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Guatemalan woman shot by Nebraska neighbor ‘felt like this was the end’ as she rushed to save grandson

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One of the seven people who were shot by a Nebraska neighbor over the weekend wasn’t sure her family would survive.

“I felt like this was the end,” Maria Garcia Sanchez said about the shooting, which was so shocking to her that she wasn’t sure what was happening until she saw her 3-year-old grandson had been hit and sprang into action.

“I turned to see, and the guy was at the window of the house,” Sanchez said Tuesday. “I picked up the child, and I hugged him in front of me, and I protected him because he wasn’t even moving his foot or head. And when I saw the man was shooting another, I turned him so that it didn’t hit the kid and wouldn’t hurt him more. And so I turned him, and when I did, it got my arm. … It hit my arm and my head.”

A vehicle’s window was damaged in the shooting of a Guatemalan family in Crete, Neb., which police said they are investigating as a possible hate crime.Chris Machian / Omaha World-Herald via AP

Sanchez, her husband, her 3-year-old grandson, her 8-year-old daughter, her 23-year-old son-in-law and two school-age nieces were injured in the shooting at their home in Crete. All seven have been released from the hospital, police said.

“Right now, thank God, we are recovering a bit,” she said. “With pain, but coming along.”

The neighbor, Billy Booth, 74, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after the attack Friday, which the Nebraska State Patrol is investigating as a possible hate crime.

Five weeks before the shooting, the Guatemalan family told police that Booth had tried to start a fight and “flipped them off.”

At the time, Sanchez said, she told her son, who was being harassed by the suspect to stop engaging with the neighbor. 

“The guy went over to tell him ‘f— you,’ and that’s when my son got mad and he said: ‘What do you want? Why do you talk to me like that?’” she said of the incident May 21. “I told my son, ‘Don’t bother that man.’ Leave him alone; maybe he’s bad.’”

Weeks later, it was that son who raced to call police after he found several of his family members bleeding and wounded after the neighbor fired at them, Sanchez said.

In the May 21 incident, the family called police to report that Booth was calling them names but that no direct threat was made, according to the police department.

Officers took statements from family members, but they were “not interested in being involved in a legal dispute,” according to the police report.

Police said Booth, who was white, had been involved in previous conflicts with several of his white neighbors, as well as the Guatemalan family.

Dave Hansen, who lives next door to Booth, said he did not believe the shooting was racially motivated.

“I don’t care what the police say. I lived next to that guy for 10 years, and he wasn’t racist,” Hansen said. “But I feel very lucky he didn’t shoot me.”

Hansen said Booth fired a shotgun at members of the Guatemalan family after some kids walked onto his property to retrieve a soccer ball.

He said Booth often antagonized residents over decreasing property values.

“Anybody who didn’t take care of their yard, he was all over you,” Hansen said. “The last seven years were hell.”

The seven victims were from the state of Huehuetenango in Guatemala and of mixed legal status to be in the U.S., according to the Guatemalan Consul General’s Office in Omaha.

At the time of the shooting, a family gathering was taking place at the home, authorities said. Two of the victims worked at the Smithfield Foods meatpacking company in Crete, the consul general’s office said.

Sanchez said she works at Smithfield.

“We are thinking of and concerned about members of our team who have been affected,” Smithfield spokesman Jim Monroe said in a statement. “We hope they will focus on family and recovery at this time.”

Police said calls concerning Booth and the family date to 2021, most of them complaints from Booth about “driving behavior.”

During the altercation in May, Booth told members of the Guatemalan family to “go home” or “back to where they came from” and to “speak English,” police said.

Billy Muñoz, consul general of the Guatemalan Consulate in Omaha, said his office would do what it could to help the family.

“Unfortunately, [the] consulate is taking into account that it is an election year,” when hate “will be more frequent,” Muñoz said.

Saul Lopez, interim executive director of Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim, a nonprofit group that supports Indigenous people in Nebraska, said many immigrants have had trouble adjusting to life in the state.

“Nebraska is a very difficult environment for immigrants,” he said. “It is not an ideal place where immigrants can move into. It is a very hard place, because a lot of people do not like immigrants at all.”

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