EL PASO, Texas (AP) — El Paso officials 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.
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.”
“This is not a political visit as he had before, and he is president of the United Sates,” 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.”
Democratic Rep. Veronica 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.
Officials say the new grief center will offer counseling, travel assistance and financial support to anyone who needs it.
“El Paso is a strong and our residents are resilient,” El Paso Fire Chief Mario D’Agostino said. “We invite everyone, whether they just need to talk, or they are seeking services to help them move forward, to visit the center.”
El Paso’s police chief, Greg Allen, said 15 victims remained hospitalized as of Monday evening, including two who were in critical condition.
Authorities say Crusius is from the affluent Dallas suburb of Allen and drove more than 10 hours to El Paso before the attack. Allen, the El Paso 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 manifesto 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.