PHOENIX (AP) — A Mexican immigrant has been sentenced to 38 years in prison for killing an Arizona convenience store clerk during a 2015 robbery that was cited by former President Donald Trump and other Republicans in allegations about immigrants committing crimes while in the United States without authorization.
Prosecutors had initially sought the death penalty against Apolinar Altamirano in the attack on Grant Ronnebeck, the 21-year-old employee who was fatally shot over a pack of cigarettes at the Mesa store. But a court later ruled that prosecutors could not proceed with his execution because Altamirano has an intellectual disability.
At Friday’s sentencing, Superior Court Judge Justin Beresky described the murder as cold-blooded.
“Frankly, I think I should probably never get out of prison, but I will follow the plea negotiated between the state and the defense,” the judge said, referring to Altamirano’s previous guilty pleas to murder, robbery and other charges.
Authorities said Altamirano killed Ronneback after the store clerk insisted Altamirano pay for a pack of cigarettes before he could have them. They also said Altamirano then walked over Ronnebeck to get several packs of cigarettes before leaving the store.
After killing Ronneback, police say Altamirano led officers on a high-speed chase before his arrest, and a gun and an unopened pack of cigarettes were later found in his vehicle.
Ronnebeck’s relatives expressed their grief at his death, describing him as a big-hearted person who had his life unjustly taken.
“There’s no reason for what he did,” Steve Ronnebeck, Grant’s father, said of Altamirano. “There is no justification for what he did.”
The murder was cited by Trump at a rally during his 2016 campaign. In his first week as president, Trump created an office to care for immigrant crime victims and their family members.
While studies suggest that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the US, Trump tirelessly sought to make the link and portrayed Mexicans in the country illegally as violent criminals. The Biden administration closed the Trump-era office in 2021, replacing it with what he said was a more comprehensive and inclusive victim support system.
Altamirano, a citizen of Mexico who has lived in the US without authorization for about 20 years, had been deported and returned to the US in the past.
Federal immigration officials had said Altamirano, who was sentenced to probation in 2013 after pleading guilty to one count of facilitation to commit robbery, was awaiting deportation hearings at the time of Ronnebeck’s shooting death.
Emily Wolkowicz, one of Altamirano’s attorneys, said her client suffered neglect and abuse as a child, which affected his cognitive reasoning skills and he was unable to function on his own as an adult without the help of his wife. When his wife died, he fell into a depression and made bad decisions.
In a letter read aloud in court, Altamirano said he regretted ruining the lives of Ronnebeck’s family and Altamirano’s own children. Altamirano said he wished he had been stronger after the death of his wife, on whom he had depended since he was 15 years old.
“It was not my intention to kill. I was going through a lot. I’m not that type of person,” Altamirano said. “This is from my heart. I care about people.”
He was given credit for the seven and a half years he spent in jail awaiting trial for the Ronnebeck murder.
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