Utah man found guilty of hate crimes in beating of Latino father and son

(The Salt Lake County Sheriff's office via AP) This 2018 booking photo provided by The Salt Lake County Sheriff's office shows Alan Dale Covington.

A federal jury has found a Utah man guilty of three hate crimes for brutally beating a Latino father and his son outside their family tire shop while screaming that he was there to “kill Mexicans.”

The verdict to convict Alan Dale Covington came after five hours of deliberation and five days of emotional testimony in the case that drew national attention when it first happened in November 2018. When the decision was read Wednesday, Jose Lopez, the owner of the tire shop, and his son, Luis, hugged for minutes, both sobbing in the middle rows of the courtroom.

“It’s been like hell,” Luis Lopez said, choking back tears. “What he did to me, I don’t know that I can heal from.”

With these convictions, Covington could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Over the course of the trial, 13 witnesses — including Jose Lopez and Luis Lopez — have recounted the beating in detail, saying Covington hit them with a metal pole because of their skin color. Prosecutors argued that it was 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 had countered that Covington was suffering from delusions and is not prejudiced. He was after the Mexican mafia — not Mexicans — they said, which he believed had killed his daughter. They also maintained that he only struck the man and his son when surrounded outside the shop.

Covington’s team is expected to appeal the jury’s decision.

As the guilty counts were read out, he sat with his public defenders, shaking his head. There was one charge for each individual he attacked: Jose Lopez, Luis Lopez and Angel Lopez — the uncle who was also threatened at the shop that day. For a moment, Covington covered his face with his hands and ducked down in his chair.

The trial marked the first time any of the Lopezes have talked about the assault since shortly after it happened. Family members have sat in the courtroom each day, wiping away tears as the father and son testified.

“This has destroyed my life,” Jose Lopez, the father, said in court earlier in the trial through a Spanish translator. “Mi vida,” he repeated.

(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.’

On the day of the beating, Jose Lopez and Luis Lopez heard yelling outside of their office and Luis Lopez went to check it out. There was a man in the courtyard, screaming slurs. “Are you f---ing Mexican? Because I’m going to kill a Mexican.”

Covington was there gripping a metal bar with both hands, they said. It looked like it had come from a stop sign.

Jose Lopez and Luis Lopez asked him to leave. Angel Lopez, Jose’s brother, heard the commotion and joined them. The three of them tried to escort Covington off the property, but he became more aggravated.

“Go ahead and call the police, but I’m going to kill you guys,” Covington shouted, according to the dad’s emotional testimony. “You’re part of the Mexican mafia. You killed my daughter.”

Luis Lopez ran to the shop to find something to defend his family — “just in case,” he said to the court. The teen grabbed the handle of a car jack.

Jose Lopez hoped that if he got Covington to the sidewalk, someone driving by might see them and call 911. He tried to steer Covington that way while Luis Lopez rejoined them. When they got a few feet to the north of his shop on the sidewalk, Covington swung the bar.

The first time, Luis Lopez was able to duck. The second time, it struck his face. Jose said he jumped in to try to shield the teen. Covington then hit Luis Lopez in the back until Angel Lopez eventually scared him away. Police arrived shortly after.

All along, the prosecution said it was a targeted event.

“This defendant attacked this family because of who they are,” argued Rose Gibson, representing the federal government in this case. “He came armed.”

They presented evidence that showed Covington had gone to another auto shop two days earlier and approached the Latino business owner there, too, screaming about killing Mexicans. He only left after the man said he was from Venezuela.

When he got to Lopez Tires on Nov. 27, Covington found what he was looking for: Jose Lopez and Angel Lopez were born in Mexico. Luis Lopez claims that heritage and is a U.S. citizen.

“I’m not ever going to forgive,” Luis Lopez said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Luis Gustavo Lopez testified against Alan D. Covington on Feb. 18, 2020 in the U. S. District Court in Salt Lake City.

The young man, now 20, has since had a titanium plate put in his face and has suffered memory issues. He dropped out of school and, because of anxiety, hasn’t been able to return to the tire shop. The father had eight stitches in his arm.

Jose Lopez left without comment after the verdict Wednesday. His daughter said he had a car still in his shop waiting to be serviced.

Covington was originally 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 dismissed last week, though, in favor of the federal prosecution.

Since the beginning, the case has been controversial because Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill couldn’t charge Covington locally with a hate crime — saying the state 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 carried on in its stead.

The defense had hoped to draw the distinction that Covington didn’t attack the family until they were on the sidewalk — and, at that point, he only struck because he felt outnumbered and threatened with Luis Lopez having a weapon. It wasn’t a hate crime, public defender Spencer Rice said. And most of what Covington had said about Mexicans was nonsense.

Even if it wasn’t, he said Covington was after the Mexican mafia — not Mexicans.

“If you say you want to kill white supremacist gang members, you’re not saying you want to kill all white people,” he argued. Rice left the trial Wednesday, denying to comment on the decision.

The Lopez family has said they were deeply frustrated by the defense’s portrayal. And Luis Lopez said he’s “relieved” at the jury’s verdict.

The Mexican consulate in Salt Lake City also weighed in Wednesday with a statement: “With this verdict, justice is obtained for the Mexican family and a clear message is sent that any crime against victims identified by their gender, race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, identity and sexual orientation will be prosecuted to the last consequences.”