By Ed Lavandera, Ashley Killough, Rosa Flores and Alaa Elassar, CNN
A man accused of harassing migrants while brandishing a gun on New Year’s Eve has been arrested and charged with felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, El Paso, Texas, police said.
Charges against Steven Mathew Driscoll, 27, were upgraded to include a federal charge for “felon in possession of a firearm,” FBI El Paso field office spokesperson Jeanette Harper said in a statement Friday. Driscoll also faces evading arrest and disorderly conduct charges, police said.
Witnesses in El Paso told CNN they saw the armed man at two locations where migrants had been gathering on the streets.
In a statement, police confirmed they conducted a traffic stop in the early hours of January 1 and asked the suspect to exit his truck. The suspect jumped back into the vehicle and fled, police said.
“Because of a mechanical issue, the police unit became disabled and lost sight of the suspect,” police said in the statement, adding they located the vehicle and identified the driver the following day.
Driscoll was booked in the El Paso County Jail on Wednesday night, and the investigation is still ongoing. Case records show he has a bond hearing set for Friday. CNN has reached out to Driscoll’s attorney of record and has not heard back.
“If information comes to light of potential federal civil rights violations, the FBI is prepared to investigate,” Harper said in the FBI statement.
For weeks now, city officials have expressed concerns about the safety and security of vulnerable migrants who have been living on the streets of El Paso, especially those living outside Sacred Heart Church — a popular shelter and gathering spot for migrants.
Mario D’Agostino, El Paso’s deputy city manager, would not confirm the alleged incident earlier Wednesday but said these are the types of incidents he’s been concerned about.
“It is exactly the reason why we asked for state resources in the form of (Texas Department of Public Safety) assisting with patrols,” D’Agostino said. “As we have said from the onset it’s about the health and safety of the migrants and the community.”
‘I was traumatized’
Brayan, a 19-year-old migrant from Venezuela, was outside Sacred Heart on the night of December 31 when a pickup truck pulled up. Brayan said he thought it was another vehicle dropping off clothing, food, and other supplies, like so many other vehicles that stop at this location.
Brayan asked CNN not to use his last name for safety reasons. He crossed into the US illegally on December 28 and did not turn himself in to US Border Patrol as an asylum seeker, he said.
As soon as he approached the truck, Brayan said, the man started yelling at him aggressively. Brayan said he didn’t understand anything the man said in English and only picked up the word “f*cking.”
“He called over to me, and I thought he was going to help us. When I got closer, he put a gun in my face,” he told CNN in a phone interview. “I kept telling him I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
That’s when Sandragrace Martinez, a mental health clinician and activist who volunteers distributing donations to migrants, stepped in to intervene, she told CNN.
In a phone interview, Martinez said she moved Brayan out of the way and asked the man in the truck if he was OK. She said the situation de-escalated, and the man — whom she described as Caucasian — put his gun on the passenger seat.
“He looked at my crucifix, and he looked at me and he said, ‘I don’t have a problem with you.’ He said, ‘I’m eyes for America, and I’m here to see,'” Martinez said, recalling her interaction with the man.
She urged him to leave and started taking video of the man’s license plate before he drove away, she said. The plates were from New Mexico, she said, adding she called 911 twice during the incident. Police have not confirmed the description of the vehicle while they are still interviewing witnesses.
The interaction with the man in the truck lasted about 30 to 40 seconds, Brayan said.
“I was scared because I was surprised. The rest of the night I couldn’t sleep because I was so nervous that he was going to come back and shoot me,” he said. “I was traumatized.”
A second encounter
A couple hours later, shortly after midnight on New Year’s Day, Martinez said she was at the Greyhound bus station — another popular gathering spot for migrants — to warn them about the man in the truck, when she saw the truck pull up again.
She said the man got out of his vehicle this time, walked toward migrants near a warming station, and pointed his gun and yelled at them.
Martinez said she started to honk her horn repeatedly to scare him off, and another city employee shined their vehicle lights in the man’s direction. She could not hear everything the man shouted because of her horn, she said, but she heard him say, “This is my country.” Martinez said she called 911 again.
The man soon returned to his truck, she said, and he started to drive away.
Martinez said she saw an El Paso police car sitting near the bus station — out of sight of the incident — and alerted them to the situation and pointed out the vehicle, which is when the police pursuit began.
CNN has requested from authorities the police report, dash cam footage and the 911 calls. CNN has also reached out to the FBI and the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The priest at Sacred Heart Church said he has not heard anything about the alleged incident outside his church, nor have police asked him about the incident. About 300 to 400 migrants were sleeping outside his church Wednesday night, he said.
Last week, CNN teams on the ground in El Paso started seeing Texas DPS officers patrolling the area around Sacred Heart, alongside El Paso police officers.
The Anti-Defamation League and the ACLU of Texas do not have statistics readily available on incidents of anti-immigrant hate, but in a 2022 complaint filed by the ACLU with the US Department of Justice, the ACLU expressed concerns about the rise in anti-immigrant hate in Texas.
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