It took 1,285 days, but victims, their families and the Borderland community finally received some justice as the gunman who killed 23 people during a mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart pleaded guilty.
Patrick Crusius, 24, pleaded guilty Wednesday to 90 charges in connection with the Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting. The charges included 23 counts of hate crimes resulting in death, 23 counts of use of a firearm to commit murder during and in relation to a crime of violence, 22 counts of hate crimes involving an attempt to kill, and 22 counts of use of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.
"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 in a statement. "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."
The prosecutors recommended that he receive 90 consecutive life sentences. The judge will consider sentencing in June.
The judge read each count, which included naming the 23 victims' names. Those killed and wounded were from the U.S. and Mexico.
The shooter showed no emotion. Federal prosecutor Ian Martinez Hanna was visibly shaken and holding back emotions as he described the shooter's actions on the morning of the attack. The shooter nodded his head affirmatively as Hanna described how the defendant killed nearly two dozen people.
Hanna detailed the timeline of events starting with the shooter driving to El Paso and parking in the Walmart parking lot.
The shooter then got out of his vehicle and began shooting people in the parking lot, Hanna said. He then continued into Walmart, where he fatally shot nine people in a bank inside the store. He then continue shooting another nine in the aisles of the store.
Crusius then left the store and minutes later surrendered to law enforcement.
Hanna said during the hearing that the shooter admitted to being a white supremacist. He also told investigators he was motivated to commit the shooting after reading "The Great Replacement," which is a white nationalist conspiracy theory.
The gunman said he committed the mass shooting in an effort to dissuade Mexicans and other Hispanics from coming to the U.S., Hanna said. The shooter said "they (Mexicans and other Hispanics) were to blame" and "he was trying to defend his country," Hanna said.
The shooter said he came to El Paso because the border city was far from where his family lives in Allen, Texas, Hanna said during the hearing.
The El Paso Walmart was selected because the shooter believed people of Mexican or Hispanic country origins would be at the store, Hanna said.
Former El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, who attended the hearing, said it was a gut-wrenching day and called the shooter an "evil white supremacist."
"It was tough," Margo said. "I wish we had the death penalty. It should have happened two years ago at a minimum."
Margo added he hopes state prosecutors will continue to seek the death penalty against the shooter.
The shooter was wearing a blue jail jumpsuit, a face covering and was handcuffed in front tied to a metal chain around his waist. He wore glasses and his brown hair was longer and unkempt. Face coverings were mandatory in the courtroom.
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The hearing took place under unprecedented security with U.S. Marshals in black jackets stationed along hallways and men with dogs roving the courthouse grounds outside. Two U.S. Marshals stood behind the defendant as he sat at a table with his attorneys.
Those in attendance include family members of victims and Margo, who was mayor when the mass shooting occurred in 2019.
A crowd of 40 victims or family members of those who died in the shooting sat in the Albert Armendariz Sr. Federal Courthouse's largest courtroom.
The court in Downtown El Paso has been the site to some of the biggest trials in El Paso history, including proceedings against notorious drug cartel members.
Those who could not get a seat in the packed courtroom, which seats about 100 people, viewed the proceedings on television screens in an overflow room.
The shooter's guilty plea was accepted by U.S. District Court Judge David C. Guaderrama.
Defense attorney Joe Spencer said that his client had wanted to take responsibility for the massacre since Aug. 3, 2019.
"We're glad that it's finally done," Spencer said. "And he's glad that it is finally done. There are no winners in this case. He's going to be serving 90 consecutive life sentences ..."
Spencer declined to comment further citing a gag order connected to the state district court case against the shooter.
The gag order issued prevents defense lawyers, prosecutors, witnesses, victims and family members from discussing the case. No cameras or cellphones were allowed into the courtroom.
He faces life in prison after federal prosecutors decided against seeking the death penalty.
"It has always been our intent to obtain proper justice for all the victims of the senseless El Paso shooting, their ever-resilient families, and the courageous community that continues to feel the pain of that day," Western District of Texas First Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret Leachman said in a statement. "We continue to stand in support of all whose lives have been impacted, and my hope is that this plea leads to a sentence that can serve as an example of how the United States justice system does not tolerate anyone who chooses to harm our loved ones and our neighbors, especially when motivated by hatred."
Federal officials held the plea agreement as a step in combating white supremacy and hate crimes.
"White nationalist-fueled violence has no place in our society today," U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement. "This senseless massacre violates the law, runs contrary to our values as Americans and defies the principles of tolerance and inclusion that define us as a nation. By pleading guilty, the defendant has admitted that he murdered innocent people based on their national origin and targeted Hispanics."
U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland added, "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. Today's action makes clear that the Justice Department will not tolerate hate-fueled violence that endangers the safety of our communities."
While the federal case is moving on to the next stage, state proceedings against the shooter are pending. A trial date has not been set and no hearings are scheduled, according to court records.
In state court, he faces one count of capital murder of multiple persons and 22 counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
The El Paso County District Attorney's Office is seeking the death penalty.
Walmart shooting was a day that rocked El Paso, Juárez and the nation
His plea comes three years, six months and five days after he drove from Allen, Texas, a Dallas suburb, on Aug. 3, 2019, to El Paso with a variant of an AK-47 assault rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, according to the federal indictment.
Records show he uploaded a racist tirade online before he began his shooting spree. He claimed in the online tirade that his attack was "a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas."
The devastating early Saturday morning shooting spree began in the parking lot of the East El Paso Walmart near Cielo Vista Mall. He then is accused of entering the store and continuing to gun down people, many of whom were shopping with their families.
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The mass shooting left 23 people dead and dozens more injured. It is one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
Shortly after the shooting, the shooter surrendered to law enforcement.
Since the shooting, annual memorials in El Paso have been held to honor the victims, including at Ponder Park, which is just blocks away from the site of the shooting.
An area outside the Walmart where the shooting took place is now home to the "Grand Candela" memorial that honors the victims.
A healing garden also was built to honor those killed. The El Paso Community Healing Garden National Memorial is at Ascarate Park in South-Central El Paso.
Aaron Martinez may be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @AMartinezEPT.
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Patrick Crusius pleads guilty to 2019 El Paso Walmart shooting