SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah man has been found guilty on three counts of federal hate crimes after a jury determined he attacked a father and son at their Salt Lake tire shop because they are Mexican.
Alan D. Covington hung his head as a judge read the three guilty verdicts Wednesday evening in federal court in Salt Lake City. Family members sat with Luis and Jose Lopez, gripping each other’s hands and crying.
Luis Lopez, who has a metal plate in his face after Covington smashed his cheekbone with a metal pipe in November 2018, said outside the courthouse he felt relieved. The jury found Covington guilty not only of trying to kill him, but also of attacking his father and attempting to injure his uncle, Angel Lopez.
A scar under 18-year-old Luis Lopez’s right eye is the only visible trace of the attack, but he said he doesn’t expect to ever fully heal. He doesn’t like to leave his house much anymore and often feels paranoid when he does.
“I’m not ever going to forgive this, I’m not,” he said.
“After what had happened to me, it opened my eyes of what’s going on around in the world,” Luis Lopez continued. “And it just seemed like a lot more cases like mine were coming up, not only around the world but here in Utah.”
The Lopez family had no special plans Wednesday night, but intended to spend time with each other because “we’re all still here,” said Luis’s sister Veronica Lopez.
Prosecutor Drew Yeates said those in the Lopez family are “members of our community” and called the attack “unacceptable. It’s important for the United States to pursue cases of hate crime, and we take these very seriously.”
Covington, who chose not to testify in the nearly weeklong trial in U.S. District Court, now faces up to life in prison, although a sentencing date has not yet been set.
Earlier in the day, prosecutors argued there’s no question why he appeared at Lopez Tires on Nov. 27, 2018.
He had passed by a vacuum repair shop and a hair salon before showing up at Lopez Tires with a metal pipe over his shoulder and a hatchet tucked in his waistband, announcing he was there to kill Mexicans before striking Luis Lopez, said federal prosecutor Rose Gibson.
“In this country, it is against the law to attack someone and hurt them because of where they are born, because of where you think they are born. And that’s what this defendant did,” Gibson said in her closing argument. “It was a planned, vicious and brutal attack.”
She held the square-edge metal pipe over her shoulder in the same manner Covington allegedly did, telling jurors the evidence shows that he “had been hunting Salt Lake for Mexicans for days.”
An owner of a different auto shop testified that Covington had arrived at his business and made similar statements three days before the violence at Lopez Tires, but ultimately left after the shop owner clarified that he was Venezuelan and not from Mexico, Gibson said.
“To this defendant, all Mexicans are the same,” Gibson continued.
Defense attorneys painted a different picture of what led to the violent encounter that day.
What happened was not a hate crime, said defense attorney Spencer Rice.
The 51-year-old Covington, who is black, had no problem with Mexicans in general but took issue with a “Mexican mafia” or a cartel that he believed had kidnapped his family and killed his daughter.
Covington’s defense team emphasized that his ex-wife, who is of Mexican heritage, never believed he harbored any prejudice against Mexicans, although prosecutors countered that his past thoughts may not reflect his more recent mindset.
While Covington’s statements at the tire shop were inappropriate and wrong, they weren’t motivated by hate, Rice said.
Moreover, surveillance video of the confrontation as it spilled onto a sidewalk showed Covington backpedaling before being surrounded by the three Lopez men.
“Mr. Covington hit them because he had been surrounded and there was nowhere else to go,” Rice said. “The government here would only have you focus on those facts that are the most outrageous, that elicit the most sympathy.”
Last week, Jose Lopez testified that he was getting ready to sit down for a lunch of chicken soup with his son that morning when they heard a man yelling outside.
A man wielding a metal pipe shouted that he wanted to kill Mexicans and said Luis Lopez had killed his daughter, police said. As the father tried to get him to leave and back away, Luis Lopez retrieved a metal pipe from inside the shop, but dropped it when Covington began striking him, the father said. Lopez later had surgery for a shattered cheekbone, while his father sustained bruising to his back.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill has said the case played a “huge role” in bringing about a stronger 2019 state law on hate crimes.