Dozens of law enforcement officers trudged through soggy brush near a South Texas middle school Tuesday looking for casings and other evidence to help explain how two boys were shot while they were trying out for the school basketball team.
Investigators have questioned three men who were found on adjacent ranchland after the shooting Monday evening. Two were practicing target shooting about a half mile from the school. A third was an illegal immigrant with an assault rifle who was trespassing on the property. The target shooters were released, but are still under investigation. The other man remained in custody. Investigators didn't know if any of them fired the shots.
School officials met with parents Tuesday morning, and both said they were surprised to learn there was hunting on private property just beyond the school's perimeter. Superintendent Rene Gutierrez said one property owner had informed officials about hunting on his land, but they hadn't known there was any in the area where the shots came from.
"We were not aware that there was hunting on the west side of the school or that there were (hunting) leases on the west side until last night," Gutierrez said.
With no Texas law prohibiting hunting on private land near a school and high-powered rifles that can fire more than a mile, school officials said the most immediate way to protect students might be building a cinder-block wall around two sides of Harwell Middle School to protect it from flying bullets.
The school opened just this year on rural property northeast of Edinburg, which is about 50 miles northwest of Brownsville. Homes line the road approaching the school, but ranchlands covered with thickets of short trees and undergrowth stretch out to the west and the north.
A chain link fence separates the back of the campus from about 200 yards of open field, and there a tree line starts an expanse of thick scrub to the west.
The boys, ages 13 and 14, were in a parking lot that had been converted into a temporary basketball court behind the school when they were shot about 4:45 p.m. Monday. About 50 children were trying out for the team. One boy going for a layup was shot just under the right arm, and the other was shot in the back while awaiting his turn.
Four coaches immediately rushed children inside the building while other staff tended to the wounded students, Gutierrez said. Both boys underwent surgery and were listed in stable condition, he said.
Investigators were able to retrieve a bullet from one of the boys. Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino said they will check for a ballistics match with rifles taken from three men who were questioned. The target shooters told investigators they were practicing on property west of the school, and Trevino said they appeared to have been in the right line of fire to hit the students.
"We felt very certain that the shots came from afar," Trevino said. "They probably came from one of the surrounding ranches. We knew for sure that it did not occur from within the compound of the school."
Investigators were still trying to figure out where the third man was when the boys were shot. He had an AR-15 assault rifle, and Trevino said he could face trespassing and weapons charges in addition to his immigration violation.
Classes were held as scheduled Tuesday, but students were confined to campus buildings and extra security patrolled the campus.
Mike Cox, a spokesman for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said he was not aware of a specific law or regulation that prohibits hunting close to public buildings, such as schools or hospitals. He said it is against the law to discharge firearms within city limits or along any public road.
Trevino also said he didn't believe there was any law preventing hunting near a school.
"You're in the state of Texas and the state of Texas, like any other state in the union, has rural schools all over the country," Trevino said. "And a lot of the schools are surrounded by hunting ... Even during dove season, we get literally hundreds of calls of residents having barbecues having pellets rain upon their roof. I mean that happens every year. You've got to remember you're in rural Hidalgo County, Texas, and it is a hunting state."
However, he added, "you would seem to think also that there's some sort of personal responsibility that one has to take as a hunter or as a responsible adult."
A man who owns property northeast of the school had told school officials that he leased his property out to two deer hunters and that this would be the last year, Gutierrez said. That property owner advised the hunters of the school's location and told them to only shoot north, away from the campus, he said.
Esmeralda Gutierrez, who has a son in eighth grade, said school officials told her that students won't be allowed outside for activities this week. But they also said that since the adjacent land is private and the hunters have permission, there was nothing they could do.
Gutierrez said she remained concerned about the safety of her son and other students.
"I didn't know there was hunting there. It surprised me," Gutierrez said in Spanish. "It's dangerous for the kids."
Associated Press writer Will Weissert in Austin contributed to this report.