Was a shooting that killed 3 at Walmart motivated by hate?

A terrorist kills eight people in a vehicle ramming attack in New York City on Halloween. 

A few days later, a deranged gunman enters a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and opens fire on the congregation with a semi-automatic assault rifle, killing 26 people and injuring many others. Both incidents garnered national media attention for being sensational acts of mass murder. Authorities were quick to label the New York City attack “an act of terrorism” and to proclaim the church attack as a domestic violence-related criminal act. During this time period, a third act of mass murder, however, has gone practically unnoticed — lost in the headlines and forgotten. Some believe it may represent a domestic terrorist attack in Colorado. Authorities, however, have been slow to say anything about the suspect’s motive.

On November 1, 2017, police say Scott Allen Ostrem, a 47-year-old white man, nonchalantly walked into a Walmart in Thornton, Colorado, armed with a handgun. Once inside the store, Ostrem pulled out the gun and shot three Hispanic shoppers who were singled out of many other customers. The gunman then fled the scene in a red Mitsubishi subcompact car. Victor Vasquez and Carlos Moreno died at the scene. Pam Marques succumbed to her injuries a short time later at the hospital. Authorities identified Ostrem as the shooter and caught him the next day after an exhaustive manhunt.

Like most mass shootings involving white males, police were quick to dismiss this latest shooting attack as a random act by a crazed gunman. According to a family member, Ostrem may indeed suffer from some form of brain damage or mental illness related to his past drug use. Nevertheless, a person’s mental state should not factor into whether a criminal act is designated a hate crime or terrorist act. According to one study, more than 25% of al-Qaeda and Islamic State inspired terrorists suffer from mental health disorders. The study concluded that Muslim terrorists had been diagnosed with a variety of psychiatric disorders such as ADD, AD/HD, autism spectrum, narcissistic, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress and psychotic disorders. The prevalence of schizophrenia (2%) in the sample was higher than what would be expected in the general population. Another scientific study found as much as 40% of 153 lone-actor terrorists had a diagnosed mental disorder.

Soon after the Walmart shooting in Thornton, a police spokesperson stated, “The shooting appeared random and there were no indications it was an act of terror.” While executing a search warrant, investigators seized a rifle, cell phones, a safe, a camera and other materials from Ostrem’s one-bedroom apartment in north Denver. The kitchen counter was reportedly littered with handwritten notes, some with references to Norse and Celtic myths (which may be indicative of possible white supremacist beliefs).

In the days following the shooting, Ostrem’s apparent motive became abundantly clear. It looks to be a hate-motivated bias-crime, a targeted shooting attack against Hispanics. Former neighbors and others came forward to the media describing Ostrem as hostile and racist toward Hispanics. Ostrem lived alone and was often seen carrying a rifle to and from his apartment, among other disturbing behaviors.

According to Raw Story, “Neighbors described Ostrem as ‘a bizarre, angry man who lived alone in an apartment with a stack of Bibles and virtually no furniture.’ He was a ‘loner’ who would walk around carrying weapons like a shotgun or bow and arrows.” KKTV reported that neighbors described Ostrem as “very racist towards Hispanics.” Another person described him as “verbally abusive towards Hispanics,” according to NBC News. A third neighbor, Gerald Burnett, said Ostrem once told him “This is America. You shouldn’t be here.” Further, a Hispanic employee at Ostrem’s apartment building, who didn’t want to be identified, said Ostrem was very rude to them. “If he saw a Hispanic person, he would tell them to get out of his way,” he said.

Given Ostrem’s well-known hatred toward Hispanics, it now appears that his targeting of Hispanics at the Thornton Walmart was not a random act. Rather, it was apparently a calculated, deliberate attack against an ethnic-based community whom he allegedly despised. Furthermore, Ostrem chose not to attack his neighbors where they lived, but traveled seven miles to a Walmart — a symbolic place where people gather to shop and generally feel safe.

Ostrem’s alleged murderous act has all the makings of a hate crime. Reports detail a violent attack targeted specifically against an ethnic-based community. However, given the possibility of broader implications to the surrounding community, was Ostrem’s violent action considered an act of domestic terrorism? The FBI defines domestic terrorism as “the unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or its territories without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

Ostrem appears to have readily espoused a hate-oriented ideology toward a minority population and  used violence to instill fear in the local Hispanic population — the city of Thornton, population 137,000, is one-third Hispanic or Latino. The question still remains, however, whether or not Ostrem aspired to use his attack to further a larger political or social objective. For now, only Ostrem knows the intent behind these murders. It’s now up to investigators to explore this question in an attempt to provide answers.

Photo credit: AP Images/Tatiana Flowers

 

Comments, suggestions or tips? Send them to HWeditor@splcenter.org and follow us on Twitter @Hatewatch.