A 17-year-old mother and her baby were shot in the head in a gruesome six-fold murder in the US state of California. The mother had tried to bring her child to safety.

The crime took place in a small town called Goshen in Tulare County and was believed to have been committed by drug criminals, Sheriff Mike Boudreaux told reporters Monday. According to the Los Angeles Times, District Manager Eddie Valero spoke of a “bad nightmare” that had come true.

With the help of two eyewitnesses who fled and surveillance cameras, it was possible to reconstruct how two men crept onto the property of a residential building on Monday night around 3.30 a.m. (local time). Then, one by one, the fatal shots were fired. When the first police officers reached the scene of the crime shortly afterwards, they were presented with a terrible picture.

The door of the house had been kicked in, and a dead man lay in the hallway. The young mother apparently tried to run away with her six-month-old baby, Boudreaux said. Her lifeless body was later found in a ditch, the dead child cradled in her arms. According to investigators, both were shot in the head – as was an elderly woman in the house who was apparently killed while she was sleeping in her bed. The remaining dead are men whose bodies lay on the street in front of the property. One of them could only be identified by DNA testing because of the severity of his facial injuries. According to the police, several of the victims belonged to the same family.

At least two fugitive suspects are being sought, presumably with links to gang and drug crime. “I think it has to do directly with the cartel,” Sheriff Boudreaux told the Los Angeles Times. “This level of violence – it was not a classic petty criminal.” Such a “horrible massacre” rather indicates nefarious professional killers. Investigators are looking into a possible link to a search of the home a week ago that led to the arrest of one person and the seizure of firearms, marijuana and methamphetamine.

According to the newspaper report, the village of Goshen has around 5,000 inhabitants, most of them with Latin American roots. Although – or perhaps because – only half a million people lived in the agricultural district of Tulare County, it played an important role in drug smuggling from Mexico to the United States. The area has been a smugglers’ paradise since at least the 1970s.