By Paul P. Murphy, CNN
A top public safety official for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis worked in lockstep with Perla Huerta, the former Army counterintelligence agent who recruited migrants for a pair of September flights from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, new text messages obtained by CNN show.
On September 12, for example, two days before the flights, Huerta messaged Florida public safety czar Larry Keefe indicating that she had recruited enough migrants to fill the planes.
“Yahtzee!! We’re full,” she wrote to him at 6:20 p.m.
After the flights landed in Martha’s Vineyard, Huerta wrote to Keefe, “Victory Arms For you!!!! Thank you for this opportunity and support.”
Keefe responded saying, “Thank you for all, Perla!!! Let’s drive on !!! Salute to you. Larry.”
The texts were released by the Florida governor’s office as part of a public records request. CNN reached out to DeSantis’ office for comment and did not immediately receive a response. CNN also has reached out to Keefe and Huerta for comment.
The messages, which go back as far as August 15, show that Huerta and Keefe were working on the flights to Martha’s Vineyard weeks prior to take off on September 14.
The two took a trip to Texas in mid-August where they met with an official at the Texas Department of Emergency Management and others at the Texas Department of Public Safety, and even appeared to stake out migrants that had or were trying to board buses at two different locations, the messages show.
In all, the messages offer new details into the planning and execution of the controversial flights that carried 48 migrants, primarily from Venezuela, from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, with a brief stopover in Crestview, Florida, and the Carolinas. The migrants were offered food and money to join the flights and were told they’d arrive to housing, jobs and help with the immigration process, but in fact nobody on the island knew they were coming.
The migrants spent 44 hours on the island and then were taken to Joint Base Cape Cod.
The move was part of a series of initiatives by Republican governors to transport migrants to liberal cities to protest what they have described as the failure of the federal government to secure the southern border.
Migrant advocates decried the flights as manipulative, and a legal group representing many of the migrants filed a class action lawsuit against DeSantis and the state of Florida. A Texas sheriff also said he was opening an investigation into the flights to determine if any laws were broken.
Texts show attempts to find migrants
Some of the messages show Huerta and Keefe’s discussions around finding a group of migrants for the flights.
“I’m gonna run to stripes,” Huerta wrote Keefe on August 17 just before 1 p.m., referring to the Texas convenience store and gas station chain. “[Think] there’s a bus going to Miami that sold out and a few others sold out. Gonna see how many folks are there.”
Huerta then began giving Keefe detailed updates.
“At Stripes parking lot?” Keefe later asked Huerta.
“Yea,” she responded. “Only a couple had tickets out.”
She also appeared to try and find migrants at a church.
“Church’s were empty already,” Huerta wrote on August 17, just after 5:50 p.m. “Went by transportation office but [van] that dropped them off was not there.”
It’s unclear which church Huerta is referring to.
The next day, August 18, Huerta returned to a church.
“Only 2 stragglers with tickets from the church,” she wrote.
During that mid-August Texas trip, in a group chat with an unidentified person named “Kiwi,” Huerta and Keefe appeared to coordinate what migrants should do on and after the flights.
“There’s the pull factor Tiffany spoke of,” Huerta wrote to the group after Keefe shared an article from the New York Post claiming that selfies taken by the migrants encourage illegal immigration. “Maybe we should encourage selfies for -.”
It’s not clear who Tiffany is.
Previous public records requests from DeSantis’ office show that some migrants sent selfies on the plane to Huerta.
DeSantis official and migrant recruiter met with Texas officials
The messages also show Keefe and Huerta met with a top official at Texas Department of Emergency Management and others at the Texas Department of Public Safety weeks before the flights.
Sam Miller, the emergency management chief for the operations technology fields operations, texted Huerta and Keefe on August 17, the day after he allegedly met with them and did a “brain dump.”
The texts indicate that the “brain dump” was a conversation related to migrants, and Huerta at one point asked where migrants “hang out.”
“On a separate note do you know where refugees hang out in between waiting on greyhound or flights out,” Huerta wrote to him on August 17 around 2 p.m. “[H]ow do they get to airport and greyhound.”
“Most of the time they stay at the [shelter] until they travel,” Miller responded. “Taxi from NGO to the airport and the greyhound will stop at the NGO,” an apparent reference to a non-governmental organization.
On August 16, Keefe texted a group chat with Huerta and “Kiwi” saying that he was in a car with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Texas Department of Public Safety.
It’s unclear from the texts whether Huerta and Keefe made the Texas officials aware of their efforts to fly migrants from Texas to Florida and on to Martha’s Vineyard.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s spokesperson previously said his office “has had conversations” with DeSantis and team about busing migrants but said they “were not involved in these initial planes to Martha’s Vineyard.”
Texas Department of Emergency Management spokesperson Seth Christensen confirmed to CNN the department “received a request from our Texas DPS partners to have members of our team brief Florida law enforcement officials on our state’s voluntary border bus operations.” Christensen also said the group was comprised of “Florida Department of Law Enforcement personnel” that had been touring the Texas-Mexico border with DPS.
“TDEM officials were not aware of how Florida law enforcement officials would utilize the information gathered from those conversations,” he said.
Texas Department of Public Safety spokesperson Ericka Miller confirmed that “representatives from Florida” observed their operations firsthand but did not detail the meeting further, or what was discussed.
Abbott’s office and Miller did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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CNN’s Eric Levenson contributed to this report.