in a room where four women, strangers a year ago, now sit to share a fight none of them ever imagined.
“I look at y'all, y'all are such strong, strong women and I just want the world to see that,” Kimberly Rubio said as she looked to her left and right.
Kimberly is one of the many parents the world saw running to the Civic Center on May 24, 2022, desperately looking for her 10-year-old daughter Lexi Rubio. It would be hours before 21 families were told the loved ones, including Lexi, would not be coming home.
21 people, 19 students, and two teachers were killed in a mass shooting at Robb Elementary on May 24, 2022. It only sits behind Sandy Hook Elementary as the deadliest elementary school shooting in the United States.
The morning started like any other. From an awards celebration to the excitement surrounding the end of another school year, there was no shortage of smiles on the morning of May 24, 2022.
April Elrod recalls taking her kids, including 10-year-old Makenna Elrod, to H-E-B to get bubbles and doughnuts.
“We walked in [H-E-B] and there were bubbles on the shelf and this giant, a big thing of purple bubbles. She looked at me and I looked at her and I said, ‘Yes you can get it’,” April said.
Makenna didn’t know a stranger according to April. She recalls how teachers would tell her how she always asked how they were doing.
“As she was walking out [to Robb Elementary] she had her doughnuts and she had little brother’s doughnuts because he was having a hard time carrying his and I saw her stop and talk to every person that she passed and say good morning,” April said.
It would be the most difficult evening for the city of Uvalde. By the time night fell the nation would hear from President Joe Biden about the second-worst grade school shooting in the history of the United States.
“God bless the loss of innocent life on this sad day. May the Lord be near the brokenhearted and save those crushed in spirit.”
The President would visit the town of 16,000 just days after delivering these remarks. He met with Texas Governor Greg Abbott, then-Uvalde CISD Superintendent Dr. Hal Harrell, and Robb Elementary’s Principal at the time of the mass shooting, Mandy Gutierrez.
The President also met with the families of the victims as well as survivors and their families from Classrooms 111 and 112.
There was only one survivor from Classroom 111, teacher Arnulfo Reyes. In July 2022 he recalled to us the moments after the massacre began.
“I lost track of time. It seem[ed] like an eternity.”
When we talked with Reyes again in April 2023 he said a year passed by quicker than he imagined and is frustrated nothing has been done. He has spoken in Austin in support of gun reform legislation.
“Sometimes I'll just have my moment, you know where I'll have to stop and think about [the 11 students he lost] and let it all out and then move forward, you know, but I do miss them a lot,” Reyes said.
The survivors from Classroom 112 are all students. Tara Wyzik runs Luna Liaisons. The group has worked with the families over the past year to help provide the children and their siblings with Christmas gifts and once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Over the past year, the survivors have been able to meet some of their heroes in the sports world and music world.
Mayah Zamora got the chance to meet Bad Bunny and members of the Houston Astros after several surgeries had her in the hospital for 66 days.
Jaydien Canizales and Gilbert Mata got the chance to go see their hero LeBron James play on Christmas Day 2022.
Noah Orona also got to meet members of the Dallas Cowboys.
Jordan Olivarez and his mother Virginia Vela got the chance to go to Super Bowl 57 thanks to Texas native and Minnesota Vikings cornerback Kris Boyd.
“It was good for my son to see there is still good out there is still good people. They’re doing good things,” Vela said. Vela was an off-duty EMT who jumped into action the day of the mass shooting without knowing if her son was alive.
There have been moments of difficulty for the survivors’ families as well.
“[Jordan] went into survivor mode and he has not stopped,” Vela said.
Figuring out how to navigate helping their surviving children has been an ongoing path.
Justin Rodriguez recalls the impact witnessing the mass shooting had on his nephew.
“[Rodriguez’s nephew] was saying [after witnessing the massacre], Mom, we need to hurry up and leave,” Rodriguez said his nephew had anxiety the shooter would return.
There are also physical scars that are a stark reminder of the horrible day.
“[Noah] has an almost a footlong scar on his back. Every time I think about it, it just, you know, I feel bad. I feel bad for him. I just kind of, you know, think about everything that he's been through. I just, I can't, you know, it's difficult for me to hold it-- keep it together,” Oscar Orona said.
We’ve also seen moments of determination from the survivors.
In December 2022 we were invited to join Jaydien Canizales and his mother Azeneth Rodriguez on his first trip back to Robb Elementary. After confirming with Jaydien and Azeneth they felt comfortable with our cameras rolling we followed at a distance as Jaydien returned to Robb and said hello to his friends.
“Hello Maite. Hello Ameire. Hello Uziyah. Hi Jayce. Hi Eliahna. Hello Maranda. Hello Jose. Hello Layla. I missed them,” Jaydien said.
While at Robb on a cold December night, Jaydien pointed out that he found his classroom, Classroom 112. Silence fell on everyone present at filming.
Jaydien remembered his teachers, Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles. Both women died while trying to protect their students.
“She loved teaching. She loved her students,” Eva’s sister, Maggie Mireles, said.
Eva and Irma were known as the dream team. The longtime co-teachers will now forever be known as heroes.
“I wish that I didn't take every day for granted. I took her for granted, knowing thinking she was going to be there when I was ready to go see them,” Velma Lisa Duran, Irma Garcia’s sister, said. Duran is also a teacher in San Antonio.
Both women taught in Classroom 112.
Classroom 112 was also Makenna and Tess’ class. Their mothers are both longtime teachers in Uvalde CISD.
April said Makenna was known as the leader of the After School Club. They would always play together, sing songs and do skits.
“I had a parent reach out to me one of one of Makenna's friends and say that she still hadn't been to church in three years and that Sunday, they were going to church and she was so very grateful,” April said.
She said Makenna inspired her to return to the classroom.
“I love what I do. I love making a difference and can't imagine doing anything else and Makenna loved it too. She would come and help me in my classroom and help the tutoring students,” April said.
Tess would help out her mom and record Tik Tok videos.
Veronica said she originally had no intention to return to the classroom but did so in honor of Tess.
“We know that she wouldn't want us to stop living. So, we'll be trying to live as best as we can,” Veronica said.
She also returned to encourage her eldest daughter Faith to return to Texas State. Faith graduated in May 2023.
“I think I'm doing the right thing for her in honor of her. But it's not it's not easy at all,” said Mata.
The families of the victims have had several walls put up in their faces since May 24, 2022.
Officers waited 77 minutes before breaching the classroom and confronting the shooter.
“Children were calling out for help. And they didn't get it. They died because our system failed our children,” Vincent Salazar Sr., Layla Salazar’s grandfather, said.
Controversy arose as people demanded answers on why they waited so long to breach the classroom doors even as they had information on people being alive in the room with the gunman.
“In hindsight where I'm sitting now, then, of course, it was not the right decision it was the wrong decision. There was no excuse for that,” DPS Chief Steven McCraw said.
Several of the families have called on McCraw to resign.
“If you're a man of your word, then you would you said you would retire,” Brett said.
Governor Greg Abbott had originally praised the law enforcement response before finding out the original information he had been given was inaccurate.
“I’m absolutely livid,” he said.
Former Uvalde CISD Police Chief Pete Arredondo was named as the incident commander during the mass shooting. Arredondo was fired by UCISD in August 2022.
The Uvalde High School Auditorium was packed with the families of the victims on the day of the vote at a special school board meeting. Arredondo, through his lawyer, said he would not be attending out of safety concerns.
“I have messages for Pete Arredondo and all the law enforcement that were there that day, turn in your badge and stepped down. You don’t deserve to wear one,” then 10-year-old Caitlyne Gonzales said. Caitlyne lost several of her close friends in the massacre and has become a fixture at Uvalde CISD school board meetings and at gun reform rallies.
He appealed his less-than-honorable discharge status and won as the school district said they missed emails during a period of leadership transition. They filed paperwork to change it back to less-than-honorable.
Former Uvalde Police Lieutenant Mariano Pargas was placed on leave in July 2022 after the Texas House Investigative Committee on the Robb Elementary Shooting released their findings. He left UPD and petitioned to change his status from a less-than-honorable discharge to an honorable discharge. The City of Uvalde filed paperwork to oppose the appeal and the hearing is set for July 2023.
The findings called the police response on May 24, 2022, a ‘systemic failure.’ Uvalde CISD had an internal policy to lock exterior and interior doors but found a culture of noncompliance.
“This report is written in a way that blames everyone, but does not assign actual responsibilities and accountability to anyone,” former Homeland Security Ari Jimenez said.
Families were frustrated no one was being held accountable.
“Who's gonna take the fall for this,” asked Rojelio Torres’ mother Evadulia Orta.
Then Uvalde CISD Superintendent Dr. Hal Harrell told Uziyah Garcia’s Guardian Brett Cross he could not suspend their police department. Brett, his wife Nikki, and several families of the victims were camping out behind the Uvalde CISD district building and had no plans to leave until the district suspended the force.
In October 2022 they did just that much to the shock of several families.
“I mean, this is this is a win,” Brett said.
The suspension came one day after newly hired Uvalde CISD police officer Crimson Elizondo was shown to be at the scene the day of the mass shooting and referred to the Office of the Inspector General with a pending investigation before leaving the Department of Public Safety.
“They knew who they were hiring. And they did it showing that they don't care,” Brett said.
Elizondo was caught on a body camera saying, “If my son had been in [Robb Elementary during the May 24th massacre] I would not have been outside. I promise you that.”
Dr. Harrell had previously promised he would oversee every new hire himself and it would not include anyone from Uvalde departments or someone who was present the day of the mass shooting. They also placed then-UCISD Lt. Miguel Hernandez and district official Ken Mueller on administrative leave. The latter chose to retire.
The families of the victims have not stopped in the quest for accountability, change, and justice.
Several traveled to Hondo, Texas, a city about 45 minutes away from Uvalde in August 2022. In a standing-room-only special City Council meeting they pleaded with city officials to revoke a permit that would allow the Medina County Friends of the NRA to hold a fundraiser at a city-owned property. The fundraiser included a raffle with a prize that was a gun similar to the one used in the massacre.
In an almost unanimous decision, Hondo City Council sided with the families.
“We will keep fighting this and we're going to continue to fight nobody's going to scare us off,” Arreola said.
Alongside the families, we have been pushing city officials for answers. At city council meetings immediately after the massacre, we went straight to Uvalde’s Mayor Don McLaughlin to ask why the information was so limited.
“[The families] are calling us asking what's going on,” Reporter Amanda Henderson said in July 2022.
“We haven't been briefed about [the day of the massacre],” McLaughlin said in July 2022.
“At what point do you go in and say, I am the elected Mayor of the city why are we being kept in the dark for these families to not have answers,” Henderson asked Mayor McLaughlin in June 2022.
“When did I do it? A week ago, then that the day after that, the day after that the day after that? I have called everybody I can think of too,” McLaughlin said in June 2022.
The families and survivors didn’t stop at City Council and school board meetings. They spoke several times in front of elected officials in Washington D.C. and Austin.
“He shot my teacher and told my teacher goodnight before he shot her in the head. And then he shot some of my classmates,” Miah Cerrillo, Classroom 112 survivor, said.
Several of the families waited nearly 15 hours to testify on House Bill 2744. It passed out of the House Committee 8-5 but failed to make it to the Calendar Committee.
Over time the 21 families have formed their own family units. They spent Dia De Los Muertos, graduations, and Thanksgiving together. They showed up to birthday celebrations to honor those they no longer have with them.
However they remember their loved ones, whether it’s through memories, videos, pictures, or the personalized wooden benches by Sean Peacock from Eastman, Georgia they remember them for who they are and always will be.
Nevaeh Bravo, 10. Her family said she ‘put a smile on everybody’s face.’
Jacklyn ‘Jackie’ Cazares, 9. She dreamed of going to Paris, being a vet & one day taking over the Love Ya Uvalde dinner (in her family’s words Jackie said ‘Oh I can’t wait to be the boss!’).
Makenna Lee Elrod Seiler, 10. She loved Jesus, 4H, her friends & her family. Her mom tells us it was ‘three hugs & three kisses goodbye, every time.’ On her birthday this year she was remembered for having a golden heart, being silly, and sharing donuts she’d take to school.
Jose Flores Jr., 10. We’re told Jose was always smiling & a perfect big brother. “He was so good and helpful. Around the house, he was my little shadow, helping me with stuff,” according to his stepmother Cynthia Herrera.
Amerie Jo Garza, 10. A friend to all and a hero to the world. Amerie Jo tried calling 911 to save her classmates and teachers on the day of the massacre. Her family tells me she was the perfect older sister. The aspiring artist and her art are memorialized around Uvalde.
Eliahna ‘Ellie’ Garcia, 9. She fiercely loved Jesus, her family, and Encanto. Disney made her a custom dress from the movie after finding out how big a fan she was. "She was fun, loving, with the biggest heart in the world," her father Steven said.
Irma Garcia, 48. A longtime educator & one half of the ‘dream team’ Irma was known for her dedication to her family & students even in her final moments. “She tried to protect them at the last moment by giving her life, love, and bravery,” Marcus Lozano, Irma’s brother, said.
Joe Garcia, 50. Devoted husband to Irma & father to his children everyone remembers Joe’s love for life. He died two days after the shooting from cardiac arrest— family believes a broken heart. “Never turned anybody away from their door,” Marcus Lozano, Irma’s brother, said.
Uziyah Garcia, 10. He loved Spider-Man & tried to put a smile on everyone’s faces. Brett & Nikki Cross raised him & have been fighting for gun reform legislation. “Every morning he told me he loved me before he went to school. We miss him every day,” Nikki said about her son.
Xavier Lopez, 10. He loved playing baseball, swimming, and dancing. His sweet connection with Annabell Rodriguez, who also died in the shooting, was written in the stars. “We have forever to live [without Xavier]. I don’t know how,” his mom Felicha Martinez said.
Jayce Luevanos, 10. He loved dinosaurs, SpongeBob, and the color green, and is so missed by his family. He would always make his grandparents a pot of coffee each morning.
Tess Mata, 10. Tess was both the Astros & Jose Altuve’s biggest fan. Her family tells me you could hear her laugh a mile away. Tess loved Tik Tok, softball, and her family. They wear bracelets Tess made & started a scholarship at Texas State (her dream school) in her name.
Maranda Mathis, 11. She loved the outdoors, unicorns, mermaids, and the color purple. Her family said she always enjoyed being among nature.
Eva Mireles, 44. The other half of the ‘dream team’ Eva was a longtime educator, CrossFit superstar, karaoke queen & loving mother/wife. She also shielded her students during the massacre. “She did this and she saved these kids,” her daughter Adalynn Ruiz tells us.
Alithia Ramirez, 10. She dreamed of studying art in Paris. Her artwork has been honored by the White House and Google. There is a picture book coming out soon honoring Alithia and her art.
Annabell Rodriguez, 10. She was best friends with her cousin Jackie Cazares and had a special connection with Xavier Lopez, both of whom were killed also in the mass shooting. She loved Tik Tok, the color blue, and her family, including her twin sister.
Maite Rodriguez, 10. She had dreams of being a marine biologist and loved anything to do with the ocean & keeping nature clean. Her green Converse with a heart drawn on the toe has become recognized nationwide.
Lexi Rubio, 10. Lexi wanted to attend St. Mary’s to study law. There’s now a scholarship in her name. She’s also known for her special at McDonald’s ‘Lexi Burger.’ On those really bad days, the only thing that gets me up is sharing Lexi’s story,” Kimberly said.
Layla Salazar, 11. The track star and Tik Tok lover sang ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ every morning with her dad on the way to school. Her grandfather said “She was my baby she was my granddaughter. I am mad. I am hurt.”
Jailah Silguero, 10. She loved Tik Tok and her family, and her mural is painted right next to her cousin, Jayce. Her family held a relay in her honor and the Spurs made Jailah a custom jersey.
Eliahna Cruz Torres, 10. She is forever her family’s #4 on and off the softball diamond. Her family tells us she could make anyone laugh and was very compassionate. Her family is often seen in purple shirts with Eliahna’s picture on them in her honor.
Rojelio Torres, 10. He loved green, his family, and Pokémon. His mural is now and forever part of the Pokémon Go game. When his mother Evadulia Orta received his backpack it had his Pokémon cards: “When we got that back we were happy because we got a part of him back.”
Since that horrible day in May 2022 Kimberly, Berlinda, Gloria, and Veronica have formed Lives Robbed. The group looks to fight for gun reform legislation.
It’s the group they’re here to talk with us about on this clear, bright March day.
The four women are anything but strangers now as they sit side by side across from us at a table prepared to do an interview as they have done hundreds of times over the past year.
We start to roll, and they start to talk and hope you’re listening.
“We don't want nobody to be on this on this side of the table. It's not somewhere you want to be. It's a very dark place,” Arreola said.