PHOENIX (Reuters) - A burned-out automobile found abandoned in the Arizona desert over the weekend with five corpses charred beyond recognition belonged to a family who was reported missing in a suspected murder-suicide, authorities said on Tuesday.
The bodies discovered inside the vehicle, which turned up in a remote area between Phoenix and the U.S.-Mexico border known as a frequent corridor for smugglers of illegal drugs and immigrants, have yet to be positively identified.
Police stopped short of saying they believed the corpses to be the remains of the missing couple and their three children.
But investigators have determined that the sport utility vehicle, a white Ford Explorer still smoldering when it was found, was registered to the family’s address. They do not believe there to be any outstanding suspects involved in the case, Tempe, Arizona, police said.
The family and SUV were reported missing from their home in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe on Monday by an acquaintance, Tempe police spokesman Sergeant Jeffrey Glover said.
Officers who went to the home found “suspicious and concerning evidence” inside the residence, which led detectives to “pursue this incident as a murder-suicide investigation,” according to a police statement about the missing family.
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu had told Reuters on Saturday that he believed the five victims may have been involved in drug trafficking, a common occurrence in the area of the Vekol Valley where the burned-out vehicle was found.
There was no mention of a link to any smuggling by Tempe police in their comments about the missing family.
Four of the bodies found in the desert were located in the SUV’s rear storage compartment and another was found in the back seat. No one was in the driver’s seat or the front passenger seat.
Babeu said all the bodies were found burned beyond recognition.
Authorities said U.S. Border Patrol agents first spotted a white sport utility vehicle parked off Interstate 8 before dawn on Saturday, and that it was driven into the desert when agents approached.
About four hours later, agents found tracks from the vehicle that led into the desert away from the interstate, and they followed those markings to the smoldering SUV.
The dry and barren Vekol Valley is about 35 miles south of Phoenix and about 70 miles north of the border with Mexico, which has been roiled by drug violence in recent years.
More than 50,000 people have been killed in drug-related bloodshed there since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and launched a crackdown on traffickers.
Babeu wondered on Saturday whether the violence had crossed the border into Arizona, adding that “We can’t say for sure, but nothing would surprise me anymore.”
Editing by Steve Gorman, Cynthia Johnston, and Jackie Frank