Latino shop owner attacked at his Utah tire store testifies against man who yelled, ‘I’m here to kill a Mexican’

(Photo courtesy of Veronica Lopez) Pictured is Luis Gustavo Lopez, 18, who was attacked at Lopez Tires on Tuesday, November 27, 2018.

Jose Lopez couldn’t bring himself to go back into his car repair shop for more than a week after the attack.

He thought of the stacks of tires, rows deep, at the little store on Main Street — the spot where the man first screamed: “I hate Mexicans. I’m here to kill a Mexican.”

He thought of the car ports where his boy, Luis, had grabbed the handle off of a jack to defend them. And when he thought of pulling into the driveway, he couldn’t shake the memory of his son’s brutal beating and worried the cement would still be spotted with blood.

But even more than that, Lopez feared someone else might walk in, targeting him or his family again because of what they look like and where they come from.

“This has destroyed my life,” he said in court Thursday through a Spanish translator. “Mi vida,” he repeated.

Lopez’s testimony spanned hours and came at the start of the federal hate crimes trial against Alan Dale Covington, the man who attacked him and his son. Prosecutors say it is a cut-and-dry case of a man who harmed members of particular ethnicity. But the defense argued that Covington wasn’t in a healthy state of mind at the time and only struck after the family surrounded him. They also questioned whether Lopez, who is undocumented, is now using the assault as leverage to get a visa.

More people, including Luis, are expected to testify in the coming days.

It is the first time any of the Lopezes have talked about the assault in Salt Lake City since it drew national attention when it happened in November 2018. Many family members sat in the benches of the courtroom wiping away tears as the father recounted it from the witness box. And he painted a graphically detailed account of the confrontation.

The day, he said, started like most — then-18-year-old Luis had driven into the family’s store, Lopez Tires, to help open up around 9 a.m. Lopez came in shortly after, bringing with him a container of chicken soup that his wife had made for them. When they were warming it up in the office microwave, the two heard yelling in the courtyard. Luis went to check it out.

“We could just hear really loud speaking. It was like an argument,” Lopez said, getting emotional. “Then I heard more voices, louder.”

Lopez walked out to see what was happening and saw a man standing there, gripping a metal bar with both hands. It sat on his right shoulder. And it looked like it had been plied off of a stop sign.

He was yelling slurs at Luis and threatening him.

“The man told me he was going to kill Mexicans,” Lopez testified. “And he was looking at me and my son.”

The prosecutor, representing the federal government in this case, which has brought the hate crime charges against Covington, held up in the courtroom the pipe that he used in the attack. Lopez displayed for the jury how the man carried and swung it.

Covington continued to yell, Lopez said, as he charged at them. “I hate Mexicans,” he recalled the man saying. “I f---ing hate Mexicans.”

Lopez and Luis asked him to go, the father said. Angel Lopez, Lopez’s brother, heard the commotion and joined them. The three of them tried to escort Covington off the property.

“I told him to leave several times,” Lopez said. “Varias veces.”

When he pulled out his phone to call for help, the father added, Covington became more aggravated. Lopez said he stepped in front of his son to protect him. “Go ahead and call the police, but I’m going to kill you guys,” he remembered Covington shouting. “You’re part of the Mexican mafia.”

Still, the man slowly started walking backward off the property, and Lopez followed him to make sure he left.

In the driveway, he started swinging the bar again three or four times. The father hoped if they got to the sidewalk that someone driving by might see them and call 911. He tried to steer Covington that way while Luis ran back inside. When they got a few feet to the north of his shop on the sidewalk, Covington swung again. Luis had ripped the handle off a car jack and tried to defend himself.

The first time, the boy was able to duck out of the way, though he dropped the handle. The second time, before he could get up, Covington’s metal bar landed on the flesh of his face. The third and fourth swipes followed, tearing into his nose and crushing his eye socket.

Lopez said he jumped in to try to shield the boy. He remembered running to his son — “mi hijo,” the father said in Spanish — and threw his body over him. “I grabbed him right away,” he recalled. “He was really bleeding a lot. He was almost unconscious. I shouted, ‘My son, are you going to be all right?’ He wasn’t talking anymore.”

The prosecutor asked Lopez to point to the parts of the face where Luis was bleeding. His hand grazed over most of the right side, the eyes, cheek and mouth.

The man, Lopez continued, kept screaming slurs and started to smash the rod into his back, too, while he covered Luis’ head. Angel eventually scared him away as police arrived.

It all happened so fast, Lopez added. His son has since had a titanium plate put in his face and has suffered memory issues from the attack. The father had eight stitches in his arm. And his family, as a whole, has felt targeted because of the color of their skin.

“Were you scared for your life?” asked the prosecutor, J. Drew Yeates.

“The whole time,” Lopez responded, breaking down crying.

Since the attack, Covington was charged in district court with aggravated assault, possession of a dangerous weapon and use of a controlled substance. Police have said he was under the influence of drugs during the attack and that clouded his judgment. Those counts were all quietly dismissed last week, though, likely in favor of the federal prosecution.

But it was also controversial because Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill couldn’t charge Covington with a hate crime — saying the law, as written, prevented him from doing so. The issue launched a reexamination of the statute, and the Legislature passed a much stronger version last year.

Meanwhile, the federal case has continued.

Covington pleaded not guilty last February to the three federal charges of committing a hate crime — one for each of the individuals: Lopez, Luis and Angel. It has meandered through the court for the past year until Covington was deemed mentally fit to stand trial.

On Thursday, he sat at the front of the courtroom in a suit, not saying anything but looking around at each of the 14 members of the jury as they reacted to Lopez’s harrowing account and photos that prosecutors showed of the injuries both he and his son had from the attack. One was Luis lying unconscious in a hospital bed. Another showed his glasses broken on the ground. A few pictured the massive bruise on Lopez’s back.

“This case is about a man who was looking to harm, even kill, members of a particular class,” Yeates said in his opening statement. “The defendant targeted the Lopez family because they were Mexican. And he brutally beat them with that pole based on their country of origin.”

Yeates also noted that Covington had gone to a nearby mechanic shop two days prior — Tito’s Auto Sales — with the same intent of “killing a Mexican.” The owner, there, was able to convince the man to leave, though, after saying he was from Venezuela.

Lopez, who has owned the tire business for four years, immigrated to Utah from Mexico and said he didn’t know how Covington knew where he is from.

Emily Stirba, a public defender representing Covington, argued, in fact, that her client didn’t know. Instead, she said, he was suffering from delusions and was after the Mexican mafia — not Mexicans — who he believed had killed his daughter. That’s what he was yelling, she added, when he came into the shop that day and it was nonsense. (They also questioned how Lopez understood the slurs if he doesn’t speak English.)

“Mr. Covington doesn’t have a problem with Mexicans,” she said. “He was after the cartel. And no one likes the Mexican cartel. The United States doesn’t like the Mexican cartel.”

Stirba argued that Lopez also didn’t commit a hate crime and that he only swung his metal pole when he was off the property and being followed by the Lopezes. Covington felt threatened, too, because Luis had the handle from the car jack that was much bigger and heavier than his own weapon.

The prosecution showed fuzzy surveillance footage captured by a nearby bank showing the fight. And a shop owner next door, Kurosh Darbish of Best Deals Auto, testified that it took place on the driveway of his property. He was the one who called 911.

“[Covington] didn’t hit them because they were Mexican,” Stirba said. “He hit them because an armed group of men surrounded him on the street and he felt threatened.”

Her co-counsel, Spencer Rice, also noted that Lopez — who is in the United States illegally — filed for a U visa after the attack. That status is granted to immigrants who are victims of crimes. Lopez was reprimanded once at the U.S.-Mexico border for entering illegally. He returned years later, though, and currently does not have documents.

Lopez said he put in the application on the recommendation of the Mexican consulate in Salt Lake City, which consulted with him after the assault. “Es correcto,” he responded to the questioning.

“I don’t want papers or money or anything like that. The accident wasn’t about papers,” Lopez testified. “I just wish none of this ever happened.”

He spent days watching over his son in the hospital after the attack. He was scared to leave him and scared to go back to work. He knew the banners outside of his business were written in English and Spanish and wondered if that made him an easy target.

But as hard as it was for him to return to the tire shop, he said, Luis has quit working there at all.