With the rattle of gunfire and the collapse of bodies, America on Saturday veered again into what both alarms and numbs it: A gunman with alleged racist sentiments opened fire in this border city, killing 20 people in a shopping center and leaving blood and bullet casings scattered in aisles where families were searching for back-to-school bargains on a scorching Texas morning.
El Paso became this nation’s latest site of tragedy, trimmed in yellow police tape, littered with gurneys and blared across media outlets. It was the rampage of a man in khakis brandishing an assault rifle in a Walmart. Media reports identified the suspect as Patrick Crusius, a 21-year-old white man from Allen, Texas, whom authorities plan on charging with a hate crime.
In addition to those killed, at least 26 others were wounded.
El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen said the suspect surrendered to approaching officers. “We have a manifesto from this individual that indicates a potential nexus to a hate crime,” he said. “We have to validate for certain that this was a manifesto from this individual we arrested.”
The manifesto, a document appearing on the online message board 8chan before the shooting rampage, spoke about an “invasion” of Latino immigrants and noted that the writer agreed with the shooter who killed scores of Islamic worshipers in March at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. The document was uploaded by an anonymous user who posted another document under the file name “P._Crusius.” That file was taken down, and it is not clear what it contained.
Police were investigating photographs of the suspect with an assault-style rifle that were posted on social media. A Twitter account that appeared to belong to Crusius was shut down Saturday evening. Tweets on the account had praised President Trump and, in particular, his effort to build a wall along the U.S.- Mexico border.
“The manifesto narrative is fueled by hate, and it’s fueled by racism, bigotry and division,” U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso, said at a news conference. “This is someone that came from outside of our community to do us harm.”
As the dead were mourned and the wounded tended to, the mass shooting quickly brought new calls for gun control and prayer for the victims. Trump tweeted (“very bad, many killed”), and Democratic presidential candidates, including former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, an El Paso native, sent condolences. It all had the ring of the familiar; only the location, a town a short walk from the hardscrabble Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez, was different.
That arid, gritty landscape is in many ways a distillation of America’s singularities and complexities, its promises and perils. El Paso is a largely Latino liberal town in a conservative state. It hosts a college campus and a military base. One can openly carry a weapon here. Cross-border traffic propels the city at a time when the Trump administration is pushing to build a wall to keep out migrants, including many fleeing violence in Central America and seeking asylum in the U.S.
Less than a week after three people were killed by a shooter at a garlic festival in Gilroy, Calif., El Paso became the scene of the latest vigil — in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in the country since 2017.
The gunfire in a Walmart sent shoppers fleeing at the nearby Cielo Vista Mall. Priscilla Zavala and her husband had brought their four children — ages 11, 9, 6 and 4 — to shop for toys at Build-A-Bear when the shooting erupted.
“We heard one shot and everybody was running towards Dillard’s, and it was crazy,” said Zavala, 32. “The men went to go check it out while the women were all scared and grabbed all the babies.”
She said store employees closed the front gate, turned off overhead music and gave each child a teddy bear for reassurance as they sheltered in a back room.
“I knew they were terrified,” she said. “I could see it in their face.”
“My son was like, ‘Is the bandit out there?’” Zavala said. “We could hear the SWAT team telling them, ‘Get down, put your hands up!’ I think they were trying to figure out who’s the good guys, who’s the bad guys…. We had to hold our hands up. That way they knew we were safe.”
As they left the mall, Zavala heard police shout, “We’re letting the victims out,” and she started to cry.
“What hit me the hardest was being called a victim. Because I didn’t realize we were victims in the whole thing,” she said. “That’s what we are. People don’t realize that what they’re doing is hurting all of us in all of this. It’s sad that my babies are growing up in this world. I hate it. I hate living like this.”
Witnesses posted shaky video online in which repeated gunshots could be heard. Analisa Sonora Flores, 44, had arrived at the Walmart, crowded with 3,000 shoppers and 300 employees, shortly before 11 a.m. to pay a bill when she heard gunshots that she said sounded like an automatic rifle.
“It’s not the Fourth of July,” she said she was thinking. “These aren’t fireworks.”
That’s when she began yelling, in English and Spanish, “Run, run, run!”
“The place was more packed than usual because school is starting soon,” she said. Flores and others bolted through a back door and up a hill passing a movie theater where a woman was hyperventilating, saying, “There are many, many, many.”
As ambulances carried the wounded to hospitals and SWAT teams roamed the parking lot, Trump, in a tweet, pledged “total support of the federal government” to Texas authorities.
Republicans and Democrats expressed alarm and calls for healing; but the tenor turned heated, echoing the country’s political divisions, battles over gun laws and the widening reach of white nationalist ideology. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, whose wife is Latina, did not focus on guns, saying, “Mental health is a large contributor to any kind of violence or shooting violence.”
After visiting relatives of the victims gathered at a school late Saturday, some still awaiting word about their loved ones, Abbott condemned the shooting.
“Conduct like this, thoughts like this, actions like this, are not who or what Texas is,” he said.
Texas Rep. Cesar Blanco, a Democrat, said he planned to work with Abbott and other Republicans “to make sure these type of tragedies don’t happen again.”
Terrible shootings in ElPaso, Texas. Reports are very bad, many killed. Working with State and Local authorities, and Law Enforcement. Spoke to Governor to pledge total support of Federal Government. God be with you all!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 3, 2019
Other Democrats were sharper in their criticisms of Trump and other Republicans. It was an indication of an intensifying campaign and deep frustration over a slew of mass shootings.
“The president of the United States is condoning white nationalism. White nationalism is one of the evils that is motivating and inspiring at least some people to go kill Americans. The president has a responsibility to nip that in the bud,” Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., said at a forum for presidential candidates in Las Vegas.
The climate “has been poisoned,” Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia, said at a keynote discussion at the Asian American Journalists Assn. banquet Saturday night in Atlanta. “We have to rid America and rid our society of violence toward our fellow human beings…. What we have heard and experienced today is part of a dark past.”
When news of the shooting broke, O’Rourke, who was campaigning in Las Vegas, announced he was returning home to his family.
“I’m incredibly saddened, and it is very hard to think about this, but I will tell you El Paso is the strongest place in the world,” he said, choking up. “This community is going to come together.”
But the community was shaken. Daughters enfolded into the arms of fathers; mothers comforted sons. Police cars flashed, and bewilderment settled with nightfall. A woman emerged from one of the El Paso hospitals, distraught after searching unsuccessfully for her mother.
“I want to just find my mom,” Edie Hallberg said through tears. “I want to know if she’s dead or alive or if she’s still in Walmart.”
Hennessy-Fiske reported from Laredo, Texas, and Fleishman from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Melissa Etehad, Adam Elmahrek, Kiera Feldman and Yadira Flores in Los Angeles, staff writer David Montero in Las Vegas and special correspondent Ingrid Giese in El Paso contributed to this report.