EL PASO, Texas — A Texas man pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal hate crime and weapons charges in the racist attack at an El Paso Walmart in 2019, which prosecutors say was preceded by the gunman posting an online screed that warned of a "Hispanic invasion."
Patrick Crusius, 24, showed little emotion while shackled in an El Paso courtroom just a few miles from the store where he was accused of killing 23 people, including citizens of Mexico, in what remains one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.
Sentencing is not scheduled until later this year, but the U.S. government had previously announced it wouldn't seek the death penalty. Crusius waived most of his rights to appeal on a total of 90 federal charges, which U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama said would each carry a life sentence.
"I plead guilty," he said.
Crusius had originally pleaded not guilty before federal prosecutors took the death penalty off the table. He could still receive the death penalty, however, under separate state capital murder charges in Texas, although it remains unclear when that case might go to trial.
Albert Hernandez, whose sister and brother-in-law were killed in the attack, was one of about 40 people with close ties to the victims in the court gallery. He called Crucius a coward who was trying to "save his own skin" by pleading guilty in federal court.
"This guy knew what he was doing. It was premeditated," Hernandez said of the shooting. "He came here to take care of business."
Crusius surrendered to police after the massacre, saying, "I'm the shooter, " and that he was targeting Mexicans, according to court records. Prosecutors have said he drove more than 10 hours from his hometown near Dallas to the largely Latino border city and published a document online shortly before the shooting that said it was "in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas."
The Aug. 3, 2019, shooting happened on a busy weekend at a Walmart that is typically popular with shoppers from Mexico and the U.S. In addition to those killed, more than two dozen were injured and hundreds more were scarred by being present or having a loved-one hurt.
Prosecutors presented a detailed narrative of the attack during Wednesday's plea hearing, describing how it began with a pedestrian gunned down in the parking lot before Crusius opened fire on people at a fundraiser for a soccer team.
As Crusius moved inside the store, prosecutors said, nine people were cornered and shot to death at a bank near the entrance. Among them were husband and wife Jordan and Andre Anchondo, whose infant son survived with broken bones in a hand.
Former El Paso Mayor Dee Margo attended the plea hearing and called it a "gutwrencher."
"We have an evil white supremacist who showed up and attacked us for who we are," he said.
Crusius' writings before the shooting echoed both the anti-immigration rhetoric of American politics and racist screeds put out by other mass shooters in the U.S. and abroad.
More than three years after the shooting, the description of an "invasion" on the U.S.-Mexico border has continued in American politics. Critics have condemned the characterization as anti-immigrant and dangerous in the aftermath of El Paso and other racially motivated attacks.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has recently embraced using the word "invasion" while authorizing a series of hardline immigration measures. In November, Abbott sent a letter to state police and the Texas National Guard with the subject line "Defend Texas Against Invasion."
Abbott has defended his statements by saying he is invoking language included in the U.S. Constitution. Some legal scholars have called it a misreading of the clause.
"If this is not an invasion, what is it?" Abbott asked CNN's Jake Tapper during an interview last month. "Think about the volume of people coming across the border."
America's Voice, an immigration reform group, said it tracked more than 80 Republican candidates during last year's midterm elections who amplified what they called "invasion" and "replacement" conspiracies.
"I think it's been creeping over the years," said Zachary Mueller, political director of America's Voice. "What I would say is that in 2021, there was a marked shift where it went from the fringes of the Republican Party into the mainstream of the Republican Party."
A database of mass killings in the U.S. since 2006 compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University shows that the number of deadly mass shootings linked to hate crimes has increased in recent years. Among 13 prominent instances, the 2019 Walmart shooting was the deadliest. The database tracks every mass killing — defined as four dead, not including the offender — in the U.S. since 2006.