By Shimon Prokupecz, Matthew J. Friedman, and Rachel Clarke, CNN
Uvalde’s acting police chief knew “eight to nine” children were alive and in need of rescue from a gunman in Robb Elementary School’s classrooms, but failed to provide help, new audio recordings of a phone call and CNN analysis of newly obtained video shows to organize.
Lt. Mariano Pargas called his Uvalde Police Department dispatchers for details after they relayed a call over the police radio from 10-year-old Khloie Torres that she was in a room “full of victims,” according to a recorded conversation by CNN from sources close to the investigation into the failed law enforcement response to the massacre.
Communications errors and a lack of leadership in the chaotic response are blamed for why it took 77 minutes to stop the gunman, who was hiding in two adjacent classrooms, with some officers saying they were not aware of children’s emergency calls been, others said they could not hear any radio transmissions.
Pargas’ call proves for the first time that a senior official was alerted to an emergency call straight from the classroom and was given details of the exact whereabouts of children who were alive and begging for rescue.
The conversation, which is routinely recorded as part of police proceedings, shows Pargas calling at 12:16 p.m., approximately six minutes after Khloie reached 911 and while she was still on the phone with a dispatcher, and four minutes after the call information was relayed Uvalde police radio station.
“The calls you received from… one of the students, what did they say?” he asks.
The dispatcher replies, “OK, Khloie will, it’s Khloie. She is in room 112, Mariano, 112.”
Pargas asks: “So, how many are still alive?” and is told: “Eight to nine are still alive. She’s not sure… She’s not sure how many are actually DOA or possibly injured. We try it …”
Pargas ends the conversation with “OK, OK thanks” and hangs up.
At 12:17 p.m., based on analysis of the surveillance and body cameras at the crime scene, he goes back into the hallway and mentions the injured victims to a border guard. At 12:18 p.m., he makes no mention of the children when a Texas Ranger talks to him about organizing the flow of information.
Pargas was last seen walking away from the school entrance at 12:20 p.m. New angles of hallway security cameras obtained by CNN confirm Pargas does not re-enter the hallway near Room 112 where officers are congregating, and breaks down the classroom door about 30 minutes later.
Officers broke into classrooms and killed the gunman at 12:50 p.m., 77 minutes after he began his murderous rampage at the school. Nineteen children and two teachers died after the May 24 attack in Uvalde, Texas. At least three of the dead – two children and a teacher – survived their initial injuries and died after the classrooms were breached.
Pargas was placed on administrative leave by Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin in July when body camera video raised questions about whether he had taken action to take charge. “This administrative leave is to investigate whether Lt. Pargas was responsible for taking command on May 24th, which concrete measures Lt. Pargas to set up this command and whether it was even feasible given all the agencies involved and other possible policy violations,” McLaughlin said in a statement at the time.
The newly obtained recording of the phone call by CNN only seems to underscore Pargas’ inaction.
When CNN reached Pargas by phone for comment on the story, he said he could not speak about anything related to the police department on the advice of his attorneys.
“I want to defend myself. I really do,” he said Monday. “There are a lot of things I can explain that I would like to defend. And that’s the problem we have right now … the victims and everyone says whatever they want to say, but we can’t say anything because we’ve been told not to talk to them, you know, we can’t say anything because we’re still under not speaking to any media or anything.
He added: “It’s not that we’re afraid because there’s nothing to be afraid of. We did what we could, but the thing is, we’ve been told we can’t (public speaking).”
Just last week, Pargas was re-elected as Uvalde’s district commissioner after defeating three candidates including Javier Cazares, who lost his daughter Jackie in the shooting.
Clear details and no action
The audio of the 911 calls from Khloie Torres and her classmate Miah Cerrillo, released exclusively by CNN with the consent of the girls’ parents, revealed the girls gave details to authorities at 12:10 p.m., more than 30 minutes after officers and instructions began to arrive en masse at the school, but it was a full 40 minutes before the armed forces entered the room to challenge and kill the gunman. Later in the conversation, after gunshots are heard, Miah says of the killer, “He shoots.”
In an interview with a Texas Ranger and an FBI agent two days after the shooting, Pargas recounts what happened and fails to mention that he knew at the time that there were children with the shooter in the adjoining classrooms of 111 and 112. or from the 911 call, according to transcripts of interviews obtained by CNN.
But he knew that teacher Eva Mireles had been shot dead in her classroom, as told by her husband, a former member of the Pargas Police Department who worked for the school police at the time, Pargas said. He said he watched police officer Ruben Ruiz tense up and decided he should be disarmed and taken out of the hallway.
“He held the gun very tightly,” Pargas said of Ruiz in his interview. “And we were just afraid that he would try to run into the classroom and do what I wanted to do when I could have done it.”
In a second interview in mid-June, when asked to make 911 calls from the classroom, Pargas said he didn’t have a clear memory. “I do not remember. I really don’t,” he said. “I know someone said and I’m not sure if it was dispatch or someone, I remember someone saying they thought a kid was going to call and tell dispatch that he was inside. “
When asked if he shared that information, he replied, “I’m almost positive I did it to the people lined up (in the hallway).”
Pargas did not mention his follow-up call with his department and said he did not know for sure if there were children in the shooter’s rooms.
“We didn’t know who or what was in there because it was so quiet,” he told a ranger. “We had no idea.”
Later in the interview, he added: “The last thing on our mind was that he actually shot the kids. We thought he shot up and broke the lights. We had no idea what was behind those doors.”
Why the chief didn’t take charge
Pargas was acting chief of Uvalde police on the day of the massacre while Chief Daniel Rodriguez was on vacation.
He told investigators he was rushing near the school – about a mile and a half away – when someone came into his office to say there had been an accident and there was a man with a gun.
Analysis of CNN video from surveillance and body cameras shows that Pargas was the fifth officer to run into the school corridor after the gunman.
Three of the Pargas UPD officers were shot at as they approached the classrooms where the gunman was hiding and two were injured.
But Pargas said he didn’t think about who should be in charge, especially when he saw the school’s then-police chief Pedro “Pete” Arredondo.
“The moment I saw Pete Arredondo … I thought this is school property and we’re here to help quite a bit. That’s usually what we do – if something happens at the school, we pretty much support the school because it’s their responsibility,” Pargas told the ranger, who was collecting information in mid-June.
“I don’t think I stopped to say, well, who’s giving orders or who’s in charge. We’re just trying to see what we can do as quickly as possible.”
Arredondo said he never considered himself in command of the incident, although he tried to negotiate with the gunman and give orders to those who were in the hallway with him.
More officials from more local, state, and federal agencies arrived, and there was no clear direction as to what was going on inside or outside the school building.
As they stood at the front door at 12:10 p.m. with weapons drawn but static, a UPD detective asked Pargas about the Border Patrol tactical team, “Are we just waiting for BORTAC, or what’s up?”
Pargas replies, “Yes, they tell me the DPS ranger found someone and they will come in.”
Another local officer then asks him for an “OIC” – an officer in charge – and Pargas appears to refer him to Texas Ranger Christopher Ryan Kindell, now himself suspended and under investigation for actions he is not at Robb Elementary has taken.
Pargas’ thoughts on taking charge didn’t seem to change over time, and more and more information kept coming out.
A Texas House committee report on the Robb Elementary tragedy said the lack of an effective incident command was a major problem. The report, which criticizes the decisions made by Pargas, says that the fact that UPD officers who responded to reports of a crash and a man with a gun were on the scene first would have made them first in command while Arredondo then could have taken command of the school he would have had to leave the building to coordinate effectively.
Pargas had arrived at the school where his granddaughter was a student without a radio and may not have heard the broadcast over Khloie’s call.
But one of his detectives made sure he knew what was being said.
“Full of victims, child called 911 and says room full of victims,” he was told at 12:12 p.m., according to footage from a body camera carried by another officer.
“The room is full of victims,” the detective repeats as Pargas pulls the radio out of the detective’s vest. “Kid 911, call kid 911.”
Pargas then goes into the school building, where officers from local, state, and federal law enforcement were lined up at the end of a hallway leading to the classrooms.
“A kid just called that they have victims there,” he says, before turning and leaving the area.
Two days after the massacre, Pargas told an investigator he wished more could have been done.
But then he praises the surgery: “I think keeping him in check, I think it saved a lot more lives that could have been taken that day.”
The CNN Wire
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