ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Law enforcement officials on Wednesday disputed a Southern Poverty Law Center report asserting that a gunman in a deadly New Mexico school shooting had been influenced by white supremacist views.
The Alabama-based organization known for tracking hate crimes included William Atchison, of Aztec, on a list of 13 assailants that the nonprofit says had been influenced by the alt-right, a fringe movement that’s a mix of white nationalist, white supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-immigration beliefs.
Atchison, 21, killed two high school students — Francisco I. Fernandez and Casey J. Marquez — at small-town Aztec High School in December before firing randomly in a hallway and a computer lab, where a substitute teacher and students hid in an office and storage area, according to authorities. He then killed himself.
Authorities said at the time that the two victims were not specific targets.
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In the report Monday, the Southern Poverty Law Center based its findings on a story in The Daily Beast that detailed online postings that the news site attributed to Atchison.
“He was an active creator of memes and racist messaging,” said Ryan Lenz, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “How that ties into the ultimate violence is unfortunately a question that will never be answered.”
Bryce Current — the internal affairs captain for the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, the agency overseeing the investigation — criticized the report as an attempt to politicize the shooting. Jayme Harcrow, a spokeswoman for the department, said local authorities had not obtained information linking a motive in the case to white supremacist movements.
“I don’t think this has anything to do with a political agenda,” Current said.
FBI spokesman Frank Fisher would not say whether an investigation into Atchison’s online history had yielded information supporting the center’s assertions.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of perpetrators includes males accused of carrying out attacks since 2014. Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist convicted in the killings of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, is among those on the list.
According to authorities, Atchison had been a former student at the high school in Aztec, a small town in the Four Corners area of northwest New Mexico.
The high school’s student body in 2013 was 26 percent Hispanic and nearly 20 percent Native American, according to the most recently available data from the U.S. Department of Education.
Shortly after school started on the morning of Dec. 7, Atchison killed Fernandez in a bathroom and Casey J. Marquez in the hallway, authorities said.
Both victims were described by family and classmates as having bright futures.
Marquez was a cheerleader and was planning to perform in the Orange Bowl, according to her grandparents. Fernandez was known for his interest in computers and his speed on the keyboard.
The day after the shooting, San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen said a message Atchison left on a thumb drive he was carrying showed he had been “determined to create as much carnage as he possibly could.”
The gunman had caught the attention of FBI investigators in March 2016 when federal authorities say he posted a generic message on an online gaming forum talking about what weapons might be used in a mass shooting. The posting prompted investigators to visit Atchison at his parents’ home in Aztec, which led them to determine he had no plans for an attack and just liked to troll sites online.