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Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
EL PASO — More than 24 hours after a gunman opened fire in a shopping area, killing 20 and wounding more than two dozen others, Michael Brooks Sr. of El Paso was still frantically trying to determine his son’s fate.
He stood beside a makeshift memorial outside the crime scene Sunday morning to ask officers if they had any information about his son Andre Martinez, who he said was in his 20s and had been shot.
“My son Facebooked my niece and said he had got shot and was at the Walmart when it started,” Brooks said. “I came up here today to ask officers what was going on and if they could tell me what hospital he is in.”
He said his son had grown up in El Paso and had been shopping at the Walmart when the shooting happened.
As Brooks searched for his son, countless others in El Paso and throughout the nation were struggling to come to terms with that mass shooting, and yet another that occurred less than 13 hours later in Dayton, Ohio. The Dayton shooter killed nine and wounded dozens of others before he was shot and killed by police.
By mid-morning Sunday a number of FBI agents and Texas State Troopers remained at the scene in El Paso, combing through the parking lot and blocking access to the area. The lot remained full of cars that had been left behind in the chaos.
Mourners from the community trickled through, leaving flowers, a teddy bear, a Rubik’s Cube and candles on the curb.
Gilda Baeza-Ortego, a Silver City resident who grew up in El Paso, said she drove into town on Friday to see her parents. She said she was shocked and saddened when the news of the shooting broke Saturday morning.
On Sunday, she and her father, who is in his 90s, came by to pay their respects.
“These people lost their lives. …,” she said, gesturing behind her at the store. “Our hearts go out to them and to the families who don’t know exactly if their loved ones are still there or not, it’s very painful.”
Baeza-Ortego said she had originally planned on leaving Saturday but after the shooting decided to stay with her parents a little longer.
Vast crime scene
As the city grappled with the violence and grieved its dead, federal, state and local investigators remained hard at work.
The Office of the Medical Examiner finished removing all the bodies from Walmart on Sunday afternoon, said Sgt. Robert Gomez, spokesman for the El Paso Police Department. He said some of the bodies were in the parking lot, but the majority of the victims had been shot inside the store.
The EPPD is taking the lead on the investigation.
Gomez said he doesn’t know when authorities will release the names of the victims, and he did not have an age range to provide. He said they are still working on identifying those killed and notifying next of kin.
Jeanette Harper, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s El Paso division, said numerous agents have flown in from around the country to help with the investigation, both from a forensic and evidence standpoint and from a behavioral analysis standpoint. She said the bureau’s hate crimes and domestic terrorism fusion cell is working on the investigation as well.
“This will make sure the investigation evaluates all possible investigative tools, as well as looking at all available federal and state charges that we can put onto this incident,” Harper said. “As well as to determine motivation.”
Harper said investigators have served three search warrants in the Dallas area, where suspect Patrick Crusius, 21, resides, and conducted numerous interviews with Crusius’ acquaintances.
“Through these interviews, we’re putting this investigation together to determine if he is part of a group or working with other individuals that were planning any future attacks,” Harper said. “At this time we don’t have any credible intelligence saying that there is anything or that he is linked to others.
Harrowing accounts from the injured
Although, investigators have been hesitant to release information about the victims, details began to trickle out at events held around the city throughout the day.
At a Sunday night march and vigil for shooting victims in El Paso, Democratic presidential candidate and native El Pasoan Beto O’Rourke talked about the people he had met who were wounded in the attack. He said he was invited to visit a woman at the University Medical Center in the intensive care unit at the hospital after he met her son on a flight back to El Paso.
O’Rourke said the woman named Rosemary had been shot in the chest by the gunman.
“Both of her lungs were pierced. She had this big beautiful, strong courageous confident El Paso smile on her face when her son walked in, when she saw all of us. We watched the fluid from her lungs being drained out in a tube that ran alongside her bed,” he said. He said he checked on her again Sunday night and Rosemary was doing better and was able to sit in a chair next to the hospital bed.
“You wonder where she gets that courage. And I found part of the answer when I visited her mother at Del Sol Medical center,” O’Rourke said referring to another hospital.
“Shot in the stomach, but she did not stop until she was able to attend to everyone in front of her,” making sure that everyone else was OK before she finally succumbed and had to lay down and was rolled out and taken to Del Sol along with her sister who was also shot. One family, three people grievously wounded. And that’s just one story from this community of nearly three million people joined — not separated — by the Rio Grande River, an example to the rest of the country.”
O’Rourke said he met another man as he was leaving the hospital who told him, “I’m waiting here to see my mother-in-law. She’s just coming out of surgery. She and my father-in-law, husband and wife, were also walking into Walmart. They had just celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary and are in their 90s right now.”
He tried to help the family find the woman’s husband but has not been able to get information from police or find the man in another hospital “and we fear the worst.”
Georgina Pérez with the State Board of Education, also shared her knowledge of two of the people who were killed — one a 13-year-old student from the Clint Independent School District, another a teacher from Juárez.
Both had been at the Walmart to buy school supplies ahead of the start of the year.
“When you return to school, talk to your students, comfort your teachers, let them ask you their questions and be there to hold their hand and hug them,” Perez said. “And if there is anything you need from any of us we will do our best to school shop for you.”
CNN identified one of the people killed as Angie Silva Englisbee, 86, who according to the Santa Fe New Mexican was a native of Santa Fe who had moved to El Paso years ago.
Thousands attend vigil
Shortly after 6 p.m. thousands of people began to gather for an interfaith vigil at Ponder Park less than a mile from where the shooting occurred.
The crowd filled a baseball diamond and spilled into the bleachers and field behind it. Mourners wearing “El Paso Strong” and Texas themed shirts pinned buttons with messages of “hope” on their shirts. Volunteers passed out water and candles.
Before the vigil started, around 7 p.m., the announcer pointed out the three exits and asked the crowd to keep them clear so everyone would be safe.
Helen Gomez and Myra Rommes, juniors at New Mexico Tech home for the summer, said they couldn’t believe the shooting happened in their neighborhood.
“It’s scary because the guy drove nine hours to come do it,” Rommes said.
The women said as soon as the news broke, their friends from New Mexico and other parts of the country began texting them, asking if they were OK.
“I had just gone to the mall the day before,” Gomez said.
The two-hour long vigil featured prayer and speeches from leaders of many different denominations.
Then, three tearful Walmart employees took the stage, clutching one another, as the crowd applauded their bravery. Three thousand people had been at the store when the shooting occurred, with only 100 employees.
Parkland victim’s father lends support
Among those grappling with the shooting was Manuel Oliver, who knows firsthand what it’s like to be hit with a tragedy like this. He was in El Paso over the weekend in memory of his son, who was killed in the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a year and a half ago.
Sunday would have been Joaquin Oliver’s 19th birthday.
Instead Manuel Oliver found himself in the midst of a city experiencing yet another horrific act of violence.
“I’m not surprised,” he said. “I wish I was surprised but there’s so little that we have done since my son died, since my son was murdered. We do a lot but that is not enough.”
Manuel Oliver was in Juárez, meeting with activists about immigrant rights, an issue his teenage son felt passionately about. He had planned to paint a mural on the side of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in honor of his family who was separated from Joaquin by a school shooting and children who were separated from their families as they crossed the border.
Now, he said, he plans to incorporate Saturday’s shooting into the mural as well.
Having seen the same script play out countless times since his son’s death, Manuel Oliver said he can predict what will happen in El Paso over the next several days — the vigils, the white crosses erected for each victim, the teddy bears and little prayer stones.
“Take your time, support each other, raise your voice, pray and then after praying raise your voice again and then raise your voice again,” he said. “Praying is not enough.”
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