Highland Park victims' families stunned when suspect rejects plea deal: 'Today you saw absolute, unadulterated evil’ (2024)

His hands and legs shackled, Robert Crimo III sat in a wheelchair that sheriff’s police said he had requested because he was nervous and worried he would be unable to walk in the crowded Lake County courtroom.

When Judge Victoria Rossetti asked Crimo Wednesday if he accepted a deal to plead guilty and spend the rest of his life in prison, Crimo paused. He looked over his left shoulder at a courtroom packed with those affected by one of the worst mass shootings in Illinois history.

It’s unclear who he was looking at, his family or the victims and their relatives in the gallery behind him, but a lawyer who represents several victims in an ongoing civil case is convinced Crimo was looking at the survivors to taunt them.

“He wasn’t looking at his family,” said lawyer Antonio Romanucci. “He was looking to see who was there to observe, so he knew that he had an audience.”

After a brief recess, Rossetti asked Crimo again if he wanted to continue with the plea deal.

“No,” Crimo replied.

The abrupt reversal — the latest in a string of false starts by the 23-year-old suspect — came as a bitter blow to many of the victims and their relatives, but it was no surprise to Romanucci.

“Today you saw absolute, unadulterated evil,” the lawyer said. “This was a calculated effort on his part to continue the suffering of our clients.”

But Crimo’s mother called the hearing “a win.”

“I’m the proud mother of a faithful God-loving son, Robert Crimo III, also known as Bobby Crimo, who is innocent, and I have evidence that he is innocent,” Denise Pesina said without elaborating.

Activist Ashbey Beasley, who attended the Highland Park Fourth of July parade in 2022 with her son, said she could feel the disappointment in the courtroom when Crimo decided not to change his plea to guilty.

“It’s heartbreaking, and it shouldn’t be happening,” Beasley told reporters outside the Waukegan courthouse. “It should have never happened in the first place, but to continually traumatize survivors and victims’ families again and again is unspeakable.”

Highland Park victims' families stunned when suspect rejects plea deal: 'Today you saw absolute, unadulterated evil’ (1)

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

“It doesn’t feel real, it feels like a game,” Beasley said.

‘We will be ready for trial’

Prosecutors said Crimo had agreed to plead guilty to seven counts of first-degree murder in connection with the mass shooting at the parade nearly two years ago in the North Shore suburb.

In all, he was expected to plead guilty to a total of 55 counts and immediately be sentenced to natural life without the possibility of parole for the murder charges, followed by a 30-year sentence for charges of aggravated battery.

Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart gave a short statement after the hearing, saying his office already spoke to the victims and their families to answer their questions.

Highland Park victims' families stunned when suspect rejects plea deal: 'Today you saw absolute, unadulterated evil’ (2)

Nam Y. Huh/AP Photos

“We met with them as long as they needed to. We are available for them, not only throughout the rest of the day but until this goes to trial. We will continue to support them. We will be ready for trial,” Rinehart told reporters.

Hours later, Rinehart’s office sent an email to victims and other people affected by the massacre that explained the failed plea deal in more detail, including that Crimo’s lawyers told the state’s attorney’s office on June 17 that Crimo wanted to change his original plea of not guilty. Rinehart explained in the email, obtained by the Sun-Times, that the plea deal would not be final until the judge questioned the defendant in open court.

Rinehart’s office has said Crimo planned the attack for weeks before he opened fire from a rooftop overlooking the Highland Park Fourth of July Parade in 2022. He allegedly disguised himself when he fired more than 70 rounds from an assault rifle at Central Avenue and Second Street.

Crimo’s assistant public defender, Gregory Ticsay, declined to comment.

‘Blatant disregard for humans or anyone’

Some of the victims and their families came to court Wednesday seeking closure for the massacre, which is approaching its two-year anniversary.

Leah Sundheim, whose mother, Jacquelyn Sundheim, died in the shooting, said she and others wanted to “put it out of our minds.”

Highland Park victims' families stunned when suspect rejects plea deal: 'Today you saw absolute, unadulterated evil’ (3)

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

“For two years, all I wanted was to be able to fully grieve my mom ... knowing he would spend the rest of his life in jail,” Sundheim said. “Instead, we were yet again shown his complete and blatant disregard for humans or anyone.”

Karina Mendez, whose father, Eduardo Uvaldo, was killed in the attack, said she was emotional while preparing for the hearing. She was hopeful but knew it was possible Crimo could reverse course.

“My dad was somebody who always said that if we did something we should say we did it and be accountable for what we do,” Mendez told reporters outside the courthouse.

Highland Park victims' families stunned when suspect rejects plea deal: 'Today you saw absolute, unadulterated evil’ (4)

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

“I know he’s up there looking at us, telling us right now just to be patient and to let the court system do what they have to do. My dad was somebody who loved his family, and we’ve stuck together through all this, and we’re gonna keep sticking together and being there for each other through this whole trial.”

The court hearing was highly anticipated, with victims and their families filling a section of the gallery that held about 70 people. Some came prepared to read statements in court on how the massacre affected their lives.

The court clerk’s office expected the hearing to last most of the day and had scheduled the hearing in a larger courtroom to accommodate victims and their families.

Crimo has been held at Lake County Jail since he was indicted on 117 felony counts in August 2022. He pleaded not guilty at his arraignment that month.

The next hearing in the case is Aug. 28. Crimo’s trial is scheduled for February 2025.

Highland Park victims' families stunned when suspect rejects plea deal: 'Today you saw absolute, unadulterated evil’ (5)

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Highland Park victims' families stunned when suspect rejects plea deal: 'Today you saw absolute, unadulterated evil’ (2024)
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