This post contains graphic images.
An hour after Lopez Tires opened on the morning of Nov. 27, no customers had shown up yet. Jose Lopez, the 51-year-old owner of the Salt Lake City automotive repair shop, stepped into the back office to microwave some chicken soup his wife had made for him. Then he heard his 18-year-old son, Luis Gustavo Lopez, screaming.
Jose Lopez ran outside to see what was going on, his daughter, Veronica Lopez, told the Salt Lake Tribune. Amid the tall stacks of tires, he found a stranger brandishing a metal bar that looked as though it had been ripped off a stop sign.
“I’m here to kill a Mexican,” the man allegedly said, before brutally beating both father and son.
A day later, the Salt Lake City Police Department announced that a suspect was in custody: Alan Dale Covington, 50, a Mississippi native with a long rap sheet. But prosecutors said Friday that the attack won’t be treated as a hate crime in Utah courts — even though, according to records obtained by KUTV, Covington told police that he had targeted the tire shop because the owners appeared to be Mexican.
The reason? Under Utah law, only misdemeanor offenses can be prosecuted as hate crimes. Covington is being charged with two felony counts of aggravated assault. Calling the loophole a “shortcoming,” Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill told the Tribune, “Although we want to pat ourselves on the back and say we have a hate-crime statute, it’s really not enforceable.”
An initial police report indicated that Covington said, “I’m going to kill someone,” when he walked into the tire shop. But Veronica Lopez said Covington singled out Mexicans in particular, asking her father and brother if they were a part of the “Mexican Mafia,” and commenting that he “hate[s] Mexicans.” Her father had stood in front of Luis, trying to protect him, she told the Tribune. Then, Luis reached down to grab a tool so that he could defend his father. The stranger hit Luis directly in the face with the metal pipe, she said.
Veronica Lopez said the man continued to beat her 18-year-old brother as he lay on the ground, unconscious, then turned to attack Jose when he tried to intercede. Finally, her uncle heard the shouting and came outside to see what was going on, scaring off the attacker. When police arrived, Luis was “bleeding profusely from his face” and “gurgling and coughing on his own blood,” according to court records obtained by KUTV.
Turning to GoFundMe for help with the family’s medical expenses, Veronica Lopez wrote that her father had suffered severe bruising to his back and had to get eight stitches in his arm, and that her brother had fared even worse. The right side of his face was “shattered,” she wrote, and surgeons needed to use a titanium plate “to attach the bones and keep his eyeball in place.” On the fundraising page, she shared disturbing photographs of him lying on a hospital bed with a cervical collar around his neck and multiple tubes in his mouth, his mouth and nose caked with dried blood.
Neither Luis nor Jose has health insurance, she added, and Lopez Tires, the family’s primary source of income, has remained closed since the attack.
Donors quickly exceeded the campaign’s goal of $20,000, raising more than $52,000 by Monday morning. “I lived in SLC for 40 yrs,” wrote one donor. “I detest racism, and I hope your family will know that most of us do. Be strong, heal and help work to defeat all the hate in our world.”
As of Sunday night, no lawyer could be located for Covington, who is being held on $100,000 bond. Court records obtained by KSL show that he has been found guilty of multiple criminal charges over the past decade, including assault, trespassing and drug possession. In addition to the new assault charges, he also faces drug and weapon charges stemming from his arrest last week, when he was found to have a hatchet and a pouch of heroin in his possession.
The attack on Jose and Luis Lopez was “probably the most cut-and-dry example of a hate crime you will ever see,” Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke wrote Sunday. The fact that it won’t be treated as one in Utah courts, he added, was a result of the “callousness and cowardice” of the state legislature.
Utah’s hate-crime statute has long been a source of frustration for prosecutors and advocacy groups alike, Gehrke noted, pointing out that Gill, the district attorney, has been fighting to change the law for 18 years. Meanwhile, multiple cities and counties across Utah have passed resolutions asking state lawmakers to address the loophole. But for the past three years, bills that would make it possible for officials to apply enhanced hate-crime sentencing to felony offenses have not advanced in the Utah legislature.
In 2016, state Sen. Steve Urquhart, a Republican representing the conservative stronghold of St. George, placed the blame on his own church. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had “effectively snuffed out” his efforts to strengthen the state’s hate crime laws, he told reporters. His criticism came a day after the church issued a news release warning lawmakers against passing legislation that would “upset the balance between gay rights and religious liberty,” the Tribune reported at the time.
“I’ve asked spokespeople for the church each of the past two years to shed light on the faith’s stance on hate crimes legislation and they declined,” Gehrke wrote in his Sunday column. “I asked again Friday and the response? ‘We are not going to comment.’ ”
The Salt Lake City Police Department had its own reasons for not wanting to pursue hate crime charges against Covington, KUTV reported. According to court records obtained by the station, he allegedly told police that the Mexican Mafia, a prison gang active in California, had been after him for a decade and that he had gone into the tire shop because “all of them know each other.”
Jose and Luis Lopez have no affiliation with the gang, said Detective Greg Wilking of the Salt Lake City Police Department. He told KUTV that Covington, who has a history of mental health issues and allegedly used drugs before the attack, had specifically expressed a hatred of the Mexican Mafia that wasn’t necessarily aimed at Mexican immigrants in general.
To the Lopez family, however, what happened was clearly a hate crime, no matter what law enforcement officials say. Talking to the Tribune, Veronica Lopez said that they think some of the blame for the violent, unprovoked attack lies with President Trump, who announced his 2016 presidential campaign by delivering a speech in which he claimed that Mexican immigrants are “rapists” who bring drugs and crime into the country.
“My family feels targeted,” she said.
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