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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Accused gunman held without bail in Highland Park parade massacre

Eric Rinehart, the Lake County state’s attorney, at a news conference the day after a shooting at a Fourth of July Parade in Highland Park, Ill., Tuesday, July 5, 2022. Police had previously visited the suspect’s home twice in the years before the shooting, removing knives and a sword.

By Mitch Smith and Robert Chiarito

An Illinois man charged in the killing of seven people at a Fourth of July parade was ordered held in jail without bond on Wednesday, as questions continued to mount about why he was allowed to buy guns despite alarming police encounters.

The man, Robert E. Crimo III, 21, was accused of climbing onto a rooftop on Monday and using a high-powered rifle to spray dozens of bullets onto the parade route in Highland Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. The police said Crimo legally purchased the gun after authorities had received two troubling reports about him.

In April 2019, someone called police to say that he had attempted suicide, and a few months later, officers seized several knives from him after a relative reported that Crimo planned to “kill everyone.” Months after those encounters, Crimo’s father sponsored his son’s application for a state permit that is required to own guns.

That Crimo was then approved for that permit, and that he soon purchased several weapons, including at least two rifles, called into question the application and potency of Illinois’ firearm laws.

Though the state’s gun laws are among the country’s strictest, they did not stop Crimo from legally arming himself. Prosecutors said Crimo purchased the Smith & Wesson semi-automatic rifle used in the attack in 2020, the year after the knife seizure.

Crimo, who appeared by video in a Lake County courtroom on Wednesday, told Judge Theodore Potkonjak of the state circuit court that he did not have a lawyer. A public defender, Gregory Ticsay, said Crimo did not have money to post for bail, but provided little other information about his client.

In court, Ben Dillon, a prosecutor, described in the fullest detail yet how officials say the attack unfolded on Monday. He said Crimo used a fire escape to climb onto a rooftop in the city’s downtown. There, Dillon said, the gunman opened fire, emptying a 30-round magazine, then another, and then inserted a third magazine. Officials recovered 83 bullet casings, Dillon said.

Crimo then left the roof and fled through an alley, and along the way dropped the gun, which federal officials soon traced to him.

Dillon said that Crimo confessed to the shooting after his arrest on Monday evening. Crimo told investigators that he had worn women’s clothing and covered his neck tattoos with makeup in order to blend into the crowd, the prosecutor said.

For hours after the shooting, authorities searched for the gunman. Deputy Chief Christopher Covelli of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said investigators believed that Crimo fled to Madison, Wisconsin, after the attack, but then returned to Illinois, where he was arrested. Covelli said police believed Crimo saw a holiday celebration in Madison and considered using a second rifle that he had with him in the car to carry out another shooting there, but decided against it.

The sequence of events in Highland Park — in which law enforcement was told about a troubled young man, one who later acquired guns and was accused of using them to kill — was not unique. In the massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, the FBI received tips about the person who has pleaded guilty in the case, Nikolas Cruz, before the shooting occurred. And a judge ruled that the Air Force was mostly responsible for a mass shooting at a Texas church in 2017 because it had not entered the gunman’s domestic violence conviction into a federal database.

The attack on Monday was not the first to raise questions about vulnerabilities in Illinois’ strict gun laws, which require a permit to own a firearm, and which include a “red flag” provision that allows law enforcement to seize weapons from people deemed dangerous.

A man convicted of killing four people at a Waffle House restaurant in Tennessee in 2018 had previously surrendered his guns to law enforcement in his Illinois hometown. But those guns, including the AR-15-style rifle used in the attack, were returned to the gunman’s father, officials said at the time.

Red-flag laws also came under scrutiny in 2019, when a man fatally shot five people at an Aurora, Illinois, factory where he worked. That man, who died in a shootout with police, had been banned from owning a gun for five years, but continued to possess one.

In Highland Park, officials said Crimo did not have a Firearm Owner’s Identification Card at the time officers seized 16 knives, a dagger and a sword from his home in 2019. They said they believed he bought several guns in the years since, including the rifle used on Monday and another that was in his car when he was arrested. Those guns were bought legally by Crimo in Illinois, officials said, after he applied for and received a firearm owner’s card from the State Police.

A spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, a Democrat who supports gun control laws, declined to answer questions on Tuesday about whether the governor believed that the state’s laws had worked as intended in the Highland Park case. He issued a statement calling for stricter gun laws and greater awareness of existing restrictions.

“Unfortunately, every time a mass shooting occurs, it serves as a stark reminder that our gun laws often fall short of the rigorous standards that feel like common sense to most Americans,” the governor said.

Pritzker’s office directed inquiries about Crimo’s case to the State Police, who defended how they handled it. Referring to the firearm owner’s card using an acronym, the State Police statement said, in part, that “at the time of FOID application review in January of 2020, there was insufficient basis to establish a clear and present danger and deny the FOID application.”

The State Police said that Crimo’s father had sponsored his application for the permit. Steven Greenberg, a lawyer representing the father, acknowledged that the father had done so, and said there were possible explanations. Greenberg said his client did not believe there was an issue, and might not have understood what happened with the knife seizure because it did not happen in his house. “It was perfectly legal,” he said of sponsoring the gun permit.

The State Police said the father had retrieved the knives that were seized from his son by the Highland Park police later on the same day they were confiscated. The father told officers that he owned the knives, the State Police said.

Investigators said they believed Crimo acted alone during the shooting. Prosecutors declined to say on Wednesday whether they were considering charges against any members of Crimo’s family.

As the court process began in the case, Highland Park residents continued to grieve the deaths of their neighbors on Wednesday.

The victims included Nicolas Toledo-Zaragoza, 78, who had recently moved back to Highland Park from Mexico, and who went to the parade with his family despite not wanting to; Jacquelyn Sundheim, 63, a beloved employee of a local synagogue whom one friend called “a beautiful ray of light”; Stephen Straus, a financial adviser who, at age 88, still took the train every day to his office at a brokerage firm in Chicago; Katherine Goldstein, 64; Eduardo Uvaldo, 69, of the nearby suburb of Waukegan; and Irina and Kevin McCarthy, ages 35 and 37, a couple who left behind a toddler son.

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