Utah man accused of beating a Latino father and son had gone to another mechanic shop two days earlier with a shovel

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Latino shop owner Jose Lopez, who was attacked at his Utah tire store, sits outside the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, where he has testified against the man who yelled, ‘I’m here to kill a Mexican.’

The car dealer said he heard the man before he saw him.

Jorge Crespo had been sitting in his office on a November morning when someone started shouting in the lobby of his business, Tito’s Auto Sales. He remembers a deep voice repeating: “I’m going to kill them. I’m going to kill all the Mexicans.”

Crespo thought it might be a joke or at least a misunderstanding. But when he walked out to see what was going on, he found a man screaming slurs at the cash register with a shovel propped against his shoulder.

“I didn’t know if he would do something to my workers or even to me,” Crespo recalled in court Thursday. “I was scared.”

The store owner’s testimony came in the middle of the federal hate crimes trial against Alan Dale Covington. Prosecutors said that two days after Covington had gone to Crespo’s dealership in Salt Lake City and left quietly, he went to another auto shop not too far away. This time, though, he used a metal pipe to beat a Latino father and son.

Crespo’s experience, prosecutors suggested, is evidence that Covington was specifically looking to hurt members of a particular ethnicity and sought out targets based on their skin color. But the defense argued that Covington was suffering from delusions. He was after the Mexican mafia — not Mexicans — they said, which he believed had killed his daughter.

The trial started Wednesday, and more people, including Luis Lopez, the son who was assaulted at the second auto shop, are expected to testify as it continues next week.

Covington faces three counts for committing a hate crime and, if convicted, could spend life in prison for the later November 2018 attack that drew national attention.

Two days after he stormed into Crespo’s store on Nov. 25, Covington went to Lopez Tires. Jose Lopez, the owner, was working there with his son, Luis. Around 9 a.m., Covington came into the courtyard yelling similar slurs.

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 at Luis and threatening him.

“The man told me he was going to kill Mexicans,” Lopez said through a Spanish translator Thursday during his emotional testimony. “And he was looking at me and my son.”

Lopez’s brother, Angel, joined them, and the family tried to escort Covington off the property. The man became aggravated, though, and started swiping with the pole. “Go ahead and call the police, but I’m going to kill you guys,” the father remembered Covington shouting. “You’re part of the Mexican mafia.”

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. But Covington knocked him down and hit him repeatedly in the face. The boy, then 18 years old, was unconscious and bleeding as his father threw his body over him as a shield. Covington hit Lopez in the back. Angel eventually scared him away as police arrived.

Two officers who responded testified Friday about how bad Luis’ injuries were, that he was gurgling blood from his mouth and gasping for air. They chased Covington down, too, and found he was also carrying a hatchet.

Crespo said Friday he feared what later happened to that family could have happened to him.

“I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t know where he was coming from,” the car dealer testified about when Covington had come into his store. “He was pretty loud, screaming pretty loud.”

Crespo said the man mostly yelled about killing Mexicans, though Covington mentioned the mafia a few times and the cartel killing his daughter.

The owner tried to calm Covington down for about 30 minutes. Crespo explained to the man that he wasn’t Mexican — he was from Venezuela. And after that, Covington left.

Crespo shook a little as he sat in the witness box at the front of the courtroom recounting that day. He said even if he’s not Mexican, some of his staff are. He worried mostly for them.

“I told all of my employees not to talk to him,” he said. “I said, ‘If you see him coming back, don’t you talk to him any more.’”

Crespo, who immigrated to the United States about 27 years ago, said he’d seen Covington before through a friend of a friend and feared the man targeted his shop because a few of the signs outside of Tito’s Auto Sales are written in Spanish. It’s the same at Lopez Tires.

Defense attorney Spencer Rice, though, believes Covington was not in a healthy mental state and was searching only for places he believed the Mexican mafia or its associates could be. “His conduct was crazy, wasn’t it? It didn’t make any sense?” he asked Crespo.

“Yes,” the car dealer responded.

“He was mumbling a lot, wasn’t he?” the public defender representing Covington continued.

“He was,” Crespo confirmed.

Rice also emphasized that Covington never injured anyone at Tito’s Auto Sales.

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 at Lopez Tires and that clouded his judgment. Those counts were all quietly dismissed last week, though, in favor of the federal prosecution.

Covington has so far pleaded not guilty to the three federal charges of committing a hate crime — one for each of the individuals he threatened at the tire shop: Jose, Luis and Angel. A jury will decide whether to convict.

Later during the testimonies Friday, after Angel Lopez testified about what happened at Lopez Tires — which largely matched what Jose Lopez had recounted the day before — Rice moved for a mistrial. Angel Lopez had acknowledged on the stand that he’d had two beers hours before giving his testimony.

He arrived at court at 9 a.m. and took the stand at 11 a.m. The Spanish translator alerted the judge that he could smell alcohol on Angel Lopez’s breath. During a recess, the court administered an alcohol detecting breath test, which didn’t register that he was intoxicated.

Still, the defense said they question whether he was competent particularly after he tried to demonstrate how far his family had stood from Covington during the attack and gave three widely different measurements by raising his arms.

“He was speaking slow, responding slow,” Rice argued. “It goes to his ability to testify and his credibility on the stand.”

The judge will rule on the motion when the trial reconvenes Tuesday.