February 23, 2022 605 PM
ALPINE — Hector Flores, Jr., a Fort Stockton man facing charges of child endangerment after he and his nine-year-old daughter went missing in Big Bend National Park earlier this month, made his first appearance in court this week at the Western District of Texas’ Alpine courthouse.
Flores, 49, and his daughter, who was identified in court proceedings by her initials, L.F., entered into Big Bend National Park on January 28 and were officially reported missing February 5 when park volunteers and rangers discovered their abandoned vehicle off of Old Ore Road. They were found over a week later, on February 14, near Boquillas Del Carmen in Mexico.
Following the land and air search, which involved both federal and state agencies as well as Mexican law enforcement, L.F was taken into custody by the Child Protective Services division of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, and Hector Flores, Jr. was arrested and charged in federal court with child endangerment.
The charge is a state jail felony in Texas, punishable by 180 days to two years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000. Though Flores is being charged in federal court because Big Bend National Park is a federal jurisdiction, court documents indicate that prosecutors are assimilating Texas state law. Flores has been held at the Brewster County Jail.
Witnesses who spoke at the preliminary hearing provided further insight into the series of events leading up to Flores’ departure into the park and what happened while he and his daughter were missing — notably, evidence suggests the disappearance into Mexico was planned well in advance.
Judge David Fannin of the U.S. District Court Western District of Texas presided over the case, with Flores’ lawyer, criminal defense attorney Shane O’Neal, and prosecutor Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Greenbaum arguing the case. Court proceedings were carried out via Zoom.
Alice Downie, special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was the first witness to appear. The FBI first became involved in the investigation on February 6.
Downie said what appeared to be a campsite was located near Flores’ abandoned vehicle, which was located a quarter mile off of Ole Ore Road — one of the least traversed roads in one of the most remote parts of the park. She said rangers and law enforcement found empty food cans, books, clothing as well as what appeared to be a marijuana pipe at the site. An additional pipe, likely used for smoking narcotics like methamphetamine, was found next to some tracks nearby to the campsite, she said.
The FBI agent approximated the distance between Flores’ abandoned vehicle and the Mexico border as a minimum of 20 miles. She said the duo would likely not have hiked in a straight line and would have had to traverse rugged terrain like rocks, mountains and cacti.
Downie said investigations suggest the series of events was out of the ordinary, but Flores’ and his daughter’s trip to Mexico appeared to be premeditated. Flores frequented the Fort Stockton Public Library where he would conduct research on the internet and check out survivalist books, witnesses said. Books about how to survive in the wilderness as well as the novel 1984 by George Orwell were checked out but never returned, Downie said.
The agent said prior to driving into Big Bend National Park on January 28, acquaintances of Flores’ reported he spoke of wanting to live off the grid in Mexico or on a ranch in Presidio.
Prior to rooming with a friend as of May 2021, Flores and his daughter were living out of his vehicle, Downie said. The person with whom they were living was unaware of them leaving town, the agent said.
Another focus of the proceedings was on L.F.’s access to adequate food, water, clothing and shelter. Agent Downie said L.F. reported their food supply ran out after three days of camping and hiking, and they were eating cactus fruits in the desert. She said L.F estimated they went 20 days without food, but in reality it was closer to 14 to 15 days.
The agent reported the pair was going through their water supplies fairly quickly and decided to fill up a water jug with water from a puddle they came across. Flores had water purification tabs which he utilized at that time, according to L.F.
In regards to L.F. and her demeanor when found, the FBI agent said based on images she had seen of the child she appeared to be fearful. It was revealed that locks of hair that had been found at the initial campsite did belong to L.F. who asked her dad to cut her hair off because it was getting dirty. Upon returning to the United States, L.F. spoke with a child advocate from the El Paso Police Department, said Agent Downie, who went through the series of events with her. L.F. said the original plan was to drive into Mexico, but when their car broke down they decided to walk instead. She said her father told her the reason they were going to Mexico was because there was going to be a large earthquake that would cause a tsunami, and Mexico was going to be a safe island.
Flores volunteered statements, said the FBI agent, telling Mexican authorities he thought an apocalypse was coming and telling the park service he and his daughter got lost. Sean McCaffrey, park ranger with Big Bend National Park, also testified as a witness.
While it remains to be seen if Flores will be granted bail, O’Neal argued that his client is not a danger to the community, while the prosecution argued Flores is a flight risk. The court decided to reconvene Friday, February 25.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas declined to comment further. O’Neal told The Big Bend Sentinel that Flores was optimistic about the trial and was glad his daughter was doing well. He said Flores is in contact with his daughter and his parents, who are taking care of her at this time. He also said that, in reaching out to Flores’ friends and family, everyone described him as a single father who was dedicated to the care of his daughter.