Pain is unavoidable in Uvalde, Texas, where Highways 90 and 83 meet.
The May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary, 60 miles north of the Mexican border, murdered 19 fourth graders and two teachers. Reminders of the shooting are everywhere. Murals of victims’ faces, placards that state, “Pray for Uvalde,” and “Uvalde Strong.”
However, why it took 77 minutes for any of the almost 400 law enforcement personnel there that day to approach the killer and halt the slaughter is still unknown.
“We failed,” stated Texas DPS director Col. Steve McCraw. “And I say ‘failed,’ and I said ‘we’ … because collectively we did.”
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In the last eight months, the depth of the errors, the scale of the missteps, and how they cascaded one on top of the other to create a chaotic and bungled reaction may well stand as Exhibit A of how law enforcement should not handle “active shooter” incidents have become clear.
ABC News has assembled never-before-seen investigative files, including 911 and police-dispatch audio, real-time video, new interviews, public accounts, and a special legislative committee’s work, over the past three months. May 24 shows law enforcement’s failures. Is any of them criminal?
“Certainly there was malfeasance committed that particular day,” McCraw said in his first interview since investigators presented their report to Uvalde prosecutors. “My belief is there’s possible criminal culpability.”
“There were a lot of failures that day,” stated Eva Guzman, a former state supreme court justice on a Texas Legislature special committee that probed the Robb shooting. “We expect our police officers to run toward the danger … and we now know that’s not what happened.”
Pete Arredondo, the beleaguered former Uvalde School District police chief, seemed unaware of his mistakes.
“As we approached, of course, there was some gunfire coming out, and I know it was coming out through the walls some in our direction,” Post-shooting, Arredondo informed investigators.“And obviously, I backed off and started taking cover.”
US Border Patrol SWAT terminated the 77-minute siege. The gunman, Salvador Ramos, was slain. District Attorney Christina Mitchell is considering charging police commanders.
“We have one chance to get this right,” said Uvalde case special assistant DA Scott Durfee. “And it is very important for the decision to prosecute to be based on all of the evidence.”
After an awards ceremony at Robb, where Jackie was in third grade, Gloria and Javier Cazares kissed their 9-year-old daughter, Jackie. “It was going to be a good day,” stated fourth-grade teacher Arnulfo Reyes.
Parents left the ceremony and pupils returned to class. Amy Marin, a school speech specialist, saw a car fall into a ditch. She quickly helped the driver. “I was running to him to help him,” Marin said. “I thought somebody had a heart attack.”
She understood this single-car crash was eviler within seconds. Security footage shows a gunman exiting the automobile and approaching the school, as Marin reported. Marin called 911 outside.
“Oh my god, he has a gun,” according to the audio. “He’s jumping into the schoolyard, ma’am! He just jumped over the fence. He’s running towards the school.” Gunshots in the classrooms cause bewilderment but not terror.
“My students were asking me, ‘what’s going on? What’s that noise?'” Reyes recalled. “And I kind of, like, froze to think about it. Like, ‘It couldn’t be.'” Reyes advised his kids to hide under tables and act asleep.
Marin, growing anxious, updates the 911 operator. As the gunman opens fire on the school, surveillance footage shows her pushing aside a rock used to hold open the door and retreating inside, expecting the door would close. Marin still regrets it doesn’t.
“You see me kick the rock and pull the door,” she told ABC’s, John Quinones. “You did not leave it open?” Quinones asked. “No,” she replied.
Marin didn’t realize that the outside door lock wasn’t engaged and the door wasn’t locked, but investigators did. Marin could not lock it internally. The gunman enters the building at 11:33 a.m. 911 dispatchers inform cops. “He made it into the school, guys.”
‘A cloud of smoke’
A black-clad figure stalks school hallways in surveillance footage. Salvador Ramos, 18, is a local Robb graduate. Ramos watches as a boy exits a bathroom down the hall and narrowly escapes the assault.
The shooter enters classrooms 111 and 112, turning left. The gunman fires almost 100 shots in three minutes.
“That’s when he shot my arm,” said Reyes. “I just remember just falling to the ground … and then he came up to the front and shot my kids after that.” Reyes was re-shot.
Investigators said the gunman fired over 100 shots in the classroom within minutes. Marin, barricaded across the hall, is still talking to police dispatchers. “I’m asking the operator, ‘Where are the cops?’ Where are the cops?'” she said.
Two groups of officers arrive at 11:36 a.m. Three Uvalde police officers enter the north side through the shooter’s door. Two Uvalde police officers and one of their policemen arrive on the south side.
“It was a cloud of smoke,” Career police officer Arredondo informed investigators. “As we approached, of course, there was some gunfire coming out, and I know it was coming out through the walls — some in our direction.” The video shows police entering the classroom. The attacker fires 16 shots at the door, forcing the officers to flee.
Arredondo, who subsequently explained he abandoned his radios before entering the building because he feared they would slow him down, telephones a police landline from his cell phone to report that the gunman is inside. “shot a whole bunch of times” and requesting backup: “I need a lot of firepowers, so I need this building surrounded.”
Experts and detectives told ABC News these first seconds were essential. “Initially, it was reported that this was a barricaded subject,” said McCraw. “But this wasn’t a hostage situation. This was not a barricaded subject. It was an active shooter.”
“He was wrong. He made a wrong call,” Arredondo’s judgment, McCraw stated. “Their job was to get their ass into that classroom and kill the subject, plain and simple.”
Arredondo later said the perpetrator was “cornered.” Investigators said he didn’t realize that Ramos’ classroom lockdown was still an “active shooter” incident that required the most extreme police reaction.
“It’s a place where you have to step up, put your own life on the line,” Guzman added. “And that starts at the top.”
Investigators said a leadership vacuum hindered the response, adding to the uncertainty. The active-shooter plan stated that Arredondo, as school police chief, would lead and command in the case of an active shooter, but Arredondo later said he didn’t perceive himself as a commander.
“This event took place in a school,” stated ABC News contributor and former active shooter and mass-casualty law enforcement official John Cohen. “It fell under the jurisdictional authority of the school police, the chief of the school police was on the scene.”
Sheriff Ruben Nolasco and interim Uvalde Police Department Chief Lt. Mariano Pargas came soon after. Neither led. “I have never seen a response to a mass casualty attack that was this problematic as the one in Uvalde,” Cohen added.
Crisis of Command
Investigators found 18 policemen from various agencies at the facility around 11:45 a.m. Police body-worn cameras show confusion as officers search for classroom keys. Dissatisfied parents assemble outside the school. “Police, of course, trying to hold people back,” Cazares recalled.
“What did they tell you?” Quinones asked. “‘Nobody can answer you, we don’t know what’s going on,'” he said. “Confused — they were all confused themselves, you know? A lot of them were [confused].”
Arredondo orders adjoining classrooms evacuated. “I know this is horrible and I know this is what our training tells us to do, but we have him contained,” Arredondo told ABC News investigators.”There may be dead in there, but we don’t need any more from here. I ordered the kids out.”
McCraw called this “the wrong call” and a violation of active shooter rules. “We’ve learned that lesson from Columbine,” McCraw said. “And the doctrine since then has been that in an active shooter situation, it’s to immediately locate the subject, isolate him, and neutralize him.”
Instead, Arredondo negotiates with the attacker, who never responds. However, 10-year-old student Khloie Torres contacts 911 at 12:03 p.m. She calls for help throughout the following 46 minutes. “Please hurry,” Torres informs the operator. “There’s a lot of dead bodies. Please, I’m going to die.”
The 911 operator tried to tell building officers about Torres. However, poor wireless and radio connectivity hampered those efforts.
“That information should’ve been taken in by the call-taker, should’ve been immediately relayed to the incident commander, who should have used that information to understand that this was still an active shooter event,” said Cohen.
However, no command post and no one was collecting and disseminating vital information in real time. Cohen said a command post was needed to give police in the hallway the information they needed to make choices. Cohen said information helps cops save lives in volatile situations.
Cohen claimed Uvalde has ample police weaponry, equipment, and expertise. Cohen stated, “No one took leadership. No one performed the basic function that’s needed in an incident such as this to take command and control over the situation.”
On body-worn cameras, Arredondo tells police to “cool the [crap] down for a minute” during the siege. He then claimed he was clearing the building before they entered the classroom.
‘What are we waiting on?’
However, the classroom remains dreadful. Twelve minutes into her conversation, Torres tells the operator, “Please help, my teacher is about to die.” Torres’ father, a former marine, claimed his daughter rubbed blood on herself to appear shot.
The younger Torres’ eagerness is shared by responding officers. Gun-wielding police are nearby. “So how many are still alive?” On a body-worn video, Lt. Mariano Pargas, Uvalde’s then-acting police chief, asks dispatchers about Torres’ details.
“Eight to nine are still alive,” The dispatcher tells Pargas on the call recording. “She’s not too sure … she’s not too sure how many are actually [dead on arrival] or possibly injured”. Pargas told investigators he didn’t recall that talk weeks after the shooting.
By 12:20 p.m., nearly 40 officers are inside Robb when the classroom fires again. Officers withdraw. On a body-worn camera, Arredondo discusses the next measures and how law enforcement would be seen.
“People are going to ask why we’re taking so long,” Bodycam footage shows him saying. “We’re trying to preserve the rest of life.” Officers seem restless. The school has 49 cops at 12:35. A body-worn camera captures a basic question: “What are we waiting on?”
“Please help,” 35 minutes after calling 911, Torres begs. “Can you tell the police to come to my room?” The gunman is killed at 12:50 p.m. by a tactical team led by U.S. Border Patrol personnel.
Officers rush into the next classrooms. One officer vomits as he absorbs the horror on a body-worn camera. Torres, and nine classmates, survive. Teacher Arnolfo Reyes, shot twice, is bleeding profusely.
“They don’t know how they’re going to take me to the hospital,” he said. “They don’t know, because everything is blocked. Everything is a mess out there. But I hear them talking and saying, like, ‘Do we put him in the back of a car in the trunk?'”
Investigators have also focused on the disorganized medical response. Some victims were hauled outside, while others were triaged inside. Parents desperately searched for their children at reunion centers and hospitals under a communication blackout.
“We waited hours,” Gloria Cazares recalled. “And one time where it got really angry, and I was yelling in the hallway, and I said, ‘I need to know something now.’ And, sure, a few minutes later, there was a chaplain and two [Texas] Rangers that came looking for us … and so I asked, ‘Is she alive?’ And one of the Rangers just looked at me and said, ‘No, she’s not.’ And that’s all I remember.”
After 21 people died on May 24, a series of embarrassing communication mistakes mischaracterized the police reaction and necessitated public corrections. McCraw noted that Marin, the 911 caller, had left the outer door open.
“I’m standing in front of the TV and McCraw starts speaking,” Marin recalled. “And he said a teacher left the door propped open … I looked at my daughter and I said, ‘He’s lying. That’s a lie’ … I was sick to my stomach, I was shaking.” After days, McCraw apologized. The Department of Public Safety showed that Marin and others could not lock the door from the inside.
Misinformation continued. After initially praising first responders, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, it became evident they bungled the response. Daily, facts changed and information was retracted. After seeing the bodycam and surveillance footage, Abbott and McCraw alleged local officials deceived them.
“The idea that this was a heroic and well-done and effective and efficient operation was not the case,” McCraw said. “And when we determined that it was not the case, we reported otherwise.” The special committee of the Texas legislature investigated the shifting stories because the public felt misled.
“The stories were different. They were different varying by the network, of the speaker. One leader said one thing, another leader said another,” said Guzman. “And it was time to deliver answers to the people of Uvalde.”
Public confessions haven’t helped victims’ relatives. Even survivors face the burden of losing children: “She does have survivor’s guilt,” remarked Khloie’s father Ruben Torres.
Frustration persists. “I was very proud of her during that  call,” Torres said. “And when I heard her voice, you know, again, the shedding the tears already happened for me … and I was like, ’46 [expletive] minutes, and you guys did nothing.”
The shooter’s social media posts and the shooting he committed before attacking Robb have prompted doubts about lost opportunities to stop the attack.
Ramos shot his grandmother on Diaz Street at 11:21 a.m. After Ramos entered school, police arrived at 11:35 a.m. to find his grandma alive. “Those seven to nine minutes could’ve made a difference,” Guzman said. “We’ll never know. It’ll always be a ‘what if.'”
Ruben Nolasco, Uvalde’s acting sheriff, responded to Diaz Street’s shooting. He informed authorities he redirected because he was headed to the initial car crash. Nolasco radioed in on his route to Diaz Street, and three deputies responded. Nolasco went to Robb after EMTs took the grandma.
“Diaz Street is shrouded in mystery,” Guzman said. “What time did the sheriff get there? How long did it take him to get there? Did he, or anyone else on that scene, make an immediate effort to locate the shooter?”
Investigative data inside the school indicate further classroom breaches were missed. Arredondo told investigators he “heard [Ramos] reload” his weapon at least once — a golden opportunity “to immediately breach and engage,” Cohen said.
The door was unlocked, so officers wasted time looking for keys. “locked but it was not secured,” McCraw reported an unresolved maintenance issue.
“In terms of crystallizing the events of the day, it’s hard to say that there was one moment, and yet it’s all about moments,” Guzman said. “We know that if there had not been these systemic failures, that if one person had responded differently at any moment, maybe the outcome could have been different.”
376 law enforcement officers responded to the incident, many of whom evacuated children and secured the perimeter. Accountability took time. Some have already paid.
The school district police force was disbanded after Pete Arredondo was fired. Then-acting Uvalde police commander Mariano Pargas resigned when officials threatened to remove him (he was reelected in November to his position as a county commissioner). One responding state trooper was dismissed for his actions that day, another resigned, and a third is appealing.
Arredondo has frequently defended his conduct and told investigators he did not believe the gunman was an active shooter when he arrived. He also denied commanding the police response.
After Arredondo was sacked, his lawyer said, “Incident Command obligations … fell upon several law enforcement agencies before and during the horrific events inside the hallway, which had nothing to do with the district of Chief Arredondo.”
Pargas declined to comment. He told county commissioners in January, “All I ask is that you give me the opportunity until after the investigation is done. A lot out there is not correct.” Nolasco refused to comment.
Prosecutors have stated that the probe findings would be presented to a grand jury, which will decide whether to indict anyone. After an initial inquiry, the Texas Department of Public Safety is determining if any Robb failures are crimes. The district attorney will receive the final DPS report in March.
“From our standpoint, [we’re] looking at every officer and looking internally at our officers,” McCraw said. “What did they know? When did they hear? When did they arrive? What did they do then? What information they received while they were there, and how did they act upon that particular information?”
According to ABC News, the probe is reviewing every law enforcement officer who responded that day, with an emphasis on the leaders and their decisions in the vital first seconds.
“The consequences of police inaction at the scene — that is the whole point of the investigation,” Durfee, the case’s special ADA, “And that would be a part of what’s presented to the grand jury.” Victims’ families still struggle. Many have used their grief to advocate for state and federal gun control laws.
Even when they uncover distressing information about their daughter’s death, the Cazareses are spearheading that charge. The family received their daughter’s autopsy results recently. It means she was shot later in the siege, not in the first barrage.
“Because of her injuries, she would have bled out quickly,” Gloria Cazares said. “And if she was shot at the very beginning, then she wouldn’t have had a pulse at the end of the 77 minutes. And she did. She was still alive.”
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“What does that tell you?” Quinones asked Cazares. “So that, for sure, tells me that, if the cops would have gone in when they should have, then my daughter would still be here with me today,” she said.
Cazares said it’s “justice for my daughter” that keeps her going. “We don’t want them ever to be forgotten,” she said. “And definitely, we’re not going to let that happen.”