CROWN POINT — A Griffith man was led off in handcuffs Wednesday after a judge sentenced him to three years in prison for shooting into a busy Walmart last year, shattering a window and striking fear in Region shoppers.
Alex C. Hughes, 27, was convicted in November of criminal recklessness, a level 5 felony, in the Sept. 30, 2018, shooting at the Hobart Walmart off U.S. 30.
A jury found Hughes not guilty of the highest charges, including attempted murder, aggravated battery and a criminal organization enhancement.
Kyran J. Hawthorne Sr., 26, of Gary, and his then-9-year-old son were wounded in the shootout between Hughes and a man who accompanied Hawthorne and others to the store. Hughes and Hawthorne were members of rival Gary gangs, police said.
Lake Criminal Court Judge Salvador Vasquez said the jury determined Hughes acted in self-defense when he shot Hawthorne, and he respected the verdict.
However, the jury determined Hughes did not act reasonably when he fired multiple rounds into the front of the Walmart and attached Burger King restaurant, Vasquez said.
"At that point, it was not self-defense," Vasquez said. "You continued to fire your weapon after all danger had passed."
Over the objection of defense attorney Russell Brown, Vasquez allowed Lake County Supervisory Deputy Prosecutor Michael Toth to present images from Hughes' cellphone that had been excluded from trial.
The photos showed Hughes with an assault rifle and the handgun used in the Walmart shooting, which he later turned over to the prosecutor's office. Images also showed large amounts of cash, suspected drugs and Hughes flashing gang signs.
Brown asked Vasquez not to consider the photos, because it wasn't clear when they were taken.
Vasquez said it was proper to admit the photos, which reflected how Hawthorne's background came into play the night of the shooting.
"When this violence that's in the background of these events comes to the foreground, and the foreground is a crowded place, a neighborhood, a playground, we're not just talking about you and Hawthorne anymore," Vasquez said. "Now, as a community, we're affected by your problem."
It was the location of the shooting that generated so much media attention, Vasquez said.
"Now you brought fear to people that should not be in fear," he said. "You brought hesitation to people who should not hesitate to come into a public place."
Brown said Hughes "didn't do a drive-by" and shoot into the Walmart. Two or three shots hit the Walmart, all of which were intended for Hawthorne, he said.
"The only reason why Walmart was hit was because Mr. Hughes is a bad shot," Brown said.
Hawthorne and his friends confronted Hughes in the parking lot, forcing Hughes to draw a gun to chase them off, Brown said.
Toth said Hughes fired 16 shots, four of which hit the Walmart, while about 200 people were inside. Four or five people inside the Burger King had to dive for cover, he said.
It wasn't a drive-by shooting, but Hughes was "calm and collected as he strolled through the parking lot and shot," Toth said.
Afterward, Hughes strolled by police and left the area, and didn't come forward for more than a week. Police eventually arrested him after a high-speed pursuit, Toth said.
Hughes may be a "bad shot" as Brown claimed, but he testified at trial, "'I wasn't aiming. I don't even know if I hit him,'" Toth said.
Hughes denied being a gang member at trial and in his most recent pre-sentence investigation report, but he admitted a gang affiliation in a previous pre-sentence report, he said.
Vasquez rejected Brown's request to suspend Hughes' sentence in favor of probation.
"This is not a probation case," the judge said.
Hughes will receive credit for jail time served before he was able to post bond in the case.
Brown asked Vasquez to consider ordering Hughes be placed in the Community Transition Court program after completing two years of his three-year sentence.
"He will be evaluated like everyone else," he said.