PHOENIX (AP) — A Mexican man was 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 complaints about immigrants who commit crimes while in the U.S. illegally.
Prosecutors had initially sought the death penalty against Apolinar Altamirano in the attack on Grant Ronnebeck, the 21-year-old clerk who was fatally shot over a pack of cigarettes at the store in Mesa. But a court later ruled prosecutors couldn’t pursue his execution because Altamirano is intellectually disabled.
At sentencing Friday, Superior Court Judge Justin Beresky described the killing as cold-blooded.
“I frankly think you should probably never get out of prison, but I will follow the plea that was brokered between the state and the defense,” the judge said, referring to Altamirano’s earlier 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 stepped 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 handgun and unopened pack of cigarettes were later found in his vehicle.
Ronnebeck’s family members expressed their grief over his death, describing him as a big-hearted person whose life was taken away unfairly.
“There is no reason for what he did,” Steve Ronnebeck, Grant’s father, said of Altamirano. “There is no justification for what he did.”
The killing was cited by Trump at a rally during his 2016 campaign. In his first week as president, Trump created an office to serve the victims of immigrant crime and their relatives.
While studies suggest immigrants are less likely to commit crime than people born in the U.S., Trump relentlessly sought to establish a 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 it said was a more comprehensive and inclusive victim support system.
Altamirano, a citizen of Mexico who has lived in the U.S. without authorization for about 20 years, had been deported and returned to the U.S. in the past.
Federal immigration officials had said Altamirano, who was sentenced to probation in 2013 after pleading guilty to a charge of facilitation to commit burglary, was awaiting deportation hearings at the time of Ronnebeck’s shooting death.
Emily Wolkowicz, one of Altamirano’s lawyers, said her client suffered neglect and abuse as a child that affected his cognitive reasoning abilities and was unable to function alone as an adult without the help of his wife. When his wife died, he fell into depression and made bad choices.
In a letter read aloud in court, Altamirano said he was sorry for ruining the lives of Ronnebeck’s family and Altamirano’s own children. Altamirano said he wished he would have been stronger after the death of his wife, whom he had been dependent upon since he was 15.
“I did not mean to kill. I was going through so much. I am not that kind of person,” Altamirano said. “This is from my heart. I care for people.”
He was given credit for the 7 ½ years he spent in jail awaiting trial in Ronnebeck’s killing.