The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Texas man accused of attacking Asian family over racist coronavirus fears pleads guilty to hate-crime charges

A “Stop Asian Hate” sign is seen through a car window during a rally in Washington on March 21, 2021. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
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A 21-year-old Texas man who attempted to kill an Asian man and his young child because he thought they were Chinese — and therefore, he said, responsible for the coronavirus pandemic — has pleaded guilty to federal hate-crime charges, the Justice Department said Wednesday.

On the evening of March 14, 2020, just as the pandemic was starting to take hold in the United States, Jose Gomez III followed the family into a Sam’s Club in Midland, Tex., about 300 miles west of Dallas, before splitting off and asking employees where he could find utensils, according to an affidavit.

Gomez then grabbed a serrated steak knife and confronted the family members — who were not Chinese, but of Southeast Asian descent — punching the father and then slashing his face with the knife, according to the affidavit.

Gomez went back to the aisle to grab a larger eight-inch knife and returned to the family, prosecutors said, attacking the two young children, who were 2 and 6 years old and seated in the front basket of a shopping cart.

He slashed the 6-year-old boy’s face. “The blade entered millimeters from [the boy’s] right eye, split his right ear, and wrapped around to the back of his skull,” prosecutors said. Gomez then stabbed a White employee who had intervened to stop the attack.

Justice Department officials said that while Gomez was pinned down after being subdued, he yelled to the family, “Get out of America!”

Gomez later told local authorities that he had never seen the father before but had perceived him as a “threat” because he supposedly “came from the country who started spreading the disease around.” He admitted to trying to kill the father and the 6-year-old in an effort to “stop the threat.”

Gomez pleaded guilty to three counts of committing a hate crime and faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and a total of $750,000 in fines.

An attorney for Gomez did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A mental examination evaluating “the existence of insanity” was completed, according to court records, but the results were sealed.

The guilty plea was the latest victory for the Justice Department in its prosecution of hate-crime cases. A federal jury on Tuesday found three White men who chased and killed a Black jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, guilty of hate crimes.

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Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement regarding the Texas case: “Racially motivated hate crimes targeting the Asian American community are on the rise and have no place in our society today. All people deserve to feel safe and secure living in their communities, regardless of race, color or national origin.”

Asian Americans across the country have been on high alert throughout the pandemic amid an increase in anti-Asian hate incidents. The San Francisco Police Department said last month that it had seen a 567 percent increase in anti-Asian hate-crime reports in 2021. Nationally, there was a 73 percent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020 over the previous year, according to FBI data.

Trump has no qualms about calling coronavirus the ‘Chinese Virus.’ That’s a dangerous attitude, experts say.

Anti-Asian sentiment linked to fears of the coronavirus was further fueled by former president Donald Trump, who has referred to it frequently as the “Chinese virus.” In March 2020, a Washington Post photographer captured the president’s notes at a White House press briefing, where “corona” had been crossed out and replaced with “Chinese.”

In March 2020, New York’s Chinatown was one of the city’s first neighborhoods to shutter as restaurants and stores lost business, though a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later found that most of the city’s early coronavirus cases came from Europe and elsewhere in North America.