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West Texas father who was reported missing with daughter in Big Bend found guilty of child endangerment

Hector Flores Jr. and his young daughter were reported missing for more than a week in the national park earlier this year before being found just south of the border in Mexico. Prosecutors accused the father of putting the girl in danger as the two traveled on foot across miles of rugged desert terrain with little food.

By Travis Bubenik

A Fort Stockton man was found guilty of child endangerment on Wednesday for traveling on foot with his nine-year-old daughter earlier this year through the Chihuahuan Desert for days with little food. The two were reported missing inside Big Bend National Park, but were later found in Mexico near the Texas border.

A federal jury in Pecos reached the guilty verdict against Hector Flores Jr. after a brief two-day trial, the culmination of a criminal case that initially began as a missing persons case inside the sprawling Far West Texas park.

In early February, authorities in Big Bend launched a widespread search for Flores Jr. and his daughter after the father’s abandoned truck was found off a rugged dirt road some 20 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

The father was arrested and charged with child endangerment when the two were found days later just across the border near the Mexican town of Boquillas, having apparently walked the entire distance. Authorities have said the pair made the trip with little food during a time when temperatures were particularly cold in the park. 

Just before the trial began, defense attorney Shane O’Neal asked U.S. District Judge David Counts to throw out the charge against Flores Jr., claiming prosecutors had “withheld critical information until the last minute” and had shown “no indication” they could meet their burden at trial. The judge denied the motion and later rejected a last-minute acquittal motion the defense filed during the trial.

The jury ultimately agreed with prosecutors’ charge that the father had placed the daughter in “imminent danger” during the ordeal in Big Bend, and that he had acted “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence.”

Prosecutors did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the verdict and what sentence they would ask the judge for.

In an interview, O’Neal said he and Flores Jr. client were “very disappointed” in the verdict. O’Neal has maintained that the daughter, who authorities first described as being found "alive and well" was never in actual physical danger while in Big Bend.

“They just seemed to want to argue, ‘He’s a bad parent, convict him,’” O’Neal said. “And unfortunately the jury went with that.”

O’Neal said he would appeal the verdict, likely on grounds that there was not sufficient evidence for the guilty verdict.

A sentencing date has not been set. Flores Jr. could face up to two years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

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.