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Rene Aguilar and Jackie Flores pray at a makeshift memorial for the victims of Saturday's mass shooting at a shopping complex in El Paso, Texas, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019. AP Photo/Andres Leighton

El Paso marks Walmart shooting anniversary amid pandemic

Monday, August 3, 2020

When Stephanie Melendez, her husband and two young daughters tested positive for the coronavirus, the person she most wanted to call was her father.

“I’m married. I have my family. He was still the one I called when I got sick and he’d bring me Gatorade,” said Melendez, 32. "So when we get this virus that’s been all over the news — oh — my dad’s not there for me to call. It just kind of hits home a little harder.”

Her father, David Johnson, was shielding his wife and granddaughter when a gunman who authorities say was targeting Latinos at a crowded Walmart in the Texas border city of El Paso fatally shot him and 22 other people. It was a shockingly violent weekend in the U.S., with another shooter hours later killing nine people in a popular nightlife area in Dayton, Ohio.

Events to mark the anniversary of the Aug. 3, 2019, shooting in El Paso, a largely Hispanic city of 700,000, have taken on a new look amid the coronavirus pandemic: parks lit with lanterns that people can walk or drive through; private tours for victims' families at a museum exhibit of items preserved from a makeshift memorial; and residents being asked to show support with online posts.

When Guillermo “Memo” Garcia died in April, nine months after he was shot in the Walmart parking lot while fundraising for his daughter's soccer team, he became the shooting's 23rd victim. Masked mourner s gathered in a hospital parking lot to mark his death.

“It shook me to remind me that we’re in the middle of a healing process that we’re now being overwhelmed by COVID,” said El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, the county's top executive.

A service for victims' relatives will be held Sunday in a sprawling park, allowing for social distancing. The service will be livestreamed. Afterward members of the public can drive through the park as music plays and lanterns float on the lake.

“It’s going to be solemn, but it will also be a celebration of life," Samaniego said.

“We can't allow a shooter to define who we are, and we’re not going to allow a virus to define who El Paso is,” Samaniego said.

Melendez said her family will attend that ceremony and mark the anniversary with a dinner at her father's favorite steakhouse. Melendez said that as the anniversary of the shooting approaches, she feels the support of the city.

“Even if we can’t all get together, they’re still there, there are still ways,” she said.

El Paso residents describe the friendliness of the city, which has one of the lowest crime rates in the U.S. Many people have roots in both the U.S. and Mexico, frequently crossing the border. Several of those killed at the Walmart had come from Mexico to shop.

Authorities say Patrick Crusius confessed to driving to El Paso from his home near Dallas to target Mexicans, and just before the attack posted a racist screed online. Crusius, 22, faces state capital murder charges, and a federal hate crime and gun case that could likewise bring a death sentence if he’s convicted.

Dr. Jose Burgos, who was working as shooting victims arrived at University Medical Center and now helps coordinate care for COVID-19 patients, said his alarm that Hispanics were targeted lingers.

“The feeling is definitely still there, you’re more aware of the fact that you may be looked at a bit differently, that you might be targeted. That’s still there,” he said.

The morning of the shooting, Melendez's parents took their granddaughter Kaitlyn to the Walmart to get new clothes and a basketball. They were at the checkout when the gunman fired, and David Johnson pushed his wife and granddaughter under the conveyor belt. Johnson was not Hispanic, but his wife and granddaughter are.

"That was always his priority, was his family, and he always put others first. That showed that day,” Melendez said.

Struggling to deal with the aftermath, Kaitlyn, now 10, began to hit her stride again after switching to a smaller school. Then it closed because of the pandemic.

This summer, Kaitlyn was set to go to a camp for kids with post-traumatic stress disorder when she, her parents and her 3-year-old sister tested positive for COVID-19. They recovered in about a week and no one had severe symptoms. But, Melendez said, the worry that one of them might get worse was overwhelming.

“You’re like, ‘How can I do this again?’" Melendez said. “We survived one thing and then we get hit with something else and it’s just — literally for me it’s like, OK, get through one day, get to the next. And a lot of it is: What would my dad do right now?”

Stengle contributed from Dallas, Attanasio from Santa Fe, N.M. Associated Press writers Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, N.M., Astrid Galvan in Phoenix, and Jake Bleiberg in Dallas contributed to this report.

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