By Arturo Rubio, Manny Fernandez and Simon Romero
EL PASO, Texas – A gunman armed with a powerful assault-style rifle turned a crowded Walmart store in this majority-Hispanic border city into a scene of chaos and bloodshed Saturday, stalking shoppers in the aisles in an attack that left at least 20 people dead and 26 others wounded, authorities said.
For several minutes, the packed Walmart near the Cielo Vista Mall on the city’s East Side filled with gun smoke and the echo of gunfire. Workers and customers, some bloodied, fled out the doors. Others huddled in the aisles or on the ground.
“Texas grieves for the people of El Paso today,” Gov. Gregg Abbott told reporters. “On a day that would have been a normal day for someone to leisurely go shopping, turned into one of the most deadly days in the history of Texas.”
Authorities said the gunman was taken into custody after he surrendered to police outside the Walmart.
The authorities identified the gunman as Patrick Crusius, 21, who lived in a Dallas suburb. Authorities said they were investigating a manifesto the gunman may have posted before the shooting which described an attack in response to a “Hispanic invasion.”
“Right now, we have a manifesto from this individual,” El Paso’s police chief, Greg Allen, told reporters, though he said law enforcement officers were still not clear whether the gunman had posted the document.
The document appeared to be referring to an anti-immigrant online screed titled The Inconvenient Truth. The posting declares support for the gunman who killed 51 in Christchurch, New Zealand, outlines fears about Hispanic people gaining power in the United States and appears to discuss specific details about elements of the attack, including weapons.
“Hispanics will take control of the local and state government of my beloved Texas, changing policy to better suit their needs,” the manifesto said. It added that politicians of both parties are to blame for the United States “rotting from the inside out,” but went on to say that “the heavy Hispanic population in Texas will make us a Democrat stronghold.”
Manuel Uruchurtu, 20, had just paid at the cash register and was walking out of the store when he heard the sound of shots. He turned around and saw the gunman holding a long gun and wearing what looked like shoulder pads. As Uruchurtu fled the store, he saw two bodies on the ground outside, one surrounded by a pool of blood.
“I saw people crying: children, old people, all in shock,” he said. “I saw a baby, maybe 6 to 8 months old, with blood all over their belly.”
El Paso has long been both a cultural and political symbol of Hispanic Texas.
The city has had a binational feel because of its proximity and ties to its sister city in Mexico, Ciudad Juarez, and has been in the national spotlight for months. Thousands of Central American families have flooded the city and surrounding areas seeking asylum, overwhelming the Border Patrol and nonprofit groups working with immigrants.
The waves of migrants, and the difficulty the Trump administration has had providing shelter and medical care to them, has been a focus of Democratic lawmakers and Democratic presidential candidates in an election campaign in which immigration has become a central focus.
But beyond the new migrants to El Paso, the city has been home for generations of Mexican-Americans who consider themselves more Texan than Mexican. On a clear day, Mexico is visible from the mall’s parking lot.
“It tells us something about the hate and the animosity that exists out there in the nation,” said one longtime El Paso lawmaker, state Sen. Jose Rodriguez. “And it seems to always be some of these young people that they’re getting, I guess, irrationally distorted about what’s happening the country.”
At the home in a suburb of Dallas thought to be the possible home of the suspect in the attack, an FBI agent was stationed outside. “We’re not sure if it’s secure yet,” the agent explained.
The shooting came six days after a gunman killed three people Sunday at a garlic festival in Gilroy, California. In that shooting, the gunman, Santino William Legan, 19, shot and killed himself after exchanging gunfire with the police.
The gunfire Saturday in El Paso began shortly before 11 a.m., in a popular commercial district near Cielo Vista Mall with scores of restaurants and stores that are often crowded on the weekends.
The Walmart store, a short distance from the mall, was packed at the time. The timestamp on security-camera footage of the shooter walking in with a gun was 10:39:35.
A Walmart worker, Sergio Armando Samaniego, 40, a clerk in the store’s garden center, said he believed the gunman entered through the automotive section. Samaniego had been on break and was headed back to the garden center when, minutes later, he heard gunshots.
“I’m lucky,” Samaniego said. “One of my friends was shot. I saw another customer running out of the store with a shot in his back. I’m just shocked.”
Victor Gamboa, 18, who works at the McDonald’s inside the Walmart, said he had heard shots and saw smoke. “I saw a man on the floor full of blood,” he said. “He appeared to be dead. It happened very quickly.”
Gamboa said he and other McDonald’s workers sheltered the customers to keep them safe and huddled on the ground for 15 minutes. Officers eventually arrived and escorted the group out to a Sam’s Club store across the street.
Victor Guerrero, a spokesman for Del Sol Medical Center, said the hospital was treating 11 victims ranging in age from 35 to 82. Nine were in critical but stable condition and two were stable.
The University Medical Center of El Paso received 13 patients, according to Ryan Mielke, the hospital’s spokesman. He said two minors, including a 2-year-old, were stabilized and transferred to El Paso Children’s Hospital. Mielke said some of the victims came in with minor injuries but others were fatalities.
A state lawmaker whose district includes the Walmart, Rep. Cesar Blanco, was at home when he heard about the attack. Blanco, a Democrat and Navy veteran, rushed to his district office, which is near the mall, and later joined other officials in assisting grief-stricken families at an emergency center set up at a middle-school where Blanco was once a student. About 50 to 75 family members were gathered in the school cafeteria, he said.
“Right now the families are in shock,” Blanco said, describing the sounds of “wailing and screams” from family members whose loved ones were among the victims. “This is terrorism. This is domestic terrorism.”
For now, local authorities remained the lead investigators. But FBI officials were studying the manifesto to determine whether it placed the shooting within the domain of domestic terrorism and other federal crimes. Given the manifesto’s racially extremist views, it could make the killings a federal hate crime or an act of domestic terrorism if law enforcement determines that it is tied to the shootings.
The FBI has said that more Americans have died in domestic terror attacks than in international terror attacks since the September 11, 2001, attacks, and that domestic terrorism is increasingly motivated by white supremacist ideology.
President Donald Trump has been briefed on the shooting, and Trump administration officials were monitoring the situation. “Terrible shootings in El Paso, Texas,” Trump said on Twitter. “Reports are very bad, many killed.”
The president pledged “total support of Federal Government” to state and local authorities, and spoke about the shooting with Abbott, who headed to the scene of the attack Saturday afternoon.
“Today, the El Paso community was struck by a heinous and senseless act of violence,” Abbott said in a statement. “Our hearts go out to the victims of this horrific shooting and to the entire community in this time of loss.”