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Child endangerment case over father and daughter who went missing in Big Bend headed to trial in June

Hector Flores Jr. was indicted earlier this year on claims that he put his young daughter in danger during a lengthy and still-mysterious period of time the two spent traveling on foot across a remote stretch of Big Bend National Park.

By Travis Bubenik

A criminal child endangerment case against the Fort Stockton father who was reported missing for days inside Big Bend National Park earlier this year along with his nine-year-old daughter is headed to trial this month, with jury selection tentatively set for June 21.

Hector Flores Jr. appeared virtually from a conference room at the Brewster County Jail for a brief court hearing Wednesday morning before Alpine-based U.S. Magistrate Judge David Fannin.

Flores Jr. has remained in custody at the Brewster County Jail since his arrest in February after Fannin ruled that he would be a flight risk if released on bond, as the Big Bend Sentinel reported.

Wednesday was the deadline for federal prosecutors to offer a plea bargain in the case. At the hearing, O’Neal told the judge that prosecutors had not made an offer and that he was ready to proceed to trial.

O’Neal said the defense plans to challenge key parts of the charge against Flores Jr. that accuse him of acting with “criminal negligence” in a way that endangered his daughter while the two were in Big Bend.

“It is our belief that the government’s evidence thus far lacks really any evidence of imminent bodily injury,” he said.

Prosecutors didn’t respond to O’Neal’s comments at Wednesday’s hearing.

The criminal case against Flores Jr. first began in early February as a missing persons case inside the sprawling national park, after authorities found the father’s abandoned truck off a rugged dirt road about 20 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Park officials launched a widespread and publicized search, initially releasing images and names of both the father and his young daughter. Marfa Public Radio is not naming the daughter, as she is now an alleged victim in a criminal case, though a previous story on the search before Flores Jr. was arrested did identify her and include her picture.

The two were found just south of the border about a week later in what officials initially described as “healthy condition,” despite a bitterly cold winter storm that had swept into the Big Bend area just before the search for the two began.

The government has claimed in court documents that the nine-year-old girl told authorities she had not eaten for four days at the time the two were found in Mexico. Authorities have also pointed to the father’s behavior in the days leading up to the trip to Big Bend, when he allegedly withdrew his daughter from school, stopped paying his phone bill and quit his job.

Still, O’Neal has pushed back on the government’s assertion that the daughter was actually in jeopardy, noting that she did not require any emergency medical attention when she was found.

The trial is set to begin later this month before U.S. District Judge David Counts in Pecos, though the location and timing could change.

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.