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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

El Paso gunman is confronted by victims’ families at sentencing

Mourners at the Walmart in El Paso, Texas, where a gunman killed 23 people in 2019.

By Erin Coulehan and Edgar Sandoval

Emotional testimony from survivors and victims’ families began earlier this week in the federal sentencing hearing for the gunman who killed 23 people and injured dozens more at a Walmart store in El Paso, one of the deadliest attacks targeting Latinos in modern U.S. history.

The gunman, Patrick Crusius, pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes in February after federal prosecutors notified the court that they would not be seeking the death penalty. State authorities have made it clear that they could pursue it in a separate capital murder case that is still pending.

In the federal case, where testimony on a possible sentence was expected to last at least two days, prosecutors agreed with the defense on a proposed sentence of 90 consecutive life terms to reflect the 90 charges, including 45 hate crimes.

Emotions have remained raw in the four years since Crusius stormed a Walmart in the predominantly Latino border city, unleashing a fury of firepower just minutes after publishing a hate-filled manifesto online that deplored the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

El Paso, which regularly attracts shoppers and workers from the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez just across the border, has long been seen as a refuge for migrants from Mexico and other countries. Immigrants make up about a quarter of the population.

Family members of the victims packed the courtroom in downtown El Paso on Wednesday and loudly sobbed when Crusius entered the room in a navy jumpsuit. He swiveled idly in his seat as the magistrate, David Guaderama, read the charges on which he was convicted, and occasionally smiled or rolled his eyes as family members shared stories of grief and anger.

“Why is it us in pain and not you?” said one of the survivors, Genesis Davila, addressing the gunman. She was raising money with her soccer team outside the Walmart when the attack occurred, injuring her father and mother and killing her coach. “No one invited you to our quiet city,” she said.

Prosecutors said that Crusius, 24, who is white, drove 700 miles from his home in Allen, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, to the Walmart supercenter near a popular mall. Armed with a semi-automatic rifle he had purchased online, the gunman stalked shoppers and workers in the parking lot, down the aisles and behind the cash registers.

In his anti-immigrant manifesto, Crusius promoted a claim, widely espoused by white supremacists, that elites in the United States and Europe are replacing white Europeans and their descendants with immigrants from nonwhite-majority countries.

Crusius told investigators that he killed and wounded the people at the store because he believed they were of “Hispanic national origin,” prosecutors said in describing a statement of facts associated with the guilty plea.

They said he told the authorities that he identified himself as a “white nationalist, motivated to kill Hispanics because they were immigrating to the United States.” He said he selected El Paso “in order to dissuade Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants from coming to the United States,” the prosecutors’ statement said.

Prosecutors said the attacker appeared to have drawn direct inspiration from the mass murder of Muslims at two mosques in New Zealand in March 2019, an attack that left 51 people dead.

Witnesses described how a barrage of fire filled the store with smoke as workers and customers, many of them covered in blood, ran for their lives. Crusius fled in his car, but surrendered moments later after he was pulled over by a state trooper, admitting “I’m the shooter.”

The victims included an Army veteran, a mother shielding her 2-month old son, a German national living on the Mexican side of the border, Mexican nationals and many others.

The defense has said it would make its statements at the conclusion of the victims’ presentations, possibly on Thursday.

In court Wednesday, relatives of the victims came forward with a series of emotional impact statements, a combination of letters honoring the lives lost and angry statements directed at the gunman. Crusius at times bobbed his head and swiveled in his seat, appearing as if he were listening to a song only he could hear.

“They were happy people who bothered no one,” said Alfredo Hernandez, a family member of two of the victims, Maribel Loya and Leonardo Campos. “They woke up early that Saturday morning to get their dogs groomed but didn’t know they’d be killed.”

The FBI brought in a certified emotional support dog, a hearty black Labrador named Beaumont, to stand at the podium with a young victim, Kaitlyn Melendez, who was 9 in 2019.

She said she and her grandparents had stopped at the Walmart for candy and had planned to go from there to a nearby movie theater.

Her grandfather, David Johnson, 63, died shielding her and her grandmother.

“You and your sick, messed-up brain. Do you know how pathetic you are?” Kaitlyn said, addressing the gunman. “I hope you get what you deserve. I was 9 years old when you took away my childhood; because of you, every person with a backpack that I see is a threat.”

At that point, Crusius rolled his eyes, smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

“You can roll your eyes, smile and smirk all you want,” Kaitlyn said. “I hope you rot in there.”

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