By MICHAEL BALSAMO and CEDAR ATTANASIO, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The man accused of killing 22 people and wounding two dozen more in a shooting that targeted Mexicans in the border city of El Paso, Texas, has been charged with federal hate crimes.
Patrick Crusius, 21, has been charged with 90 counts under federal hate crime and firearms laws for his role in the August 3 shooting that authorities said was aimed at scaring Hispanics into leaving the United States, according to an indictment unsealed Thursday.
Federal prosecutors announced the charges against Crusius of Allen, Texas, at a Thursday news conference in El Paso. The Department of Justice will consult with the defense and victims’ families before deciding if they will pursue a death penalty. Ultimately, the decision is up to Attorney General William Barr.
The DOJ will prosecute on a parallel track with state officials. Crusius faces the death penalty on a state capital murder charge to which he pleaded not guilty last year.
Hate crime charges show members of targeted communities that “they are valued, that their protection matters, and then we will protect them and their rights,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the DOJ Civil Right Division.
“People in our nation have the right to go to a store on a Saturday morning without fear that they will be shot and killed because of who they are, or where they’re from,” Dreiband said.
The shooting happened at a time when immigration officials were trying to the arrival of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and there was political battle over their treatment. El Paso was the epicenter of the influx. President Donald Trump has made cracking down on immigration a hallmark of his administration and the polarizing topic makes headlines around the world.
Eight Mexican nationals were among the victims, and the indictment accuses Crusius of targeting people because of their “actual and perceived national origin.” The Walmart store is popular with shoppers from nearby Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, just on the other side of the Rio Grande from El Paso.
David Lane, a Colorado-based lawyer representing Crusius in the federal case, said Thursday morning that he had not yet seen the indictment but hopes federal prosecutors don’t seek his client’s execution.
“Part of the evolution of our society involves understanding that justice is not synonymous with vengeance, because vengeance disregards the essential humanity in all of us and brutalizes us all,” Lane said. “Part of my job here is to hopefully convince the Department of Justice that they are not the department of vengeance.”
In a statement issued Thursday evening, Crusius’ family said it was aware of the indictment and has been and continues to be mindful of “the immense pain and suffering of all those affected and touched by this tragedy.” Beyond that, the family said it would make no further comment.
City Council member Cassandra Hernandez, whose district includes the Walmart, said the announcement was part of the healing process for El Pasoans and the victims.
“The mass shooting our community endured is clearly a symptom of a much larger problem that the United States has to face fully. Execution or life imprisonment for a white supremacist will not stop ethic cleansing in other Hispanic communities like El Paso. This heinous hate crime on the U.S./Mexico border is the definition of domestic terrorism invoked by white nationalism,” Hernandez said.
Judd Owens, a property manager, stopped Thursday at the Walmart while driving through en route to his Tennessee home. Owens, 45, said he wanted to see the Walmart where the shooting took place, to what kind of memorial it had. He took a picture of the 30-foot metallic cylinder in the parking lot that’s visible from Interstate 10. He said he feared mass shootings across the country.
“I had cold chills from the time I got out of the van,” he said. “Where I’m from we’ve had a few incidents, not that bad but close. And I worry it might happen closer to home and to people I care about.”
The federal grand jury that indicted Crusius found his alleged crimes came “after substantial planning and premeditation.” He bought a Romanian-made AK-47-style rifle and 1,000 rounds of hollow-point ammunition online more than six weeks before he drove 10 hours overnight from his grandparents’ house in a Dallas suburb to El Paso to carry out the attack, according to the indictment.
The federal indictment comes as El Paso marks the six-month anniversary of the shooting. Last weekend, the commuter town of San Elizario planted 22 oak trees in honor of the victims. Local news outlets aired remembrances.
The federal charge follows Crusius’ state indictment last fall on a capital murder charge, which could also bring a death sentence. He has been held without bond since the shooting and kept isolated from other prisoners, on suicide watch for at least two months after the shooting.
Crusius surrendered to police after the attack, saying, “I’m the shooter,” and that he was targeting Mexicans, according to an arrest warrant.
In court documents, prosecutors said Crusius published a screed online shortly before the shooting that said it was “in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” It cited, as inspiration, a mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed scores of Muslim residents of that country.
The document parroted some of Trump’s immigration policy rhetoric. El Paso residents such as former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination this year, accused Trump of promoting harmful stereotypes and fueling the idea that the increase in migrant crossings was a coordinated “invasion” by Latinos. The president has denied inciting violence.
The charges being announced Thursday are the latest by federal prosecutors following high-profile violent incidents. The Justice Department has brought federal hate crimes charges against a man suspected in a Hanukkah machete attack in New York in December that wounded five people; a man who opened fire at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last year; and a man who killed a woman when he drove into a crowd of protesters at a 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Read AP’s coverage of the El Paso attack here.
Attanasio reported from El Paso, Texas. Associated Press Writer Jake Bleiberg in Dallas and Adam Kealoha Causey in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.