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'Evil parasite': Victims' loved ones confront El Paso Walmart gunman who killed 23 people

The names of the shooting victims adorn a makeshift memorial near the Cielo Vista Mall and Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on Tuesday. Saturday's shooting left 22 people dead.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
The names of the shooting victims adorn a makeshift memorial near the Cielo Vista Mall and Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on Tuesday. Saturday's shooting left 22 people dead.

EL PASO, Texas - One by one, in chilling, emotional testimony, the loved ones of the murder victims stared at the killer and unleashed their fury.

They called him a coward. A monster. The devil.

"You're an evil parasite," said Thomas Hoffman, grieving the loss of his father, Alexander Hoffman. "You have nothing without your weapon."

Hoffman and others finally had their chance to confront Patrick Crusius, a self described white nationalist who killed 23 people at an El Paso Walmart in 2019.

Crusius' sentencing began Wednesday. He is facing survivors and relatives of victims in this border community still shattered by the Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting, the deadliest attack against Hispanic people in the nation's history.

Crusius, 24, of Allen, Texas, pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes after the Justice Department announced it would not seek the death penalty. On Wednesday, through his attorney, Crusius reserved his right not to address the courtroom until victims' impact statements are done.

The hearing, presided by Senior U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama, is expected to last several days. Much is riding not just for the victims, but for the binational border community, say political analysts like Richard Pineda.

"The federal sentencing stage is the first part of what will likely be a long healing process for this community," said Pineda, chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Texas at El Paso. "Not only does the public nature of the sentencing allow the community to see Crusius for who he is, the penalty phase will allow many to reach some level of catharsis."

The hearing “is hopefully one more step towards accountability and healing for our community,” said Peter Svarzbein, El Paso community engagement manager for the Anti-Defamation League and former mayor pro tem and city council member.

One dozen survivors and relatives of people who died during the attack spoke Wednesday. Three of them were teenagers who were at the store that day.

The hearings will continue Thursday morning.

"I feel...I'll never get over it," said Bertha Patricia Benavides, wife of Arturo Benavides who was killed in the mass shooting. "You destroyed so many families. It will still take time to recover from the loss."

Her family's loss

Among the dead was Guillermo "Memo" Garcia. He and his wife, Jessica, were selling snacks to raise funds for his daughter's soccer team outside the entrance of the store. Guillermo Garcia, known affectionately as "Tank" tried to shield his wife and two children from the gunfire. The two were hit by bullets.

Guillermo Garcia died nearly nine months after he was hospitalized. Jessica Garcia was also wounded by gunfire and is still trying to recover from both the emotional wounds and her family's loss.

"Losing someone the way we lost him, and as young as he was and as young as our kids are, having spent literally half of my life with him..." said Jessica Garcia. "...I don't think it really gets easier or better. I think you miss him even more as time passes."

She thought and prayed about attending this week's sentencing hearing but decided not to. She is considering her mental health and has doubts that Crusius will listen to what she has to say.

Garcia and other "survivors," as she refers to people who were at the store during the attack, have waited for years to see how state and federal prosecutors hold the gunman accountable for his actions.

Crusius also faces state charges. The El Paso County District Attorney's Office has said it intends to seek the death penalty. Crusius has also pleaded not guilty to a state capital murder charge. No date has been announced for that trial.

Watching other cases around the country make their way through the criminal justice system has weighed heavily on Garcia, while she has not seen this case progress with the same speed because of problems with the former District Attorney that ended in the prosecutor's resignation, she said.

"There's something that's broken in the justice system," Garcia said. "As somebody that was on the opposite end of what he did, I don't feel like we've been protected."

Crusius pleaded guilty to 90 federal charges including hate crimes. He will likely be sentenced to 90 consecutive life sentences, effectively keeping him in prison for the rest of his days.

During the sentencing hearing, one of the relatives, Dean Reckard, son of Margie Reckard, sat with his body diagonally facing Crusius. He stared at the mass murderer much of the time. As he tried to hold back his emotions, he breathed loudly. He wiped away tears with a Kleenex.

The courtroom was hot and stuffy, forcing survivors and victims' loved ones to fan themselves with pieces of paper, some containing their prepared remarks. "I apologize for that," the judge told the courtroom, explaining the air-conditioning was operating at 50 percent.

Staring down the gunman

Genesis Davila, 16, stared down the gunman, saying, "I want you dead."

And: "I hate you so much."

When the shooting began, Davila, then 12, had been with her soccer team fundraising for a tournament. At first, she thought she heard fireworks, then realized she and others were being hunted down. She ran to the back of the store. She raced to a nearby movie theater, waiting for her mother.

Her coach was Guillermo "Memo" Garcia.

In court, Davila gripped the podium, paused and spoke in halting words. Her voice boomed. Crusius sat some 20 feet away. He nodded his head as she told him he had ruined her life. To this day, she cannot visit stores without thinking of the attack. The nightmares are endless.

"Rot in your cell forever," she told him. "Why is it (our loved ones) are dead and not you?"

In 2019, Crusius drove over 600 miles - 10 hours by car - from Allen to El Paso. Federal prosecutors said he wore "earmuffs," used to protect shooters from loud gunfire, before taking a semi-automatic rifle from his trunk and walking through the parking lot toward the entrance on a busy Saturday morning, according to federal prosecutors.

Crusius had posted on a social media site often used by White supremacists using hateful, extremist rhetoric.

“This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” Crusius wrote.

According to Federal prosecutor Ian Hanna, Crusius also had material on his personal computer about the “Great Replacement Theory.” The racist conspiracy that purports black and brown immigrants are “replacing” White people has been used by some believers to justify violence.

Crusius told police officers after the mass shooting he came to El Paso to target “Mexicans.”

This story is a collaboration between Dallas Morning News Mexico border correspondent Alfredo Corchado and reporter Aaron J. Montes of KTEP public radio in El Paso.

Copyright 2023 KTEP. To see more, visit KTEP.

Aaron J. Montes
Alfredo Corchado