The man whose racist rampage killed 23 people, wounded 22 others and shattered a border community’s sense of security was sentenced on Friday to 90 consecutive life terms in federal prison.

The sentence ensures that Patrick Crusius, 24, “will leave prison in a coffin,” his defense attorney, Joe Spencer, told the court. The only decision left is “whether that will be on God’s time or man’s time,” Spencer said, a reference to pending state capital murder charges that could bring a death sentence.

The federal sentence formalized on Friday had been set in a February agreement where Crusius agreed to plead guilty to federal hate crimes and weapons charges. The life sentences are two counts each for the 45 people killed or wounded on Aug. 3, 2019, a hot El Paso Saturday morning where more than 1,000 people flocked to the Cielo Vista Walmart to cash Social Security checks, do back to school shopping, or buy groceries or other necessities.

The El Paso shooting was the deadliest attack targeting Hispanics in recent U.S. history. It is the deadliest mass shooting to result in a conviction and sentence – the six deadlier mass shootings in U.S. history ended with the gunman committing suicide or being killed by law enforcement.

U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama, acting on a request by Crusius’ defense, recommended that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons place the gunman in the so-called “Supermax” prison in Colorado that houses some of the nation’s most notorious criminals. He also recommended that the Bureau of Prisons, which is not bound by his recommendations, provide mental health care to the gunman while he is incarcerated.

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Assistant U.S. Attorney Ian Hanna said that the focus needed to be on “23 people killed, 21 shot, and one baby boy seriously injured when his parents fell on him mortally wounded.” He was referring to Paul Anchondo, a 10-week-old whose parents Andre and Jordan Anchondo were killed at a bank inside the Walmart.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ian Hanna addresses U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama at Patrick Crusius’ sentencing hearing on Friday, July 7. (Nacho Garcia/El Paso Matters)

But Hanna said Crusius’ attack – which the gunman said in an online screed was intended “to stop the Hispanic invasion of Texas” – had hundreds of thousands of victims.

“It was a strike against the very essence that makes this community special – its people,” the prosecutor said.

In his remarks, Spencer for the first time provided details of his client’s mental illness history, which includes a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, a disease characterized by hallucinations and delusions.

Victims of the shooting who spoke after the sentencing were skeptical of the mental health explanation for the terror attack.

“No creo” – I don’t believe it, said Nicolasa Estela Velásquez, who was wounded in the attack that killed her 77-year-old husband, Juan de Dios Velásquez.

“He planned this (the shooting), he’s expressed that,” shooting survivor Mario Pérez said in Spanish. 

Walmart mass shooting survivor Mario Pérez speaks to reporters outside the El Paso federal courthouse on July 7, 2023, after the sentencing hearing of Patrick Crusius, the gunman who killed 23 people in a racist shooting spree at a Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019. Pérez was hit twice and treated at a local hospital. (Priscilla Totiyapungprasert/El Paso Matters)

“I had a lot of questions going through my mind because I wasn’t told any of this,” said Dean Reckard of Omaha, Nebraska, whose 63-year-old mother Margie Reckard was murdered by Crusius. “But when the lawyers on our behalf spoke, I looked at his expressions. There was no tears, there wasn’t anything as far as showing remorse. So I don’t buy it.”

Crusius had a right to address the court before sentencing, but he declined to do so. Spencer said legal ethics limited what he could say about what led his client to commit his horrific attack, but he outlined a history of mental illness going back to childhood.

Defense attorney Joe Spencer said his client, Patrick Crusius, had a “broken brain” from mental illness that led him to kill 23 people and injure 22 others at an El Paso Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019. (Nacho Garcia Jr./El Paso Matters)

The attorney said he was trying to walk a fine line that “distinguishes between explaining and not justifying his actions.”

Spencer acknowledged that the victims’ families and the community “desperately want to make sense of what we cannot comprehend.”

Unable to sleep, Crusius drove from his home in Allen, Texas, on the night of Aug. 2, 2019, and arrived in El Paso 10 hours later, his attorney said. He drove around the city and “ended up at the Walmart.” 

He posted a white supremacist screed online, then began methodically killing people in the Walmart parking lot, at the front of the store where a girls’ soccer team was doing a fundraiser, then moving inside the store.

Spencer told the court, including almost 80 family members of victims, that he wanted to explain “how Patrick’s broken brain contributed to his actions in El Paso.”

He said Crusius’ parents both had mental illness histories that required hospitalization. He showed symptoms of mental health issues in his teen years, but his family became increasingly concerned by his behavior in the year before the shooting, his attorney said.

Patrick Crusius sat impassively as he was sentenced to 90 consecutive life terms in federal prison on Friday, July 7. (Nacho Garcia Jr./El Paso Matters)

Crusius, then 20, was plagued and distressed with violent thoughts. He quit a job at a movie theater in January 2019 when he began having violent thoughts about his co-workers, Spencer said.

He began seeing a therapist in March 2019, and the next month began making internet searches – later discovered by the FBI – seeking information on whether his violent thoughts were normal, and how to get treatment for mental illness without insurance.

In June 2019, the family became alarmed when he bought a semi-automatic rifle. His mother called Allen police on June 28, 2019, expressing concerns that her son shouldn’t have such a weapon. 

Police told her that Crusius could legally own the rifle and took no action, Spencer said. In Texas, people over age 18 can own rifles. Unlike 19 other states and the District of Columbia, Texas has rejected a “red flag law” that permits a court to order weapons removed from people found to be in mental health crisis. 

That weapon – a Romarm/Cugir, model GP WASR-10 semi-automatic rifle – is what Crusius used to shoot dozens of victims in El Paso.

Hilda and Dean Reckard, daughter-in-law and son of Margie Reckard, attend the sentencing hearing of Patrick Crusius on July 7, 2023. The gunman killed 23 people – including Margie – in a racist shooting spree at a Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019. (Priscilla Totiyapungprasert/El Paso Matters)

Hilda Reckard, wife of Dean and daughter-in-law of Walmart victim Margie Reckard, said legal reforms are needed to reduce the risk of future carnage.

“We need to talk about getting red flag laws. I think this could help. We’re not gonna win with the guns.”

In his statement to the court, prosecutor Hanna said there was no evidence to indicate Crusius’ mental illness left him unable to understand the nature of his “calculated, premeditated attack.”

Hanna said Crusius remains a threat because of his white supremacist beliefs. He called the gunman “a vessel of an insidious lie, a lie born of fear, fueled by ignorance.”

The prosecutor called the gunman a failure in his desire to spread hate. He credited the resilience of the El Paso-Juarez border community for that failure.

“In his mission to sow hate, to divide and separate, he failed,” Hanna said. “He failed because the people of this community will never let him succeed.”  

Friday’s sentencing came after two days of hearings highlighted by heart-breaking and angry victim impact statements from loved ones of those killed and wounded in the attack, as well as some people who survived their injuries.

No trial date has yet been set for the state capital murder charges against Crusius. El Paso District Attorney Bill Hicks reiterated on Thursday that he planned to seek the death penalty, but said the trial won’t happen until 2024 or 2025.

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...