1 Killed, 1 wounded in Vekol Valley 'rip crew' shooting

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VEKOL VALLEY, Ariz. – Investigators are looking into an overnight shooting in Vekol Valley that put one man in the hospital. Several hours later, officers scouring the scene found a body in the desert -- a man who had been shot to death.

The Department of Public Safety received the call at about 2:15 a.m. Thursday. A wounded Hispanic man was found at a rest stop on Interstate 8 near milepost 149. He had been shot once in the abdomen. The man was treated at the scene and then air-lifted to Maricopa Medical Center where he was rushed into surgery. His condition was not immediately available.

Details are still emerging, but Tim Gaffney of the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office said the man, whose name has not been released, told investigators that he had been traveling from Mexico with a group of 14 people. They had just set up for the night near Antelope Peak when, according to the victim, another group of individuals showed up and opened fire.

The wounded man, who is believed to be an undocumented immigrant, fled the scene. He made it to the rest stop. Once there, he called his daughter, who in turn called 911.

Vekol Valley, which is a notorious drug-trafficking corridor, is halfway between Casa Grande and Gila Bend, about 50 miles south of Phoenix.

Gaffney said there are often vehicle pursuits in the area. It’s also the same area where former Pinal County Deputy Louie Puroll was shot in what he described as an ambush by marijuana smugglers armed with AK-47 rifles.

“We also had two other individuals who were killed last year in this same area,” Gaffney said.

According to Gaffney, investigators were trying determine if there is a definitive drug connection in this incident.

"We don't know if this is tied to human smuggling or drug smuggling or both," Gaffney said early on.

Evidence found at the scene later led investigators to believe the deadly shooting was related to drug trafficking and "rip crews." A rip crew is a group that's organized specifically to rip off drug mules or people who are crossing the border illegally. Such crews are often quite violent.

While there were several people in the victim's group, they scattered when the shooting started, Gaffney said. In addition to trying to verify the veracity of the victim's story, investigators are looking for those people, as well as the suspects.

It initially was not clear if there were any other victims, but officers searching the desert area found the campsite the victim described. There they discovered the body of a man in his mid-30s. He had been shot to death. Investigators said they believe that man, who was armed, might have been part of the victim's group. No other information was immediately available.

Investigators now say 15 individuals were smuggling marijuana into the United States when they were confronted by the so-called “rip crew,” prompting a shooting.

Members of the rip crew then loaded the marijuana onto a vehicle that was stopped along Interstate 8.

Law enforcement agencies believed some of the individuals involved in the shooting were taken to a home in Stanfield.

Local, state and federal officers surrounded the house at about 1 p.m. and were able to take six people into custody.