PD: Burned SUV with bodies is missing family's - WFXG FOX54 Augusta - Your News One Hour Earlier

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PD: Burned SUV with bodies is missing family's

Posted: Updated: June 5, 2012 07:06 PM MST
Burned vehicle Burned vehicle
Butwin family (Courtesy: Facebook) Butwin family (Courtesy: Facebook)
PINAL COUNTY, AZ (CBS5) -

A vehicle containing five burned bodies found in the desert Saturday morning is registered to a Tempe missing family of five, including three children, law enforcement authorities said. 

Police said the vehicle links back to the home of James and Yafit Butwin and their three children near Knox and Rural roads in Tempe.

Tempe police said Tuesday detectives had been pursuing the case as a murder-suicide investigation.

"There may have been a pending divorce," said Sgt. Jeff Glover of the Tempe Police Department. "There's other things going on financially."

CBS 5 News contacted James Butwin's attorney, who said, "This is the most cowardly act I can imagine anyone ever doing." Bill Bishop added the couple had no background of domestic violence and it was not a hotly contested divorce.

Bishop said James Butwin had been battling brain cancer. He had just celebrated a birthday on June 1.

The vehicle was located off Interstate 8, west of Casa Grande and south of Maricopa in the Vekol Valley in Pinal County, a known drug-smuggling corridor, according to the sheriff's office.

Border Patrol agents encountered a white Ford Expedition in the same area near Interstate 8 at approximately 4:30 a.m. Saturday.

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said the SUV ran from agents and they continued to search for it through the morning.

Once the sun came up, Border Patrol agents found car tracks that looked like they launched off the highway.

"This Border Patrol agent had observed some tracks that left Interstate 8 in the very area where that sighting had occurred and it actually left the ground, like it launched off of the highway," Babeu said.

Babeu said they believe it's the same car found burned.

Four of the human remains were in the rear storage compartment of the vehicle, and one was in the second-row passenger seat, PCSO said. 

PCSO homicide unit investigators said the area had several shoe prints and also "sleepy feet." That's a term referring to shoes made of carpet remnants or burlap by smugglers to hide their footprints. Investigators said it also appeared that an accelerant was used when the vehicle was torched.

The vehicle was so badly damaged that detectives said they were not able to locate any information to determine the identity of the registered owner.

On Saturday afternoon, PCSO said it received an anonymous phone call from someone who said he feared his brother-in-law was among the dead. The brother-in-law had told him the night before that he was "going to Vekol Valley to make money" with four other acquaintances, PCSO said. The five men were last seen in a Ford SUV.

On Sunday, a homicide detective again spoke with the anonymous caller who said he still had not been able to get in touch with his brother-in-law or his acquaintances. Homicide detectives were also not able to locate the brother-in-law, either. PCSO said it knows the names of the family members involved, including those who are missing. The family said it fears if any names are released, they could be targets of retaliation from a drug cartel.   

An autopsy conducted Monday on the five human remains revealed the bodies were so badly burned that it may be difficult to determine whether they were killed before the vehicle was set afire or died in the fire. Their identities can only be determined by dental records, the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office said. 

On Monday at about 2 p.m., Tempe police officers were called to a home in the 9300 block of S. Kenneth Place after receiving a missing persons report. Investigators said they discovered suspicious evidence inside the home and noted the family vehicle was missing. They alerted PSCO.

"I just heard that they went missing and then, you know, I heard that there was blood in the house and there were cops everywhere last night and just checking out the house," said a neighbor Jourean Gilson.

Tempe police officials said they do not think there are any other suspects involved in the case.

Sheriff's officials said they will continue working with the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office and the Tempe Police Department with the investigation.

People who might have any information about the case are asked to call the Pinal County Sheriff's Office at 520-866-5111.

Copyright 2012 CBS 5 (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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