2:30 p.m. Nov. 2: This story has been updated with information provided after the Texas Attorney General’s Office ruled that the District Attorney’s Office had to provide El Paso Matters with its media distribution list. The information showed that all the recipients of a mysterious email were on the media distribution list.
Tuesday’s hearing in the Walmart mass murder case — revolving around a pair of emails with unresolved origins — could determine which judge presides over the case, who is allowed to compel testimony and when the case will go to trial. (Editor’s note: This Sept. 12 hearing was postponed to allow courts to consider a motion by the District Attorney’s Office to recuse 409th District Judge Sam Medrano Jr. from hearing the case. The motion was eventually denied.)
Two mystery emails have come to dominate this stage of the prosecution of what could be the deadliest mass shooting to go to trial in the United States. It’s not clear who wrote the emails or who sent them.
The first email claimed to come from the Ciudad Juárez-based family of one of the 23 people killed at the Walmart in 2019, and it criticized the judge in the case and a former prosecutor.
Records obtained by El Paso Matters show the email’s recipients largely matched media distribution lists used by the El Paso County District Attorney’s Office to send news releases.
The second email came from a person purporting to be the attorney of the Juárez family that allegedly sent the first email. He claimed the family said they had no interest in responding to court inquiries about the first email.
The email from the reputed attorney had no contact information beyond a Gmail address, and El Paso Matters could not definitively identify the attorney in a review of Mexican records.
Patrick Crusius, 24, is accused of killing 23 people in a racist mass shooting on Aug. 3, 2019. He faces parallel state and federal charges with two separate trials. Legal proceedings will stretch for years, as the federal jury selection is scheduled to start in January 2024. The state trial is not scheduled.
Last week saw a flurry of court filings in the state case before 409th District Court Judge Sam Medrano Jr. These include state prosecutors’ motion to recuse the judge; a request to set a trial date, and reviewing the accused gunman’s attendance at future hearings.
The El Paso County District Attorney’s Office also asked the judge to quash three subpoenas issued last week by Justin Underwood, an attorney appointed by Medrano to represent a victim’s family in a possible gag order violation.
Prosecutors want Medrano removed, alleging his “personal animus” against District Attorney Yvonne Rosales should disqualify him from the case.
Starting when Medrano publicly lambasted Rosales at a July 1 hearing for statements made on the case, a series of notable events occurred in the lead-up to Tuesday’s hearing.
Just before the hearing, Medrano issued a gag order barring attorneys on both sides, law enforcement and witnesses who provided testimony from speaking with the media about the case.
Ten minutes later, he presided over a status hearing, asking Rosales to clarify a statement she made to the media on June 27. Rosales issued the news release celebrating the federal trial date set for 2024. In the release, she said her office “will continue to seek the death penalty and as such, we hope to have our case proceed to trial by the summer of 2023.”
Joe Spencer, a defense attorney for Crusius, said at the time that the defense could not prepare for both a state trial and the federal trial within 18 months.
The DA’s office maintained that the purpose of the hearing was to “embarrass and demean” Rosales in front of the media, according to Curtis Cox, an assistant district attorney, in the motion to recuse Medrano.
Another judge would hear the motion to recuse Medrano. A hearing has been scheduled for Sept. 19, but it’s not clear which judge will hear the motion and how it might impact Tuesday’s scheduled hearing.
The first email
On Aug. 3, 2022, the third anniversary of the killings, former Assistant District Attorney Amanda Enriquez joined another attorney on KVIA-ABC7 to speak about the process of a death penalty case through the courts.
Enriquez told KVIA that if federal prosecutors received a conviction resulting in the death penalty at trial, that it would be unlikely for the state case to continue.
“The goal is to do this once and not put the community, these victims, through it again. He can only get the death penalty once,” Enriquez said.
Enriquez worked on the Walmart shooting case when she was an assistant district attorney in the prior administration. She told KVIA she is no longer involved in the case. Enriquez is now a deputy public defender.
On Aug. 4, 31 members of local news media received an email titled “Press Release Regarding Response to Amanda Enríquez Walmart Statements,” from purported family members of Alexander Gerhard Hoffmann Roth, who was killed on Aug. 3, 2019. The email was signed by Alexander Hoffmann Valdez, his son, and sent from an email address belonging to Rosa Maria Valdez Garcia, Hoffmann Roth’s widow.
The email railed against Enriquez saying she was “using this case for political purposes. HOW DARE SHE.”
Elise Hoffmann-Taus — whose claim to be Hoffmann Roth’s daughter is disputed by prosecutors — said she was appalled by the email, and disputed that the family met Enriquez, or authored the email.
“Not only is Alexander Hoffmann not fluent and eloquent in the English language, but he lacks the capabilities of writing such emails,” she told KTSM in a statement.
The 31 recipients of the Hoffmann email overlap significantly with email lists used by the District Attorney’s Office for sending out news releases, according to records obtained under the Texas Public Information Act.
Of the 31 email addresses sent the Hoffmann email, at least 25 were recipients of news releases sent by the DA in June and July, or were on the office’s media distribution list, according to lists provided by the District Attorney’s Office in response to a records request from El Paso Matters CEO Robert Moore.
When asked if the District Attorney’s Office was involved in creating the Hoffmann email, or providing media contacts for the sender, DA spokesperson Paul Ferris said he could not comment because of a gag order from Medrano.
No El Paso Matters journalists received the Hoffmann email, and the District Attorney’s Office doesn’t send press releases to the nonprofit news organization. KTSM, which first reported the Hoffmann email, provided a copy to El Paso Matters.
El Paso Matters initially requested the media distribution information on Aug. 8, but the District Attorney’s Office did not provide it, saying email addresses from members of the public are considered confidential under Texas law.
However, the law states that email addresses may be disclosed if their owners “affirmatively consent” to their release. Moore emailed the 31 recipients of the Hoffmann email and asked if they would send consent notices to the District Attorney’s Office. He then resubmitted his request for the media distribution information.
Of the 31 recipients of the Hoffmann email, 25 consented to release of their email address if it was on a DA media distribution list. Six did not respond to the consent request.
All 25 of those who consented to release of their information were on the District Attorney’s Office media distribution lists, according to records and interviews.
Editor’s note: On Oct. 27, after this story was published, the Texas Attorney General’s Office ruled that the District Attorney’s Office had to provide El Paso Matters with the full media distribution information it had requested on Aug. 8. All 31 recipients of the Hoffmann email were on the distribution list.
Justin Underwood’s appointment
On Aug. 17, Medrano appointed Underwood, a private attorney, to represent the Hoffmann family. If they violated the gag order, they could face contempt of court charges, which is punishable by a fine up to $500 and up to six months in jail.
In the motion for recusal, Cox said that Medrano held two off-the-record chats about the Hoffmann matter in the judge’s office, asking the DA’s office to contact the family and ensure they knew about the contents of the order. At the second meeting, the DA’s office informed Medrano they have not been able to contact any Hoffmann family members, and that Medrano first said he would appoint counsel.
In the motion to recuse, Cox wrote that Underwood reached out to Division Chief Scott Ferguson by telephone, shortly after requesting the Hoffmann family’s contact information from the DA’s office.
Cox wrote that Underwood indicated to Ferguson, a friend and former trial partner, that the Hoffmann email was not written by the Hoffmans “but by one or more other people and that he intended to investigate that.”
“It is unquestionable that such an investigation would be outside the scope of the appointment according to the order appointing Mr. Underwood,” Cox said in the motion to recuse.
Underwood did not respond to requests for comment Sunday.
Cox wrote that Underwood’s appointment meant Medrano “himself set in motion that extrajudicial investigation” into the DA’s office and must be recused.
The petition to remove Rosales
On Aug. 24, an El Paso defense attorney, Omar Carmona, filed a petition to remove Rosales from office, citing incompetency and official misconduct. His examples included Medrano’s reprimand over the handling of the Walmart mass murder case, turmoil in the office over the dismissal of hundreds of cases after prosecutors have not moved cases along, and a decline in criminal case filings.
A petition is a rarely used process to remove an elected official from office, and could take months to resolve.
In responses to the petition filed in court, Rosales’ attorneys alleged that the County Attorney’s Office, El Paso Matters, and Underwood and Carmona are conspiring to remove her from office — which media experts called an attack on the press.
The subpoenas and a second email
On Sept. 6, Underwood issued subpoenas for Rosales, El Paso attorney Rogelio “Roger” Rodriguez and John Briggs, a former assistant district attorney, to testify at Tuesday’s hearing. The subpoenas do not provide any additional information about the nature of the testimony.
In addition to being a longtime attorney, Rodriguez is a municipal court judge in Vinton. The El Paso Times reported he represented the DA’s office in the matter of a 2021 Texas Ethics Commission opinion determining if Rosales misspent a little more than $2,000 in state funds. The commission allowed the DA’s office to withdraw its request for the opinion in December 2021.
Briggs was a senior trial attorney with the DA’s office until late August, when he was fired. Prior to his removal, Briggs was assigned to the Aug. 3 mass murder case.
The El Paso County District Attorney’s Office on Sept. 7 asked the judge to reject the subpoenas, saying Underwood has no standing to compel testimony.
Underwood is not the defendant, and is not a member of either the defense or prosecution in the criminal proceeding and has no right to use subpoenas, Cox argued in the motion to quash the subpoenas. Medrano hasn’t ruled on the motion.
In addition, Cox argued that Underwood no longer represents the family, attaching an email sent by purported Mexican attorney Jose Morales, who wrote that he now represents the Hoffmann family.
At least some of the Hoffmann family lives in Ciudad Juárez.
No law office, phone number or other identifying information was included in the email. Morales made no indication he can practice law in the United States.
There is no record of a Jose Rufino Morales Guzman in the National Registry of Professionals (Registro Nacional de Profesionistas), the Mexican federal authority that lists licensed attorneys and other professions. A “Jose Morales Guzman” listed in the database did graduate from Centro Universitario de Ciudad Juárez in 2013 with a law degree. Emails, in English and Spanish, sent to Morales by El Paso Matters requesting additional verification and comment have drawn no response.
Both the original Hoffmann family email to the media and the Morales email say that there are complaints filed against Medrano in the case, a claim that is difficult to verify.
Texas law exempts complaints against judges or attorneys from public records laws, and state officials are not required to release confidential information unless the State Commission on Judicial Conduct issues public sanctions.
On Sept. 8 and 9, prosecutors filed four motions: one requesting Crusius’ appearance at further hearings, another requesting a trial schedule, another requesting Medrano’s recusal and a final notice questioning the Hoffmann family’s relationship to Hoffmann Roth.
That final order said that prosecutors still have not reached either Rosa Maria Valdez Garcia or either of Hoffmann Roth’s sons, Alexander Wilhelm Hoffmann and Thomas Hoffmann.
Prosecutors say Hoffmann Roth and Valdez Garcia were divorced in 2001, according to Mexican records, and say that means she is his ex-wife, not widow, and has “no standing.” No supporting documents were attached to the filing.
El Paso Matters CEO Robert Moore contributed to this story.
Disclosure: In a Sept. 3 court filing responding to a petition to remove District Attorney Yvonne Rosales from office, the district attorney alleged that El Paso Matters and its CEO, Robert Moore, are part of a “political conspiracy” to oust her. Moore said the filing is an attempt by Rosales “to use the courts to intimidate and suppress a news organization whose coverage she doesn’t like.”