The FBI said Tuesday it had launched a domestic terrorism investigation into the shooting rampage last week at a Gilroy, California, food festival, which left three dead and more than a dozen others injured.
Investigators say they found that the 19-year-old shooter had delved into “violent ideologies” and held a list of possible targets across the country, including religious institutions, political organizations linked to both major parties, federal buildings and courthouses, said John Bennett, special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Francisco office, at a news briefing Tuesday. He declined to identity them.
The gunfire at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, which draws tens of thousands of visitors annually, sent terrified visitors fleeing from a chaotic scene. Among the dead were two children.
Less than a week later, a pair of mass shootings – first in El Paso, Texas, then in Dayton, Ohio – unfolded just hours apart, leaving a combined 31 dead and dozens more injured. The FBI is involved in those investigations as well.
Authorities are investigating the El Paso shooting as domestic terrorism and a hate crime. They believe the 21-year-old suspect, who opened fire on a Walmart near Mexico’s border, wrote an online manifesto denigrating immigrants. The bureau has dispatched personnel from a domestic terrorism-hate crimes fusion cell as part of that probe.
In Dayton, where the shooter – identified as a 24-year-old man – targeted an area with bars and clubs, officials were still exploring a motive. On Tuesday, the FBI and local police said they had learned the shooter was interested in “violent ideologies,” though Todd A. Wickerham, special agent in charge of the bureau’s Cincinnati office, declined to elaborate on what those were. He said the bureau would look at what, if any, ideology influenced the attacker.
The announcements in California and Ohio come amid renewed scrutiny of how the U.S. government treats violent ideologues. FBI officials have said recently they were conducting about 850 domestic terror investigations, with racist violence fueling a large share of such cases. Questions about the government’s handling of far-right attackers, in particular, have been especially sharp.
In Gilroy, law enforcement officials had said since the shooting on July 28 that they did not know what could have motivated the attacker, identified as Santino William Legan. Legan, who was from the area, shot and killed himself after exchanging gunfire with police, they said.
Those killed during the attack have been named by authorities as Stephen Romero, age 6; Keyla Allison Salazar, age 13; and Trevor Deon Irby, 25.
Scot Smithee, the Gilroy police chief, said Tuesday that Legan was wearing a bullet-resistant vest and had extra ammunition during his attack. He fired about 39 rounds, Smithee said, and was struck multiple times by the officers who confronted him.
Investigators have not determined a motive for the shooting at the food festival, nor have they located a manifesto, Bennett said. He also said that while they have found indications of violent ideals, precisely what the attacker believed remained unclear.
“We have uncovered evidence throughout the course of our investigation that the shooter was exploring violent ideologies,” Bennett said. “We have seen a fractured ideology. The shooter appeared to have an interest in varying, competing violent ideologies.”
Bennett did not elaborate. He said investigators were still exploring Legan’s digital footprint to determine if the attacker had settled on one particular ideology, whether he was in touch with anyone regarding these beliefs and who, if anyone, may have helped or had advance knowledge of his plans.
Bennett said a violent attack, even one on a large scale, “does not necessarily give us the legal authority to open a federal terrorism investigation.” Rather, he said, investigators have to find “the existence of ideological motivation” that fueled the violence.
Legan’s relatives released a statement to local media on Tuesday saying they were “deeply shocked and horrified by the actions of our son.”
“We have never and would never condone the hateful thoughts and ideologies that led to this event, and it is impossible to reconcile this with the son we thought we knew,” they said in the statement. “Our son is gone, and we will forever have unanswered questions as to how or why any of this has happened.”
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Mark Berman