EL PASO, Texas (AP) — El Paso opened a grief center on Tuesday to help people cope with last weekend’s mass shooting at a Walmart, in which 22 people, nearly all with Latino last names, were killed and many others were wounded.
The center opened a day before President Donald Trump was due to visit the border city, much to the chagrin of some Democrats and other residents who say his fiery rhetoric has fostered the kind of anti-immigrant hatred that may have motivated Saturday’s attack.
El Paso’s police chief, Greg Allen, said investigators believe the suspected gunman, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, posted an anti-immigrant screed that appeared online shortly before the attack. Crusius is being held on capital murder charges, though federal prosecutors are also considering charging Crusius with hate crimes.
On Monday, Crusius was assigned a veteran public defender from San Antonio, Mark Stevens. Stevens didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment left Tuesday.
Several of the wounded victims remained hospitalized Tuesday, including at least one who was in critical condition.
One of the wounded, Octavio Ramiro Lizarde, recalled hearing gunshots ring out as he stood in line waiting to open a bank account inside the Walmart. He said he and his 15-year-old nephew, Javier Rodriguez, tried to hide in a manager’s back office.
“The shooter came, I guess he heard us. He shot him,” Ramiro Lizarde said at a news conference at Del Sol Medical Center, where he has been being treated for a gunshot wound to the foot. His nephew did not survive.
Within hours of the grief center opening, Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar said victims’ families were already inside, where services included counseling, travel assistance and financial support.
“We’ve got to make sure that folks have access to mental health care. There’s going to be a lot of trauma in our community, a lot of children saw things that no human being should see. And so we’re going to do everything possible,” said Escobar, who is from El Paso.
Trump on Wednesday was also expected to visit Dayton, Ohio, where another gunman killed nine people and wounded many others in an attack only hours after the El Paso mass shooting. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway recounted visits Trump has made to grieving communities after mass shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Las Vegas.
“He goes, trying to help heal communities, meeting with those who are injured, those loved ones who have survived, the innocents who have lost their lives so senselessly and tragically,” Conway said.
El Paso’s Republican mayor, Dee Margo, announced Trump’s visit at a news conference Monday evening, preemptively defending the decision to welcome the president while acknowledging there would be blowback: “I’m already getting the emails and the phone calls.”
Margo has previously criticized Trump for suggesting that El Paso, which had fewer homicides in all of 2017 than the death toll in Saturday’s attack, was a dangerous and unsafe place.
“This is not a political visit as he had before, and he is president of the United States,” Margo said, referring to a campaign rally Trump held in February. “So in that capacity, I will fulfill my obligations as mayor of El Paso to be with the president and discuss whatever our needs are in this community and hope that if we are expressing specifics, that we can get him to come through for us.”
Escobar and Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who was a congressman for six years, both said Trump wouldn’t be welcome in their hometown of El Paso.
“This president, who helped create the hatred that made Saturday’s tragedy possible, should not come to El Paso. We do not need more division. We need to heal. He has no place here,” O’Rourke tweeted.
Authorities say Crusius is from the affluent Dallas suburb of Allen and drove more than 10 hoursto El Paso before the attack. Allen, the police chief, said the gun used in the attack was legally purchased near Crusius’ hometown. He didn’t say what kind of gun it was but described the ammunition as 7.62-caliber, which is used in high-powered rifles.
The screed that was posted online before the attack rails against an influx of Hispanics into the United States, saying they will replace aging white voters and could swing Texas and the White House to the Democrats.
Weber reported from Austin. Associated Press writer Jake Bleiberg in Dallas contributed to this report.