As a community centered newsroom, your feedback helps us measure our impact and effectiveness. Please take a few minutes to respond to our annual survey. Thank you!
More than 3½ years after he walked into the Cielo Vista Walmart, massacred 23 people and broke El Paso’s heart, Patrick Crusius pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to various hate crimes and weapons charges.
Wearing a navy blue detention center jumpsuit and a white facemask, Crusius showed no emotion in the courtroom during the reading of the charges and his 90 separate guilty pleas. His hands and feet were shackled, and his unkempt brown hair was much longer than the close-cropped cut he had when arrested in 2019.
The 24-year-old, who has been in custody since 2019, will be sentenced in June. As part of a plea agreement, he is expected to be sentenced to 90 consecutive life sentences. The federal system does not offer parole, so the sentence means that Crusius is almost certain to spend the remainder of his life in prison.
The multiple life sentences are the maximum Crusius can receive because the Justice Department decided last month not to seek the death penalty. His lawyers announced days later that he would plead guilty.
A federal superseding indictment issued on July 9, 2020, charged Crusius with 90 crimes – 23 charges of hate crime resulting in death, 23 charges of using a firearm to commit murder, 22 counts of committing a hate crime in an attempt to kill, and 22 counts of using a firearm in a crime of violence.
About 40 family members of victims attended Wednesday’s court hearing. But Jessica Garcia, the widow of Guillermo “Memo” Garcia, who was shot at the Walmart and died several months later, was not among them.
“I don’t want to waste my emotions on today,” Jessica Garcia told El Paso Matters. “I wanna save it, so I can say what I need to say later (at the sentencing hearing). I just hope I have the courage later.”
Garcia said it is puzzling that the federal government didn’t pursue the death penalty.
“I don’t want to hate him anymore,” she said. “I don’t want to allow him to take away more from me that he already has.”
The Justice Department has not said why it didn’t seek the death penalty, but prosecutor Ian Hanna provided a likely explanation at Wednesday’s hearing. Experts for the defense had diagnosed Crusius with schizoaffective disorder, a mental health condition marked by hallucinations or delusions as well as mood disorders.
Prosecutors didn’t challenge the diagnosis, but Hanna said there was no evidence that Crusius couldn’t understand the nature of the charges against him. That allowed him to plead guilty.
The gunman in court
Wednesday’s hearing was conducted amid tight security. Five federal marshals stood near Crusius throughout the hearing.
U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama asked Crusius for individual pleas to each of the 90 counts. When asked for his plea to engaging in a hate crime that killed Andre Anchondo, the first victim listed in the indictment, Crusius said: “I’m guilty.”
He then said “guilty” when asked for his plea to each of the remaining 89 charges. Guaderrama read the names of each of the 23 people killed and 22 wounded during the pleas.
Law enforcement officials have said that Crusius drove almost 10 hours on Aug. 3, 2019, from the Dallas suburb of Allen to El Paso. After driving through a neighborhood near Cielo Vista Mall, he parked his car at the Walmart next to the mall. An estimated 1,500 people were inside the store.
Officials said he entered the store to buy food, then went back to his car, where he retrieved an AK-47-style semiautomatic rifle. He walked back toward the store, opening fire in the parking lot and continuing to shoot as he walked into the store.
By the time the shooting stopped, 23 people were fatally wounded and another 22 were injured.
Killed in the attack were Jordan and Andre Anchondo, Maribel Campos, Arturo Benavidez, Javier Amir Rodriguez, David Alvah Johnson, Sara Ester Regalado Moriel, Angelina Silva Englisbee, Adolfo Cerros Hernandez, Juan de Dios Veláquez Chairez, Gloria Irma Márquez, Maria Flores, Maria Eugencia Legarreta Roth, Raul Flores, Jorge Calvillo Garcia, Alexander Gerhard Hoffman, Elsa Mendoza de la Mora, Luis Alfonzo Juarez, Ivan Filiberto Manzano, Margie Reckard, Leonardo Campos Jr., Teresa Sanchez and Guillermo “Memo” Garcia.
Most of them died at the scene or succumbed to their injuries over the next couple of days. Garcia died of his wounds more than nine months after the shooting. Rodriguez, 15, was the youngest person killed; Englisbee, 86, was the oldest.
Details of the crime
After Crusius’ guilty pleas, prosecutor Hanna read a factual basis into the record that outlined the shooter’s rampage. Hanna said the gunman targeted El Paso because he didn’t want to commit his crimes close to his family’s home in North Texas.
Hanna said after parking his car in the Walmart lot at 10:37 a.m. on Aug. 3, 2019, Crusius put on shooting earmuffs and took a GP WASR-10 semi-automatic rifle from his trunk.
He shot and killed two victims in the parking lot before moving to a girls soccer team that was having a fundraiser in front of the store, killing and wounding numerous people.
Crusius then walked to the Walmart entrance, where he came across Hoffmann, a German national living in Juárez. Hoffmann tried to flee, but Crusius gunned him down.
The gunman then moved to the First Convenience Bank inside the Walmart and opened fire, killing nine people. Crusius then turned his attention to the store checkout area, where people were diving for cover. He opened fire and killed nine more people.
Crusius then exited the store and opened fire on a car driving by, killing one person and wounding another.
He then got into his car and drove away. His car was stopped by police nearby a short time later and he was arrested.
Hanna’s factual basis also laid out Crusius’ racist motives for the attack. He said the gunman told police and FBI agents that he wanted to “dissuade Mexicans and other Hispanics” from coming to the United States.
“This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” Crusius posted shortly before the shooting on a website popular with white supremacists. He also said immigrants were seeking to “replace” white Americans.
The gunman was mirroring rhetoric that continues to be used by some conservative political and media figures, saying that large-scale migration from south of the border is an “invasion” and part of a “great replacement” of white people by people of color.
Most – though not all – of Crusius’ victims were Mexican Americans or Mexicans. His barrage was the deadliest attack on Hispanics in modern U.S. history.
Crusius told investigators that he was a white nationalist but hadn’t thought of killing Mexicans or Hispanics until he read a manifesto posted by a racist gunman who killed 51 people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019. Crusius cited that screed in his own rant, which he posted online just before he opened fire at the El Paso Walmart.
The massacre stunned and infuriated El Pasoans. They lined up by the thousands to donate blood for the victims, and gathered in churches and parks to mourn those killed and injured.
President Donald Trump came to El Paso on Aug. 7, 2019, despite most El Paso leaders asking him to stay away. Many of those leaders, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, said Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric was fueling hatred.
Trump sought to meet with eight shooting victims hospitalized at University Medical Center of El Paso while he was in El Paso; all refused.
Crusius still faces state capital murder charges that could carry the death penalty. No trial date has been set, and El Paso District Attorney Bill Hicks recently said a trial may not happen until 2025. Hicks has previously said that the state will pursue the death penalty.
Reactions to the pleas
Jessica Garcia, who was wounded when Crusius fired into the soccer team fundraiser and whose husband was killed, said she doesn’t want to give him power over her life.
“I don’t want to allow him to take away more from me than he already has. But I feel like he’s a coward. At the end of the day he’s going to be locked up in what we call a ‘jaula de oro,’ untouchable,” she said.
Albert Hernandez, whose sister Maribel Campos and brother-in-law Leonardo Campos Jr. were killed by Crusius, said the guilty plea was “the easy way out.”
“Of course, he’s a coward. He’s trying to save his own skin,” Hernandez said after attending Wednesday’s hearing.
He said he hopes the state of Texas holds a trial on the capital murder charges.
“Put him on the bench, on the trial, and we want every stone to be examined, we want every expert to come and face him. We want no questions left and we want this murderer to be held accountable under our system, under our courts,” Hernandez said.
Defense attorney Joe Spencer said Crusius had been ready to plead guilty since the day of the shooting.
“There are no winners in this case. He will be serving 90 consecutive life sentences, notwithstanding his mental illness … that our expert came out with,” Spencer said. “The state case is still pending. We need to wait to see what happens. I can’t comment further since I’m under a state gag order and a federal protective order. Once it gets lifted, we’ll be able to talk more.”
Top federal officials issued a statement Wednesday that noted the agony of families whose lives were shattered.
“Nothing can undo the immeasurable loss suffered by the loved ones of the victims of that attack or the terror inflicted on the El Paso community in its wake,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said. “Today’s action makes clear that the Justice Department will not tolerate hate-fueled violence that endangers the safety of our communities.”
“Today’s guilty plea marks one more step towards justice for the El Paso community; however, we must remember that the survivors and victims’ families will be on a lifelong journey of healing because of this defendant’s actions,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said. “We extend our heartfelt sympathy to the Hispanic community who had their sense of security shattered by this heinous attack. The FBI will continue to seek justice for all those whose civil rights and safety are threatened by hate.”
El Paso Matters reporter Christian Betancourt contributed to this story.