EL PASO, Texas – A white Texas gunman who killed 23 people at a Walmart in 2019 returned to court Wednesday for sentencing in a mass shooting that targeted Hispanic shoppers in the border city of El Paso.
Patrick Crusius, 24, is set to receive multiple life sentences after pleading guilty to federal hate crime and weapons charges in one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. Although the federal government did not seek the death penalty, Texas prosecutors have not taken lethal injection off the table under a separate case in state court.
Investigators say the shooting was preceded by Crusius posting a racist screed online.
The sentencing phase could last several days. Some relatives of the victims, who included citizens of Mexico, traveled for hours to attend the proceedings that will include family members making impact statements in court.
Some things to know about the shooting and the case:
WHO IS PATRICK CRUSIUS?
Crusius was 21 years old when authorities say he drove more than 10 hours from his home in an upper-class Dallas suburb to El Paso and opened fire.
Nearly four years later, Cruisus entered the courtroom Wednesday in a jumpsuit and shackles. He showed little reaction as the sentencing proceedings got underway.
The son of a licensed therapist and nurse, Crusius had been enrolled as a student at Collin College, near Dallas, and had no criminal convictions before the shooting. On social media, Crusius appeared consumed by the nation's immigration debate, tweeting #BuildtheWall and posts that praised then-President Donald Trump's hardline border policies.
His views went further in a document posted to an online message board about 20 minutes before the massacre in which he said the shooting was “in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
In American politics, Republicans continue to use the word “invasion” to describe migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, waving off critics who say the rhetoric fuels anti-immigrant views and violence.
Prosecutors say the Aug. 3, 2019, attack began in the parking lot on a busy weekend at a Walmart that is popular with shoppers from Mexico and the U.S. Approaching the store, Crusius shot participants in a fundraiser for a girls' soccer team.
Inside, Crusius continued firing with an AK-47-style rifle, cornering shoppers at a bank near the entrance where nine were killed, before shooting at the checkout area and people in aisles.
Crusius was apprehended shortly after the shooting and confessed to officers who stopped him at an intersection, according to police.
More than two dozen people were injured and numerous more were severely traumatized as they hid or fled.
The people who were killed ranged in age from a 15-year-old high school athlete to several elderly grandparents.
They included immigrants, a retired city bus driver, teachers, tradesmen including a former iron worker, and several Mexican nationals who had crossed the U.S. border on routine shopping trips. Witnesses recounted moments of terror, anguish and heroism.
Dean Reckard, the older brother of slain El Paso resident Margie Reckard, traveled from Omaha, Nebraska, with his wife to attend the sentencing. Dean convulsed and wiped tears from his eyes after Crusius was led into the courtroom.
“I definitely want to hear what the families here have to say," Reckard said outside the courtroom. “As far as he (Crusius) goes, there’s really nothing that I have to say.”
Wife Hilda Reckard said she and Dean came to the sentencing to “stand up to hate.”
“I just think that us coming here is to take a stand,” she said. “You knocked us down, you didn’t knock us out.”
The sentencing arrives amid efforts by the Justice Department under President Joe Biden to more aggressively identify hate crimes and deliver meaningful results in the highest profile cases.
The 2019 Walmart attack is the deadliest of a dozen mass shootings in the U.S. linked to hate crimes since 2006, according to a database of mass killings in the U.S. compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University.
Crusius agreed in February to accept up to 90 consecutive life sentences, avoiding the possible death penalty on charges of using a firearm in a crime of violence that causes death. Companion hate crime convictions against Crusius don’t carry the death penalty.
Federal prosecutors haven't formally explained their decision, but have acknowledged that Crusius suffered from schizoaffective disorder that can be marked by hallucinations, delusions and mood swings.
Adria Gonzalez, a 41-year-old El Paso native who survived the Walmart attack even as she helped panicked shoppers toward exits, says she fears that a life sentence won’t be enough to rein in racist attacks on Latinos.
“It’s not only him. There are other people, other groups that could hurt us,” she said.
Crusius still faces capital murder charges in state court and could receive the death penalty if convicted.
It is unclear when that case will proceed. In November, El Paso County's former district attorney resigned over mounting criticism about her performance on the job, which included accusations that problems in her office were slowing down Crusius' case.
Also, victims' relatives have sued Walmart. Such lawsuits are common following mass shootings in the U.S. but typically face high hurdles to succeed.
Weber reported from Austin, Texas. Associated Press reporter Michael Tarm in Chicago also contributed.