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Prosecutors charge man with hate crime in acid attack

MILWAUKEE (AP) — A 61-year-old white Milwaukee man accused of throwing acid on a Hispanic man's face will be charged with a hate crime, increasing the possible sentence he may receive if convicted, prosecutors announced Wednesday.

Prosecutors filed one charge against Clifton Blackwell — first-degree reckless injury — but added the sentencing enhancers of hate crime and use of a dangerous weapon. The two enhancers could add 10 years in prison if he's convicted of first-degree reckless injury, which is punishable by up to 25 years.

The victim, Mahud Villalaz, 42, said his attacker approached him near a restaurant Friday night and confronted him about being parked too close to a bus stop, according to charging documents. Prosecutors said Blackwell then asked, "Why did you invade my country?" and "Why don't you respect my laws?"

Villalaz said he moved his car but that Blackwell continued to berate him, calling him "illegal" and telling him to "go back, go back," followed by an expletive. Villalaz said he called Blackwell a racist, also using an expletive. Villalaz said Blackwell threw the acid on him after Villalaz said "everyone come from somewhere first" and that American Indians had been in the country the longest.

Surveillance video from the restaurant recorded the attack, which left Villalaz with second-degree burns on his face. Villalaz is a U.S. citizen who immigrated from Peru. Blackwell made his first court appearance Wednesday to be advised of the charges he faces. Bond was set at $20,000 but it's on the condition he wear an electronic monitoring bracelet. He's still being held at the Milwaukee County jail and his public defender did not immediately return a call.

The attack on Villalaz comes at a time when the Anti-Defamation League says extreme anti-immigrant views have become part of the political mainstream in recent years through sharp rhetoric by anti-immigration groups and politicians, including President Donald Trump.

White House spokesman Judd Deere said Monday that the Trump administration has repeatedly condemned racism and violence. Investigators who searched Blackwell's home found among other things four bottles of sulfuric acid, muriatic acid, and two bottles of Kleen-Out drain opener that was 100 % lye, according to the search warrant. Additional conditions for his bond are that he have no contact with acids or large batteries, or possess dangerous weapons or firearms. His next court appearance is Nov. 15.

Before filing the charge, Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm said during an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio that his office was looking to determine whether the attack was motivated "in whole or in part" based on the victim's race. He said prosecutors would look "very closely first at the underlying offenses and then we'll make a determination whether the facts support the hate crime."

"But it's obviously a concern to many people not just in this community but really around the country right now," he said. Just as Blackwell was in court, Villalaz spoke briefly to reporters to say he was pleased with the charges and thankful for "the people that have worried about me." He said Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin called him to say she was "very sad" about what happened and offered to help however she can.

His mother, Jacqueline P. Blackwell, of California, told the Journal Sentinel he had sought care with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Milwaukee for post-traumatic stress. "I was comfortable that he was getting good care with the VA," she told the newspaper.

His brother, Arthur Eugene Blackwell of Evergreen, Colorado, told the AP that Clifton served nearly four years in the U.S. Marines and was stationed at the Panama Canal around the time Manuel Noriega was captured and removed in 1990. A Marine official told AP that the branch doesn't have a record matching Blackwell's name and birthdate.

State court records show Blackwell was convicted in a 2006 Rusk County case of false imprisonment and pointing a gun at a person in a case where he held four hunters at gunpoint because they were on his property.

Associated Press writer Jeff Baenen contributed from Minneapolis.

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