Since he was 12 years old, Luis Lopez hung around his dad’s car repair shop, watching him work and slowly picking up some tools himself.
He loved watching rims spin and tires inflate and began marking his best days by how thick the grease got on his hands. As a teen, he spent every day there after school. And at 18, Lopez enrolled in Salt Lake Community College so he could study auto mechanics.
He hoped to run the family store one day.
Now, he’s not so sure. Ever since a man beat him and his dad in front of their business — yelling “I’m here to kill a Mexican” — Lopez hasn’t been able to walk into the shop or even touch a car without having a panic attack.
“I kept saying, ‘You’re not going to kill us. You can’t kill us,’” he recounted in court Tuesday. “Then he swung at me. That’s the last thing I remember.”
The young man’s testimony came on the fourth day of the federal hate crimes trial against Alan Dale Covington, the man who allegedly attacked him. Prosecutors have argued that this is a clear case of a man who sought out and harmed members of a particular ethnicity — a near perfect match for the definition of a hate crime. But the defense has countered that Covington was suffering from delusions at the time and is not prejudiced. He was after the Mexican mafia — not Mexicans — they said, which he believed had killed his daughter.
A jury is expected to decide whether to convict or acquit Covington on the charges Wednesday.
On the witness stand, Lopez sat facing the man, who he hasn’t seen since the assault and whom he blames for ending his dreams. It was also the first time he has talked about it publicly since the case drew national attention in November 2018.
Lopez, now 20, said while his physical injuries have largely healed, he has deep psychological scars from that day. He rarely leaves his house. He’s tried to work but can’t return to the shop where it happened. When he’s gotten jobs elsewhere, including a nearby grocery store, he’s so feared someone else coming in and attacking him because of his skin color that he’s had mental breakdowns.
He dropped out of school, too, about halfway toward finishing his degree because every time he walked into the auto shop at SLCC, his anxiety would escalate. It’s been paralyzing, he said.
“I’m not doing anything right now,” he added, nervously twirling between his fingers a gold chain he had around his neck. The charm on the end was of the Virgin Mary, who is supposed to bring comfort to Catholics. Lopez has worn the necklace almost every day since he was attacked.
His family filled the benches of the courtroom for support, wiping away tears as the young man recalled what has led him to this point and how he doesn’t believe he will ever be the same.
The day, he said, started like most — he drove into his family’s store, Lopez Tires, to help open up around 8:30 a.m. His uncle, Angel, was already there. And his dad, Jose, came in shortly after, bringing with him some chicken soup for them to warm up for breakfast.
As they sat around the office microwave, Luis Lopez was looking out into the yard and watching for customers. One came early, about 9 a.m. The teen walked out to greet him.
“What can I help you with?” he asked.
That’s when the yelling started, Lopez testified. The man was screaming slurs, “Are you f---ing Mexican? Because I’m going to kill a Mexican.” He asked, too, if the teen had killed his daughter.
“I didn’t respond and just looked at him for a minute,” Lopez said. “He just started to repeat the same thing.”
The man was gripping a metal bar with both hands and had it slung over his right shoulder. It looked like it had been plied off of a stop sign. The teen decided then that he needed to try to calm the man down.
“No, no, no,” Lopez recalled saying. “That’s not me.”
When they heard the argument from inside, Lopez’s dad and uncle came out and told Covington to leave. They also tried to escort him off the property. The man became aggravated, though, and started pointing the pole at the family. “Go ahead and call the police, but I’m going to kill you guys,” Covington shouted, according to the dad’s emotional testimony from last week. “You’re part of the Mexican mafia.”
When they got to the driveway of the shop, Lopez said he turned back inside.
“Hold on. I’m going to get something,” he said that he shouted at his dad in Spanish. “Espere. Voy a conseguir algo.”
He ran back to the shop to find something to defend his family — “just in case,” he said to the court. Lopez went to three different car jacks, trying to loosen a handle until one broke free.
After that, he said, his memory gets fuzzy. He walked to the sidewalk. His hands grazed the concrete. A thick swipe of gray clouded his vision. Then a loud crack. A scream. Blackness.
Lopez woke up in the hospital.
His dad has said that the man beat Lopez’s face with the metal bar and that he threw his body over his son to protect him. Then Covington started hitting the dad in the back. The uncle eventually scared him away as police arrived.
“I was surrounded by doctors and nurses when I came to,” Lopez recounted. “They told me my face was broken.”
Lopez grazed his hand over the right side of his head. Now, there’s little more than a light pink scar shaped like a puzzle piece below his eye. But prosecutors showed photos of the injuries to the court from directly after Covington had smashed the pole into his face. In one, the teen was lying unconscious in a hospital bed with blood around his right eye and a tube down his throat. A picture of the CT scan showed his shattered cheek bone.
While they flashed on the screen, Lopez’s dad put his head down and closed his eyes so he wouldn’t see them.
Lopez had to have a titanium plate put in his face. It looked bad. And it felt much worse, the young man said.
Jade Nunez, the doctor who oversaw Lopez’s emergency care, testified Tuesday that the teen couldn’t speak and couldn’t open his eyes when he was brought to the hospital.
“He was basically concussed so badly,” Nunez said. “He was gurgling, too. That’s a concerning sign.”
It’s lucky there was no brain damage, the doctor added. But the young man said he’s continued to suffer. Even as most of the physical injuries have healed — with the scars hidden under the frames of his glasses now — Lopez said he’s still struggling to recover mentally and emotionally.
Since the attack, Covington has been 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 earlier this month, 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: Lopez, his dad and his uncle. If found guilty at the trial, he could spend life in prison.
On Tuesday, he sat at the front of the courtroom in a gray striped suit, looking around at each of the 14 members of the jury as they reacted to Lopez’s harrowing account of the assault. He spoke only once to confirm to the judge that he would not be testifying in the case in support of himself.
“Yes, that’s correct, your honor,” Covington said.
Spencer Rice, a public defender representing Covington, argued that the man was not in a healthy mental state when he attacked — but that he has no prejudice against Mexicans and that was not the “primary motivating factor” in the assault. Instead, Rice said, he was searching only for places he believed the Mexican mafia or its associates could be. It was mostly nonsense. It was not a hate crime.
“There has been no proof of motive or any past history of racial bias,” Rice added, noting that the FBI talked to friends and family of Covington who confirmed that.
In fact, the defense called one of Covington’s ex-wives to testify as much. Mary Orozco, who identifies as Hispanic, said she was married to Covington for four years beginning in 1999. The two did not have children together, but she had four children from previous relationships and their fathers were from Mexico. She said Covington doted on them and her.
“During that time, did he say or do anything to make you think he was prejudiced against Mexicans?” Rice asked her.
“No,” she said.
During cross-examination, though, Orozco acknowledged that she hasn’t talked to Covington for at least three years.
“So at the time of the attack, then, you hadn’t seen him either for a year and a half?” countered Rose Gibson, representing the federal government in this case, which has brought the hate crime charges against Covington.
“That’s right,” Orozco said.
The prosecution also noted that the FBI investigation into Covington’s past never looked at his internet history, journals or text messages. So it’s unclear whether any of those would have presented a different perspective on the man’s potential biases.
But even still, Gibson argued, Covington went to Lopez Tires and confronted people he believed were from Mexico. And he found them. Jose Lopez, the father, and Angel Lopez, the uncle, were born there. (Luis Lopez, the son, is a United States citizen.)
“This defendant targeted this family and injured them because of their national origin,” Gibson said.
Luis Lopez testified that he fears that happening again based on the color of his skin. And he continues to have flashbacks from the assault.
He spent nearly a week in the hospital and more than two months recovering at home. He worked at his dad’s tire shop for six years before that and had hoped to have a job there for life. But one day, he said, changed everything.
And he doesn’t ever want to go back there again.