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West Texas man who went missing with daughter in Big Bend arrested on child endangerment charge

Hector Flores Jr. is facing a federal charge stemming from the multiple days he and his young daughter spent apparently traveling on foot through a rugged corner of Big Bend National Park. The two were found just south of the park in Mexico after a more than week-long search.

By Travis Bubenik

Authorities on Tuesday arrested a Fort Stockton man who had been reported missing with his nine-year-old daughter inside Big Bend National Park, claiming the man put the child in danger as they wandered across a remote area of the park at a time when temperatures dropped to as low as 10 degrees.

Hector Flores Jr. is charged with a single federal count of child endangerment related to the incident. 

His arrest was first reported by the Big Bend Sentinel. Police said Flores Jr. was being held at the Brewster County Jail.

“Information that arose once he was returned to the U.S. and contacted by law enforcement led to his detainment,” Big Bend National Park Spokesperson Tom VandenBerg said.

Prosecutors alleged in court documents filed Tuesday that Flores Jr. “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence, by act or omission” put his daughter at risk after they first arrived in the national park on Jan. 28.

A widespread search for the two first began on Feb. 5, when the father’s abandoned truck was found along one of the park’s rugged dirt roads. They were discovered about a week later in a rural part of Mexico just across the Rio Grande from the park, after officials said local residents reported that the pair approached them seeking to buy food.

Shane O’Neal, an attorney for Flores Jr., declined to comment on the endangerment allegations, but said it appeared the case was brought as a federal charge as opposed to a state charge because the incident unfolded in a national park.

“It creates certain interesting wrinkles legally,” O’Neal said.

According to court documents, park rangers found Flores Jr.’s truck about 20 miles north of the border along the rugged Old Ore Road, suggesting he and his daughter had walked that entire distance to the place where they were found.

Though Big Bend National Park said Flores Jr. and his daughter were found “alive and well” and in “healthy condition,” a criminal complaint against the father filed Tuesday paints a bleaker picture of the pair’s journey up to that point.

Marfa Public Radio is not identifying the daughter by name in this story because she is a minor who is now at the center of a criminal case. A previous story did include her name and photograph, as both were shared by the national park in a press release.

In court documents, an investigator assigned to the case said that after being found, the daughter “freely stated” to park rangers that she and her father had run out of food and that she had not eaten for four days.

"Thank God we came across some kayakers,” the daughter told park rangers, according to an affidavit, “and they gave us wraps to eat.”

Special Agent Alice Downie also stated in the affidavit that in the weeks leading up to the incident, Flores Jr. had withdrawn his daughter from school and had his phone number disconnected for not paying the bill.

According to the affidavit, Flores Jr. also called his employer in Fort Stockton shortly before he and his daughter traveled to Big Bend and told the employer he would not be showing up for work. He was fired the same day, the investigator said.

In the affidavit, Downie also detailed the scene that authorities came upon when they initially found the father’s abandoned truck.

Searchers found personal items “strewn about” within a few hundred yards of the truck, the affidavit said, items that included clothes, toiletries and children’s toys.

Authorities also found “locks of hair six inches long, which appeared to have been cut.” Investigators later determined the locks matched the child’s hair, the affidavit said.

Plenty of questions remain about the incident. For instance, authorities have not said publicly or indicated in court documents whether the father and daughter were actively looking for help when they were discovered. It’s also unclear why the two set out on foot from the father’s truck in the first place.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said Thursday the daughter was in child protective services custody and that the department was working to find an appropriate relative to place her with.

Flores Jr. is set to appear for an initial court hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 23 in Alpine.

Editor’s note: Shane O’Neal, the defense attorney quoted in this story, is a Marfa Public Radio board member.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.