Reliably Austin
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Streaming troubles? We've made changes. Please click here on kut.org/streams for more information.

Relatives of Walmart shooting victims come face to face with gunman in El Paso courtroom

Flowers and candles are placed at a memorial for the victims of a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019.
Stella M Chávez
/
KERA
Flowers and candles are placed at a memorial for the victims of a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019.

Nearly four years after a normal Saturday morning in El Paso turned into one of the deadliest mass shootings in Texas history, the admitted gunman and white supremacist responsible for the carnage will finally learn his fate.

A federal judge is scheduled this week to hand down the federal sentence for Patrick Crusius, 24, who in 2019 drove from North Texas to El Paso to target and kill Hispanics, an act authorities said was designed to ward off what Crusius called an “invasion” of the state by immigrants.

In all, 22 people were injured and 23 killed in his August 3 attack on a Walmart store popular with Texas and Mexicans alike, several of whom were shopping for back-to-school supplies when the shooting began.

The sentencing hearing began Wednesday morning in U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama’s chambers with a discussion on the government’s presentence report. That was followed by victims’ statements, which will continue throughout the week.

Crusius pleaded guilty on Feb. 8 to 90 federal hate crime and firearm charges. Part of the agreement between his attorneys and prosecutors included accepting up to 90 life sentences – one for each count in the indictment, according to the DOJ.

That includes 23 hate crimes for each of the people he murdered: Andre Anchondo, Jordan Anchondo, Arturo Benavides, Jorge Calvillo Garcia, Guillermo Garcia, Leonardo Campos, Angelina Englisbee, Maria Flores, Raul Flores, Adolfo Cerros Hernandez, Alexander Hoffmann, David Johnson, Luis Alfonso Juarez, Maria Legarreta Rothe, Maribel Loya Hernandez, Ivan Filiberto Manzano, Gloria Irma Marquez, Elsa Mendoza Marquez, Margie Reckard, Sara Regalado Monreal, Javier Amir Rodriguez, Teresa Sanchez, and Juan Velasquez.

'The devil inside him'

Crusius wore a blue jumpsuit and sported unkept hair and glasses Wednesday afternoon as he faced relatives of the people killed that day at Walmart. And most of them didn’t hold anything back.

Alfredo Hernandez, whose sister Maribel Loya Hernandez and brother-in-law Leonardo Campos were killed, unleashed a profanity-laced diatribe and said he wasn’t a hateful person until August 3, 2019.

“You taught me how to hate. I hate your parents for having brought you into this world. I hate that you’re alive,” he said. “You’re a coward hiding behind the law, making deals so you don’t get the death penalty.”

Tito Anchondo, whose brother Andre Anchondo and sister-in-law Jordan Anchondo as they protected their two-month-old son, said he couldn’t live with so much anger and resentment weighing him down. He only referred to the gunman as “the killer” and read aloud a letter written from the point of view of the son the couple died protecting.

“I miss not having a father. I miss not having you,” he read. Anchondo later addressed his brother and added: “Your little boy is growing up faster than we can keep up with.”

Tito Anchondo ended by saying he’s tried to forgive Crusius, but there are limits to what that forgiveness can bring.

“I don’t forgive the devil inside him,” he said.

Two women who were made widows that fateful day also addressed Crusius. Kathleen Johnson, whose husband David Johnson was killed, told him her family remains devastated by the loss.

“I don’t know when I will be the same and it’s possible I never will be,” she said. “I have to remind myself every day that I am safe from this killer. Our lives have changed for the worse and the pain you have caused is indescribable.”

Patricia Benavidez spoke shortly after Johnson, telling Crusius that he stole her main companion, Arturo Benavidez. The couple didn’t have children and her husband was always there for her, she said.

“You left me all by myself. I miss him. I miss him terribly,” she said.” I just have one question: why did you do it?”

A few moments later, she answered her own question as a stoic Crusius sat and stared.

“You don’t know the Lord. You have never been close to him,” said Benavidez. “You destroyed so many families. You left children without their parents. You left spouses without their spouses.”

The impact statements are scheduled to continue Thursday morning.

Concerns about rhetoric grow

In the days and weeks following the shooting, El Pasoans came together to offer each another support as the community grappled with the tragedy. Candlelight vigils and rallies were held, t-shirts and buttons with the ELPASOSTRONG logo were in high demand and a mural was painted in Central El Paso. Hundreds showed up for the funeral of one victim, Margie Reckard, after her widower, Tony Bascos, said the couple didn’t have family in town and invited the community to celebrate the memory of the “love of his life.”

Later the county funded a permanent healing garden that was built on the city’s south side. The garden has since been recognized as a national monument after efforts by U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas to designate the monument were successful.

But the years since the shooting have also included ongoing rhetoric — from politicians and far-right activists alike — that critics argue mirrors language used by the Walmart shooter.

When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced in 2022 that he instructed state agencies to build Texas’ own border barrier, he said properties on the border were being “invaded,” the Texas Tribune reported.

Days after the tragedy it was revealed that Abbott’s campaign sent a mailer dated one day before the Walmart shooting telling his supporters to “take matters into their own hands.” Abbott later said “mistakes were made” but never took full responsibility for the language included in the campaign literature.

State Rep. Joe Moody, D- El Paso, told The Texas Newsroom last year that the rhetoric showed promises to dial down similar language made years ago were forgotten.

“They said that they’d pay attention to how we relate to one another and whether we were dehumanizing those we disagree with. And policy would change. That's what we heard,” said Moody. “But that change, or those promises were short lived.”

Abbott’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment about the criticism he’s received or what, if anything, he’s done to ensure tragedies like the one that happened in El Paso four years ago don’t happen again.

Ahead of the sentencing, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus issued a reminder that damaging rhetoric won’t be tolerated.

“The ‘invasion’ rhetoric is irresponsible for politicians to use as it perpetuates racism against Latinos,” state Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, D-Dallas, said in a statement. “But our Gente Latina is resilient; it’s in our culture to take care of one another and we saw exactly that in El Paso following the tragedy. As our Latino population, now the largest share in our State, continues to grow, we will continue to flourish.”

Republican Dee Margo, the former of El Paso who held the position in 2019, said the hateful rhetoric espoused by many in his party and is only done for political purposes. Margo said he never used that language and believes immigrants keep El Paso and Texas strong.

“We need immigrants. Yes, we’re a sovereign nation. But why are they coming here? They are coming because of economic opportunity,” he told The Texas Newsroom.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.
Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Julián Aguilar
Related Content