El Paso Shooting Suspect Faces Federal Hate Crime Charges

El Paso Walmart shooting suspect Patrick Crusius pleads not guilty during his arraignment in October 2019. (Briana Sanchez / El Paso Times via AP, Pool, File)

(CN) – Prosecutors on Thursday filed federal hate crime charges against the 21-year-old Texas man accused of carrying out a deadly mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart last year that authorities say was an act of domestic terrorism motivated by racist beliefs.

In the 90-count indictment handed down by a federal grand jury in Texas, the white suspect Patrick Crusius is accused of hate crimes for killing 22 people and injuring 23 others. Many of the victims of the attack were Latino and some were Mexican citizens.

Crusius faces an additional 45 counts of discharging a firearm in connection with the Aug. 3 shooting.

Speaking to reporters in El Paso, an assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice’s civil rights division said the attack was intended to “frighten and intimidate the Hispanic community.”

A memorial near a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, pictured three days after a shooter killed 22 people – most of them Latino – inside the store. (CNS Photo/Travis Bubenik)

“Such crimes seek to intimidate innocent people and groups of people because of who they are,” Eric Dreiband said. “The defendant tried to terrorize an entire community. This will not stand.”

The attack at a bustling shopping area left the cross-border communities of El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico reeling at a time when the region had become a focal point for heated national debates about immigration policies.

According to a police affidavit that surfaced less than a week after the shooting, the suspect confessed to the killings and told police he had specifically targeted “Mexicans” after driving 10 hours from his home in Allen, Texas to carry out the massacre.

“The defendant stated once inside the store he opened fire using his AK-47 shooting multiple innocent victims,” the affidavit read.

In Thursday’s indictment, prosecutors accuse the suspect of being the author of a rambling, racist document that was posted online just before the attack. The document said the shooting was “in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

Prosecutors said in the indictment that the suspect targeted people in the Walmart store because of their “actual and perceived national origin.”

An attorney who is reported to be representing Crusius in the federal case did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new charges.

In announcing the hate crime charges, U.S. Attorney John Bash referenced the Justice Department’s history of taking on the Ku Klux Klan during the early 1870s, describing it as the department’s “first mission.”

“Now, in the 2020s, we face a resurgent threat of violence motivated by race, national origin or other categories,” Bash said. “We’re ready for this fight.”

When President Donald Trump visited El Paso in the days after the shooting, he was met with protesters who denounced his rhetoric toward immigrants and said the president’s words inspired the suspected shooter.

“Those words of invasion, they were coming from the White House,” Fernando Garcia, head of the advocacy group Border Network for Human Rights, said at the time.

Asked about that criticism on Thursday, Bash said the Justice Department prosecutes “crimes of violence, we don’t prosecute speech.”

“What I can say to the Hispanic community is that the Justice Department is totally engaged in stopping people who for whatever motivation would plot violence on other people,” he said. “This indictment reflects that.”

Crusius is facing a separate capital murder charge in a state-level case, to which he pleaded not guilty during a brief hearing in October. That case is set for a status hearing in El Paso this coming Thursday.

Claudia Duran, a spokesperson for the El Paso County District Attorney’s Office, said it’s not yet clear how or if the federal charges will affect the Texas case.

“We’re kind of just waiting for things to play out before we know anything,” she said.

According to the federal indictment, Crusius purchased the weapons used in the attack and 1,000 rounds of ammunition online about two weeks before he traveled to El Paso. If convicted on the federal charges, he faces the possibility of the death penalty or life in prison.

In a statement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas said prosecutors will decide whether to seek the death penalty at a later time.

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