Highland Park suspect was known to police; bought guns legally

Highland Park suspect was known to police; bought guns legally

The man accused of killing seven people and wounding dozens of others in a shooting that terrorized a Fourth of July parade had been investigated by local police before. Officers had responded in 2019 after someone reported that he had tried to kill himself. And they came to his home a few months later — seizing a knife collection — after a family member reported that he had pledged to “kill everyone.”

Still, in the years since, the man, Robert E. Crimo III, 21, was able to legally buy several guns in Illinois, including a high-powered rifle that officials said was used in the attack Monday in Highland Park, a lakefront suburb north of Chicago. On Tuesday, Crimo was charged with seven counts of first-degree murder.

The details of those prior police visits raised questions about whether Illinois authorities missed opportunities to use their relatively strict firearm laws to block Crimo’s gun purchases, and about whether a newly signed federal gun law might have made a difference had it been in force earlier. In a statement, the Illinois State Police defended its decision to grant Crimo a permit to own a gun, which he applied for in December 2019, three months after police took the knives from his home.

In Highland Park, police said that Crimo appeared to have prepared for weeks to attack the parade Monday morning, and that he had used a fire escape to climb atop a downtown business to fire dozens of rounds from a high-powered rifle into the crowd. Afterward, they said, he escaped by discarding his rifle and blending into the crowd while wearing women’s clothing.

Authorities released a picture that appeared to show him wearing an American flag scarf around his neck — perhaps, they said, to conceal his distinctive neck tattoos.

Crimo was arrested about eight hours later when a resident spotted him on a highway in a nearby suburb. Although authorities said they had uncovered no evidence that the shooting was motivated by racial or religious hate, they acknowledged that they did not know what motivated the attack. Prosecutors said Crimo would make an initial court appearance Wednesday. It was not immediately clear whether he had a lawyer.

The sequence of events in Highland Park — in which law enforcement was told about a troubled young man, one who later acquired guns and was accused of using them to kill — was not unique. In a massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, the FBI received tips about the person who has pleaded guilty in the case, Nikolas Cruz, before the shooting occurred. And a judge ruled that the Air Force was mostly responsible for a mass shooting at a Texas church in 2017 because it had not entered the gunman’s domestic violence conviction into a federal database.

The attack Monday was not the first to raise questions about vulnerabilities in Illinois’ strict gun laws, which require a permit to own a weapon and which include a red flag provision that allows law enforcement to seize weapons from people deemed dangerous.

“We must vastly increase awareness and education about this red flag law,” Eric Rinehart, the Lake County state’s attorney, said Tuesday when he announced the murder charges. He also called for the passage of a ban on assault weapons.

A man convicted of killing four people at a Waffle House restaurant in Tennessee in 2018 had previously surrendered his guns to law enforcement in his Illinois hometown. But those guns, including the AR-15-style rifle used in the attack, were returned to the gunman’s father, officials said at the time.

The laws also came under scrutiny in 2019, when a man fatally shot five people at an Aurora, Illinois, factory where he worked. That man, who died in a shootout with police, had been banned from owning a gun for five years but continued to possess one.

In Highland Park, officials said Crimo did not have a firearm owner’s identification card at the time officers seized 16 knives, a dagger and a sword from his home in 2019. They said they believed he bought several guns in the years since, including the rifle used Monday and another that was in his car when he was arrested. Those guns were bought legally by Crimo in Illinois, officials said, meaning he would have had to have applied for and received a FOID card from state police.

A spokesperson for Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat who supports gun control laws, declined to answer questions Tuesday about whether the governor believed that the state’s laws had worked as intended in the Highland Park case, but issued a statement calling for stricter gun laws and greater awareness of existing restrictions.

“Unfortunately, every time a mass shooting occurs it serves as a stark reminder that our gun laws often fall short of the rigorous standards that feel like common sense to most Americans,” the governor said.

Pritzker’s office directed inquiries about Crimo’s case to the state police, who defended how they handled it, saying, in part, that “at the time of FOID application review in January of 2020, there was insufficient basis to establish a clear and present danger and deny the FOID application.” The state police said that Crimo’s father had sponsored his application for the permit.

Steven Greenberg, a lawyer representing the father, acknowledged that the father had done so and said there were possible explanations why. Greenberg said his client did not believe there was an issue and might not have understood what happened with the knife seizure because it did not happen in his house. “It was perfectly legal,” he said of sponsoring the gun permit.

The shooting in Highland Park also closely followed the passage of a federal law that has been hailed as the most significant piece of gun legislation in decades. That measure, passed in the wake of mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, enhances background checks for buyers ages 18 to 21, requiring for the first time that juvenile records, including mental health records beginning at age 16, be vetted for material that identifies young buyers as a danger to themselves or others.

While many details about Crimo’s personal history remained hazy, it was possible — but not certain — that he could have been flagged for additional scrutiny had the federal law been passed earlier. Officials did not provide the exact dates that Crimo bought his rifles but indicated that they had been bought in 2020 and 2021. Crimo turned 21 last year.

As prosecutors announced charges, residents of Highland Park gathered for prayer vigils, lamented a shattered sense of suburban security and grieved the deaths of their neighbors.

The victims included Nicolas Toledo-Zaragoza, 78, who had recently moved back to Highland Park from Mexico, and who went to the parade with his family despite not wanting to; Jacquelyn Sundheim, 63, a beloved employee of a local synagogue whom one friend called “a beautiful ray of light”; Stephen Straus, a financial adviser who, at age 88, still took the train every day to his office at a brokerage firm in Chicago; Katherine Goldstein, 64; and Irina and Kevin McCarthy, ages 35 and 37, a couple who left behind a toddler son.

“It’s just sad,” said Adrienne Rosenblatt, a neighbor of the McCarthys.

Authorities had not yet publicly identified a seventh victim whose death was announced Tuesday.

Around Highland Park, questions also spread about Crimo, who was from a well-known local family and whose father once ran unsuccessfully for mayor.

Nicolas and Andres Lopez, brothers who went to Highland Park High School with Crimo, said they used to be friends with him. Crimo at one point dropped out of high school, the brothers said, but they found nothing during the time when they were friends to suggest a problem.

“He wasn’t a quiet kid who was dark then,” said Andres Lopez, 23. “He was quiet because he was nerdy. He wasn’t sinister.”

In the years since, concerning signs mounted. Crimo posted music videos online that seemed to refer to mass shootings, one of which included cartoon images of a gunman pointing a large rifle, and of other figures spurting blood. Later in that video, the gunman lies in a pool of blood near police cars.

[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]

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