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Accused El Paso gunman charged with federal hate crimes

Walmart employees pay their respects at a makeshift memorial for the shooting victims at the Cielo Vista Mall Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on August 6, 2019.
Walmart employees pay their respects at a makeshift memorial for the shooting victims at the Cielo Vista Mall Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on August 6, 2019. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

EL PASO — The man accused of killing 22 people and injuring dozens of others at an El Paso Walmart last year was indicted Thursday on 90 federal charges, including dozens of counts of hate crimes, authorities announced Thursday.

The charges against Patrick Crusius, 21, came six months after authorities said he traveled from the Dallas area to El Paso and opened fire at a Walmart popular with people on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. Crusius was taken into custody after the attack, which occurred hours before another mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio.

Police said that after he surrendered to authorities, Crusius confessed to carrying out the shooting and told them he was targeting “Mexicans.” Investigators believe he also wrote a statement posted online before the shooting that included screeds against immigrants.

He is charged with 22 counts of hate crimes resulting in death, 23 hate crimes involving an attempt to kill and 45 counts of discharging a firearm in relation to the hate crimes.

The lives lost in the El Paso shooting

Local prosecutors have already charged Crusius with capital murder. The El Paso district attorney said he will seek a death sentence for Crusius, who police say has shown no contrition for the violent rampage.

John F. Bash, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, said Attorney General William P. Barr would make the decision on whether to seek the death penalty.

Bash noted that Crusius said in the statement before the shooting that the “attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Hispanic leaders and others have said this rhetoric mirrored language used by President Trump.

When asked how to square the Justice Department’s promise to protect Hispanics from hate crimes with the president’s rhetoric, Bash said his office prosecutes acts, not speech.

Crusius pleaded not guilty in the local case and remains in the El Paso County jail without bond, with another hearing in the case scheduled for next week.

The violent rampage was followed hours later by another in Dayton, during which police say a 24-year-old man opened fire on a nightlife district, killing nine people and injuring dozens more before police killed him. The dual massacres shook a nation that has become painfully familiar with such attacks in schools, offices, churches, movie theaters and other spaces.

The assault on the El Paso Walmart affected communities on both sides of the border, with Mexican citizens among the dead and injured. Witnesses said the attacker began firing indiscriminately in the parking lot, shooting people as they sat in cars.

Crusius’s family has decried “the destruction Patrick did” and distanced themselves from the sentiments expressed in the lengthy message posted online.

“Patrick’s actions were apparently influenced and informed by people we do not know, and from ideas and beliefs that we do not accept or condone, in any way,” his relatives said in a statement released through their attorneys after the attack. “He was raised in a family that taught love, kindness, respect, and tolerance — rejecting all forms of racism, prejudice, hatred, and violence.”

Federal officials quickly said they were investigating the El Paso attack as domestic terrorism and weighing hate-crime charges. Bash pledged that authorities would “deliver swift and certain justice” in the case, while the FBI dispatched officials from a fusion cell for domestic terrorism and hate crimes.

Federal officials have sought hate-crime charges in other recent mass killings suspected of being fueled by bigotry.

The avowed white supremacist who killed nine black parishioners in a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015 was convicted on federal charges and sentenced to death. Federal prosecutors have also charged with hate crimes the man accused of killing 11 people inside a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, saying he had made a series of anti-Semitic statements and described refugees as “hostile invaders.”

El Paso shooting suspect said he was targeting “Mexicans,” police say

In these cases, federal charges were filed alongside local ones, creating the possibility of parallel prosecutions. Local prosecutors who filed charges against the alleged Pittsburgh shooter in 2018 said they would put them on hold while the federal case unfolds.

In Charleston, after the church gunman was convicted on federal charges and sentenced to death, local prosecutors agreed to a deal in which he pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence. A prosecutor told victims’ relatives that this was “an insurance policy” to make sure he remains behind bars “if something very, very, very unlikely were to happen” to the federal sentence.

The federal charges in El Paso are likely to set off discussions over whether federal or local prosecutors should try Crusius first.

El Paso’s current district attorney, Jaime Esparza, is not seeking reelection after 27 years in office. Four people are running in the March 3 Democratic primary to succeed him; no Republicans filed for the office.

Esparza declined to comment on the federal indictment. His office issued a statement that sidestepped the issue of which prosecution should go first.

“The District Attorney’s Office will continue to work hard to ensure that justice is done and that the shooter is held accountable by our community,” the statement said. “The office will fully cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the prosecution of the federal charges announced today.”

The four candidates running to succeed Esparza all said the state charges should take precedence.

“The Aug. 3 massacre is the worst criminal offense that has ever occurred in El Paso,” said James Montoya, one of the candidates, who is an assistant district attorney and a member of the team prosecuting Crusius in the local case. “It was an attack on our community and who we are. That is why I firmly believe it should be this community that holds the defendant accountable and why my priority will be that he be tried first in state court before a jury of El Pasoans.”

Berman reported from Washington.