The Gila County Sheriff’s Office is still looking for 24 people who ran into the forest south of town Tuesday afternoon and have not been seen since.
About 2:45 p.m., a deputy was about to pull a Ford van over on northbound Highway 87 for a lane change violation when the driver headed down Forest Service Road 208 toward the Jim Jones Shooting Range.
The deputy followed, but when he put on his lights and sirens, the driver of the van accelerated down the rutted dirt road, said Lt. Tim Scott with the GCSO.
“As the van is bouncing down the road, the deputy saw people inside bouncing around,” he said.
About 300 yards past the rifle range entrance and two miles east of Highway 87, the van stopped and everyone inside fled into the forest, including the driver. Officials estimate there were at least 33 people inside.
The GCSO suspects the people had entered the country illegally from Mexico.
Later that evening, about 7 p.m., an Oxbow Estates resident called the GCSO reporting nine people were in his yard, warming themselves at a campfire.
Deputies collected the people and about midnight, immigration officials arrived and took them away.
That means 24 people are still out in the forest.
Lt. Tim Scott said if residents spot someone suspicious in the area, especially near Oxbow Estates and Round Valley, to call the GCSO at (928) 474-2208. He also warns against picking up hitchhikers in the area.
Along with the GCSO, officers from the Department of Public Safety and Tonto Apache Tribe are helping with the search.
“We have no idea where the people are,” Scott said.
It is unclear where they were heading.