The warden of what was once one of the nation’s most notorious immigration detention facilities was arrested this week after allegedly killing one migrant and wounding another in the desert of rural West Texas.
Michael Sheppard — who until this week oversaw U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement’s West Texas Detention Center in Sierra Blanca, Texas — and his twin brother, Mark, were arrested late Wednesday night, the New York Times reported.
According to affidavits filed Thursday, at least four people were walking along a roadway deep in the desert when the 60-year-old Sheppard brothers approached in a pickup truck around 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
The group of migrants took cover near a water tank. According to the surviving witnesses, the men in the vehicle shouted profanities at them and told them to come out in Spanish. They revved their engine. The driver leaned across the hood and fired at least two shots. One man was struck in the head and killed. A woman was shot in the gut but survived.
In interviews with authorities, the Sheppards said they were simply out hunting — at first claiming that they were looking for grouse, and later that they were after javelina. They said they made no effort to determine what they had shot and left the scene for a county board meeting. The pair were arrested the following night and charged with manslaughter.
For Michael Sheppard, it was the latest in a string of allegations of violence against immigrants going back years, with claims so severe that a federal prosecutor at one point sought the attention of the FBI.
As The Intercept reported in 2018, Sheppard, in his capacity as warden of ICE’s Sierra Blanca facility, was accused of participating in and overseeing the sadistic abuse of a group of African migrants and asylum-seekers. In interviews with legal advocates, 30 men from Somalia described a “week of hell” in which they were pepper-sprayed, beaten, threatened, taunted with racial slurs, and subjected to sexual abuse by officials answering to Sheppard and in some cases by Sheppard himself.
The men described Sheppard routinely using racist language in addressing them, including: “Shut your Black ass up. You don’t deserve nothing. You belong at the back of that cage”; “Boy, I’m going to show you. You’re my bitch”; and “Now you belong to me, boy.” One of the men said a guard repeatedly fondled his penis. Others said they were pepper-sprayed so severely they began coughing up blood. Some claimed they were tossed into solitary confinement for speaking too loudly to the West Texas warden.
In addition to overseeing the facility at the time that the alleged abuse occurred, Sheppard himself was personally accused of punching a man in the face four times, then later kicking him in the ribs repeatedly while he was handcuffed on the ground in solitary confinement.
The migrants, most of whom ICE later deported to an active war zone, filed complaints with the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and local authorities. Their allegations were documented in a lengthy 2018 report by a coalition of legal groups, including the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES; Texas A&M University School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic; and University of Texas School of Law’s Immigration Clinic.
“The pattern and practice of abuses LaSalle corrections officers engaged against the group of African detainees over the course of a week amounts to hate crimes, conspiracy against rights, and a deprivation of rights under color of law,” the report said. “The officers used epithets (‘terrorist’ and ‘boy’ and ‘n*’) in combination with beatings, broad and indiscriminate use of pepper spray, and routine and arbitrary use of segregation and other violations to demean and injure the men.”
According to the authors of the report, the local U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas forwarded the men’s complaints, which included alleged hate crimes perpetrated by Sheppard and his guards, to the El Paso division of the FBI. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday on the complaints it received.
The 2018 report was only the latest in a series to document highly abusive conditions in the Sierra Blanca facility under Sheppard’s watch. In 2016, ICE’s Office of Detention Oversight reported the detention facility had multiple deficiencies with discipline and health services, including an absence in training on how to use nonlethal weapons. Immigrants who had been locked up under Sheppard reported having to use plastic bags for toilets.
Officials at Sheppard’s jail refused to answer any questions following the 2018 report. ICE said it took “very seriously any allegations of misconduct or unsafe conditions” and vowed that a thorough internal review of the complaints would commence. (Following publication Thursday evening, ICE spokesperson Paige Hughes said the agency would review the process the agency took after the March 2018 allegations and that ICE stopped using the facility for immigration detention in October 2019; the jail remained operational for non-immigration purposes.)
Whatever steps the federal agency took, it is clear Sheppard remained on the job. The remote facility he oversaw is run by the for-profit prison company LaSalle Corrections, an important player in ICE’s network of private immigrant jails. Scott Sutterfield, a spokesperson for Louisiana-based company, told the San Antonio Express-News that Sheppard was still running the jail, despite the previous allegations, up until this week’s killing.
“The warden at West Texas Detention Center, Sierra Blanca, TX, has been terminated due to an off-duty incident unrelated to his employment,” Sutterfield said.