Takeaways from inside the courtroom as accused Highland Park July 4 massacre gunman pleads not guilty

The hearing lasted some eight minutes, about seven minutes longer than it took a gunman to kill seven people and wound 48 others at the July 4 Highland Park parade.

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Accused Highland Park massacre gunman Robert E. Crimo III looks at Judge Victoria Rossetti during a hearing at the Lake County Courthouse in Waukegan on Wednesday.

AP

At 10:59 a.m. Wednesday, accused Highland Park July 4 parade mass shooter Robert E. Crimo III slipped into a windowless courtroom in the Lake County Courthouse in Waukegan from a side door, dwarfed by two linebacker-size correctional officers in olive drab green uniforms, part of the Lake County Sheriff’s “Corrections Response Team.”

A leather belt cinched around Crimo’s waist holds a ring where his handcuffs are attached. He is wearing a Lake County Jail blue jumpsuit with a brown T-shirt underneath.

I’m in the jury box, with other reporters. What I notice right away is the tattoo above Crimo’s left eyebrow, by the part of his long pageboy hairdo. It says, “Awake.”

The hearing lasted some eight minutes, about seven minutes longer than it took a gunman wielding a Smith & Wesson M&P15 to kill seven people and wound 48 others on the Central Avenue parade route. One of his public defenders entered his plea: not guilty.

Takeaways:

  1. I look at Crimo to see his reactions. He’s wearing a blue COVID mask, blocking most of his face. What I do see is a young man who showed no emotion one way or the other. The most he says at any one point is this: Judge Victoria Rossetti, the presiding judge of the Criminal Division of this Lake County court, asks him his birthday. He replies Sept. 20, 2000. That means Crimo will be 22 when next in court for a Nov. 1 status hearing.

Rossetti goes through the various sentences he could serve, if convicted, of the 117 counts in his indictment for murder, attempted murder and aggravated battery. No matter how it’s calculated, it’s life in prison — no possibility of parole. He looks down when Rossetti stresses he could face a sentence of “natural life” in prison.

2. Sitting in the first row behind Crimo are his parents, Robert Crimo Jr., who lives in Highwood, and Denise Pesina of Highland Park. They were somber and showed no expression. Seated with them is the private lawyer they hired, George Gomez, a criminal attorney in Libertyville. Unless I missed it, I did not see Crimo turn around to look at his mother and father.

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Denise Pesina (center) and Robert Crimo Jr., the parents of Robert Crimo III, and attorney George Gomez (right) are escorted as they walk outside the Lake County Courthouse in Waukegan on Wednesday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

3. Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart tells the judge about the extensive “discovery” — that is, evidence — that will be needed in this case. Rinehart has to prove the attempted murder and aggravated battery charge for each of the 48 victims — 40 adults and eight children. That means compiling medical records, documenting wounds with photographs, doing detailed interviews and, at least in some cases, taking into evidence the clothes people wore when they were hurt. The 48 were wounded, in general, either from a direct hit from a bullet or shrapnel from shattered glass or fragments of bullets ricocheting off the sidewalk or some other surface.

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Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart speaks after Robert Crimo III’s arraignment on Wednesday, in which the accused Highland Park mass shooter pleaded not guilty to 117 criminal charges.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

4. There were about 17 people in the courtroom whom I took to be a mix of survivors, witnesses or family members. Most of them appeared to be Hispanic. The Highland Park parade taps into a diverse community, which includes Highwood and the folks living in military housing on part of the old Fort Sheridan site. The observers were warned by the sheriff to “keep your emotions in hand, please.” And they did.

There were also several hundred people watching via Zoom. In the Highland Park City Hall, a group gathered to watch the hearing on a big screen: city staffers, some members of the police department and a victim.

5. More on the parents: After the hearing, across the street from the courthouse, Gomez told me Crimo’s parents are in “shock” and came to court to show support for their son. Gomez said the parents have not met with Crimo in person since he was captured several hours after the massacre on July 4; they talked to him on the phone on Tuesday.

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Attorney George Gomez, who represents Robert Crimo Jr. and Denise Pesina, the parents of Robert Crimo III, speaks outside the Lake County Courthouse in Waukegan after Wednesday’s hearing.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Gomez said there is no legal action pending against either parent, and he has been retained “to guide them throughout the legal process.” The parents have been cooperating, he said, with the FBI, the Lake County state’s attorney’s office, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Highland Park police still investigating the case.

Gomez told reporters afterward, “The family, at the end of the day, wants to help the community heal.”

I’ve been covering this story and its impact on Highland Park and Highwood since last month’s massacre. There is an enormous amount of anger toward Crimo’s parents — especially his father, who signed the paperwork needed to make it possible for his son to legally buy a weapon at the age of 19 even though police had been called about him being suicidal and threatening his family.

And then this on Wednesday: The parents hired a private attorney for themselves, while their son is represented by a taxpayer-paid team of public defenders.

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