Five people found dead in burned vehicle

Five people have been found dead inside a burned vehicle on Interstate 8 west of Casa Grande, according to the Pinal County Sheriff's Office.

Sheriff Paul Babeu said Saturday the case is likely connected to drug cartel violence.

Only 70 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, Pinal County is concerned about the extent of the violence, Babeu said.

"This is pretty significant," he said of the latest homicide investigation. "Given all these indicators, you don't have to be a homicide detective to add up all this information."

The investigation was conducted by the Homicide Unit near milepost 151 of I-8, in the Vekol Valley area.

Sheriff's officials say that around 4:30 a.m. Border Patrol agents spotted a Ford Expedition in the area, which is known for drug smuggling activity.

After sunrise, authorities found tracks leading off the main road and checked the desert area with binoculars.

That's when they found a vehicle that had burned and could see it was still smoldering.

Agents got to the vehicle around 8:30 a.m. and found five victims inside, burned beyond recognition.

There was no one in the driver's or front passenger seat and one person was in the rear passenger seat. The other four victims were found lying down in the back of the vehicle, authorities said.

Sheriff's officials say investigators believe it is the same vehicle spotted earlier in the morning.

The bodies were so badly burned that investigators could not immediately determine their gender or ethnicity. While it's unclear whether the victims were from Mexico, the sheriff's office has notified the Mexican Consulate.

Babeu said investigators will try to determine whether the victims were dead before the SUV was set ablaze or whether they were alive when the fire was started.

"Clearly these people were murdered, but we don't know the manner of death," he said.

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