Robert Crimo Jr. highland park shooter father
Gunman's father claims no responsibility over shooting
02:40 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Almost three years before his son killed seven people and wounded dozens at a July 4th parade in Highland Park, police say Robert Crimo Jr. signed the young man’s application for an Illinois Firearm Owners Identification (FOID) card.

The elder Crimo agreed to sponsor Robert “Bobby” E. Crimo III’s gun license – required to purchase a gun in Illinois – in 2019, just months after local police received a report the son had said “he was going to kill everyone” in his family, police say. Officers had also checked on the young man earlier that year after he had “attempted to commit suicide by machete,” according to a police report. An attorney for the parents says they have disputed details of the incidents in the police reports.

Now, with Bobby Crimo facing seven counts of first-degree murder in connection with the Independence Day shooting, his father insists he has done nothing wrong and denies any responsibility for his son’s actions.

The Lake County state’s attorney has not ruled out charges against the father, saying – in response to a question about the elder Crimo’s legal responsibility – that prosecutors are still reviewing the evidence “in terms of who knew what when” in the case. The state’s attorney has not said anything to suggest the parents were aware of their son’s plans.

A visitor prays at a memorial to the seven people killed and others injured in Monday's Fourth of July mass shooting in  Highland Park, Illinois.

In the days after the 21-year-old gunman interrupted the holiday parade with a barrage from a Smith & Wesson M&P15 semi-automatic rifle, his father and mother, Denise Pesina, have hired a new lawyer as their actions before their son’s heinous attack have come under question.

But criminal charges against the father and possibly the mother in the deadly shooting committed by their son would be highly unusual and difficult for prosecutors to prove, according to legal experts. Prosecutors must convince a jury or a court the parents aided and abetted the crime and consciously disregarded a known risk of death to prove involuntary manslaughter, experts say.

“These are hard cases when it’s not the individual who actually fired the weapon, but someone else who we are expecting to have seen it coming,” said Eve Brensike Primus, a University of Michigan law professor who specializes in criminal procedure. “Those are high barriers.”

Attorney George Gomez, who represents both parents, said the family is “trying to cooperate with all local, state and federal authorities at the moment.”

Asked if he felt there was any criminal wrongdoing by his clients, particularly the father, Gomez referred to Bobby Crimo’s father: “We take the position that my client … did nothing wrong in this case.”

Gomez, when asked on Monday about the elder Crimo’s sponsorship of his son’s gun license despite the previous police visits to the home, told CNN that “in hindsight, when you look at everything, of course, the father would have never consented for his son to apply for the FOID.”

CNN’s calls to Crimo Jr. have not been returned. Pesina also did not respond to requests for comment.

Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart said there is no criminal liability for sponsoring a firearm owner’s ID but noted that prosecutors were still reviewing evidence.

“There’s different ways to look at potential criminal liability in this case,” Rinehart told CNN. “There’s not a per se violation of law if you vouch for somebody in a FOID card and they end up doing something terrible like this. But, having said that, we are continuing to investigate the case and continuing to explore all options.”

Asked about the potential criminal liability of the father, Rinehart said Monday that investigators are trying to piece together what family members and others may have known before the attack.

“We’re looking at a lot of different ways to understand what was going on in the days before the attack,” he told CNN. “What everyone’s knowledge was, not just family members but beyond. So there’s a lot of work to be done. There are lots of ways to look and think about what people knew and should have done or could have done.”

Rinehart declined to say whether anyone else could be charged.

Prosecutors would have to show parents foresaw crime

Eric A. Johnson, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, says a reckless homicide charge against the parents remains a possibility.

Johnson says reckless homicide is applicable to any act that causes a death, so long as the person was reckless in performing the act – meaning they were aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the act would cause someone’s death.

Parents of accused shooters historically haven’t been charged in mass shootings until recently. The most notable case is that of a 15-year-old accused of killing four fellow students at a Michigan high school in November, CNN legal analyst Areva Martin says.

Michigan prosecutors say the negligence of parents Jennifer and James Crumbley allowed their son, Ethan, access to the weapon used in that mass shooting. Each has pleaded not guilty to four counts of involuntary manslaughter. Their son has also pleaded not guilty, and his attorneys filed notice they plan to use an insanity defense at trial.

A major difference between the two cases is the age of the defendants. Crumbley was 15 at the time of the school shooting. Bobby Crimo is 21.

“Their responsibility for overseeing him, parenting him, is different in kind from that of the Crumbley parents, who had a minor,” Primus said of Bobby Crimo’s parents.

Illinois prosecutors would have to establish that Crimo’s parents not only had a disregard for human life but also foresaw their child committing a crime, according to legal experts.

“The question this prosecutor is going to have to ask: Was it reasonably foreseeable that someone who had made a suicide attempt and who had threatened to kill others would lead that person … to commit the crime against the paradegoers,” Martin said. “And if the answer to that question is yes … there definitely could be manslaughter charges filed against his dad, who did sign that consent form and gave consent for him to gain access to the high-powered weapon and weapons that were used.”

Gunman exhibited disturbing behavior at home

A mourner visits a memorial for the victims of a mass shooting in Highland Park.

In aftermath of the July 4th shooting, people in the Highland Park area and beyond have asked why the young man’s parents did not take his increasingly disturbing behavior in recent years more seriously.

That alone, however, does not make his parents criminally culpable for his actions.

The younger Crimo uploaded his own music videos on several major streaming outlets and on a personal website under the name “Awake the Rapper.” Some of the music featured ominous lyrics and animated scenes of gun violence.

One video, titled “Are you Awake,” showed the young man with multicolored hair and face tattoos. “I need to just do it. It is my destiny,” he declared. In the video, a stick-figure animation resembling Bobby Crimo wears tactical gear and carries out an attack with a rifle.

Another video shows a stick figure that also resembles the younger Crimo lying face down in a pool of blood. The cartoon figure is surrounded by police officers with their guns drawn. A third video features Bobby Crimo in a helmet and a tactical vest as he drops bullets onto a classroom floor.

Officers were called to the family’s home multiple times over the years after domestic disputes involving the parents and the troubling behavior of their son, police records show.

In April 2019, according to police reports, officers came to the home for a wellness check on Bobby Crimo, then 18, after a call that he had tried to take his life with a machete one week earlier. The report said mental health professionals dealt with the matter.

Months later, in September, police responded to a report that Bobby Crimo had “stated that he was going to kill everyone” in his family. The young man admitted to officers that he had been depressed and had a history of drug use, the police report says.

“The threat was directed at family inside of the home,” said Chris Covelli, spokesman for the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force.

Gomez, the attorney who represents both parents, said his clients have disputed the accuracy of both police reports. He said the parents described the September 2019 incident as a “domestic dispute” and told him Bobby Crimo did not speak of suicide or of killing anyone else.

Gomez said officers spoke to Bobby Crimo at the time and he “denied ever trying to harm somebody and trying to harm himself.”

Officers confiscated 16 knives, a dagger and a “Samurai type blade” that were in Bobby Crimo’s closet. Later that day, his father went to the police station and picked up the collection, which belonged to him, according to the police report.

Gomez said the knives were “collectibles” and not “weapons for use of any type of harm.” He added, “At the end of the day, the officers were there. They assessed the situation.”

Highland Park police submitted a “Clear and Present Danger” report about the visit to the Illinois State Police, the police report says. State police say in the report that Bobby Crimo told officers he didn’t intend on harming himself or others when police questioned him.

State Police Master Sgt. Delilah Garcia says that at the time they looked at whether Bobby Crimo had a FOID card that should have been revoked, but he did not. Three months later, the elder Crimo signed as the sponsor of his son’s gun license.

Bobby Crimo used the card sponsored by his dad to legally purchase multiple guns before he turned 21 last year, passing four background checks, according to state police. That included the semi-automatic rifle he used in the shooting.

Gomez told CNN that “the family denies that there was any issues of suicide” during the 2019 incident and stressed law enforcement found “no safety risk.”

“I believe that the parents would have done things differently if … they had known that their son would have been able to commit such atrocities and would have in hindsight been able to see and connected all the dots at the end of the day,” Gomez told CNN.

“The parents feel terrible for the actions of their son, for the loss of those who lost their lives, and for the devastation that it’s caused the community.”

Father says he thought son would take weapons to range

Primus, the University of Michigan professor, questions whether the two incidents in 2019 are enough criminally to charge Bobby Crimo’s parents.

“I don’t know if that makes it reasonably foreseeable that the person will be homicidal,” she said of the suicide attempt. “There are plenty of people who are suicidal who are not homicidal.”

As for the threats to kill family members, Primus says, prosecutors must take the context into account.

“What were these threats? How serious were they? If it was knives versus guns, does that matter? Does that mean that they could foresee this kind of thing with an automatic weapon? These are factual questions. Part of what is so hard about a lot of these kinds of cases is whenever you’re dealing with legal standards – was a person reckless or could they reasonably foresee something – these are standards that are incredibly fact specific.”

The elder Crimo told the New York Post last week that he decided to sponsor his son’s firearm license because he thought the young man would take the weapons to a shooting range.

“He bought everything on his own, and they’re registered to him,” the father told the newspaper.

“They make me like I groomed him to do all this,” the elder Crimo said, according to the report. “I’ve been here my whole life, and I’m gonna stay here, hold my head up high, because I didn’t do anything wrong.”

The shooter’s father told the Post he wants his son to serve a long prison sentence.

“That’s life,” the elder Crimo said. “You know you have consequences for actions. He made a choice. He didn’t have to do that.”

Gomez told CNN that “the family denies that there was any issues of suicide at the time,” and stressed law enforcement found “no safety risk.”

“I believe that the parents would have done things differently if … they had known that their son would have been able to commit such atrocities and would have in hindsight been able to see and connected all the dots at the end of the day,” Gomez told CNN.

“The parents feel terrible for the actions of their son, for the loss of those who lost their lives, and for the devastation that it’s caused the community.”

Parents more likely to face civil lawsuits

CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson says he believes prosecutors contemplating charges against shooters’ parents are taking notice of the growing public frustration with a series of mass shootings nationwide.

“Prosecutors are seeing that and they’re making an assessment of what can we do, what role can we play in order to hold people accountable at all levels, not just the shooters, but everyone and anyone who may have had a part,” he said.

Jackson also points to the ongoing prosecution of Ethan Crumbley’s parents in Michigan.

The filing against James and Jennifer Crumbley – who have pleaded not guilty – alleges that when they left their son’s school on November 30, more than an hour before the shooting began, they knew their son was depressed and “fascinated with guns.”

“Defendants were in a better position than anyone else in the world to prevent this tragedy, but they failed to do so,” the court filing states.

Referring to the Crumbleys, Jackson said: “The prosecutor is not suggesting they intended to do it … They are suggesting they were reckless. If you want to deter this from happening then you have to look at everywhere that you can to find accountability.”

Northwestern University Professor Lori Ann Post, who studies mass shootings, agrees, noting that criminal charges could have been filed against Nancy Lanza – mother of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza – had he not killed her before his 2012 assault on a Connecticut elementary school.

“Something’s got to break here pretty soon where somebody starts taking accountability for mass shootings,” she said. “And I think if you’re going to facilitate and enable a mass shooter then you should be held accountable.”

Parents of mass shooters are more likely to face civil lawsuits where the legal bar is lower, according to experts.

“If anything comes out of this, just based on the history of these kind of complaints, I would bet that it would be a civil case, not a criminal case,” Jonathan Metzl, a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University who studies gun violence, said of the likelihood of legal troubles for Bobby Crimo’s parents.

Metzl says he surprised at how often parents have helped young mass shooters obtain weapons.

“The question I have is, ‘What does that reveal?’” he said. “I really think we need to know more about what kind of reasoning parents have for giving guns to children who are clearly disturbed. Perhaps the parents are in denial? Or they feel like this is a mode of negotiation or gift giving?”

CNN’s Raja Razek, Chuck Johnston, Casey Tolan, Daniel A. Medina, Yahya Abou-Ghazala, Isabelle Chapman, Curt Devine, Eric Levenson, Jeff Winter and Dakin Andone contributed to this report.