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Viral posts on social media make the baseless claim that the shooter in Odessa, Texas, had a sticker on his car for Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke. The Texas Department of Public Safety said there was no sticker on the car he was driving during the attack.
We don’t know what motivated Seth Ator to carry out a killing spree in Texas, fatally shooting seven and injuring another two dozen on Aug. 31. But social media users have spread unsubstantiated claims to suggest supposed political motives.
One viral claim, with no apparent factual basis, posits that Ator was a “Democrat Socialist who had a Beto sticker on his truck” — a reference to 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke.
We’ve found no instances of authorities publicly mentioning Ator’s political leanings at all — let alone how any such beliefs could have prompted the shooting. Also, police have said Ator was driving a “gold-colored sedan,” not a truck, before hijacking a U.S. Postal Service van.
Sgt. Oscar Villarreal, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, told us by phone that “there was no sticker on either vehicle” used in the attack, referring to Ator’s car and the Postal Service van. He said he was not aware of Ator’s political preferences.
The claim appears to have been invented and unleashed on social media.
A Twitter account believed to have initially posted the unfounded claim on Sept. 1 appeared to be suspended but then later restored. The account identifies the user as a 72-year-old retired woman from Arizona. We asked that user through a connected Facebook for proof of the claim but did not hear back.
The claim appeared in posts by many accounts on Facebook and Twitter. A former Defense Intelligence Agency officer, Anthony Shaffer, whose profile identifies himself as a member of Trump’s 2020 advisory board also amplified it by sharing the original claim and remarking that Ator “was a @BetoORourke supporter…this supports my belief that Progressives should be prohibited from owning or having access to weapons – they clearly cannot be trusted with this responsibility.”
O’Rourke is a former representative from El Paso, Texas. His campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, took to Twitter on Sept. 3 to criticize the spread of the “completely false rumor.”
“As a campaign, we’re almost entirely powerless to stop misinformation,” she wrote, calling on social media companies to better address misinformation. “We can tweet corrections, but only a fragment of the people exposed will see it.” (Disclosure: FactCheck.org is a third-party fact-checking partner with Facebook. Facebook has no control over our editorial content.)
The shooting, as is the case in most high-profile mass shootings, is likely to factor into public debate over gun policy in America. O’Rourke has called for a number of gun control measures, including an “assault weapons ban” and universal background checks. Ator was reportedly using an AR-15 style weapon, a semi-automatic rifle. O’Rourke’s proposal would not only ban such weapons, but also institute a mandatory buyback program to get rid of those currently in use.
John Wester — an assistant special agent in charge with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — said at a Sept. 2 press conference that Ator had been denied a gun previously as a result of the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
“The NICS system did work. He did apply to get a gun and he was denied a gun,” Wester said.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said on Twitter that Ator “didn’t go thru a background check for the gun he used in Odessa.”
Some reports quoting law enforcement officials say that investigators are exploring whether the gun used was purchased through a private gun sale, which in most states — including Texas — would not require a federal background check if purchased in-state. But the Wall Street Journal also reported that officials were probing whether an individual who may have sold Ator the gun was illegally manufacturing and selling firearms — meaning the sale still would have been criminal.
Christopher Combs, special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Antonio Division, has said Ator “was on a long spiral of going down” prior to the shooting, which followed Ator’s being fired from his work at Journey Oilfield Services.
Odessa Police Chief Michael Gerke said Ator went to his work at on Aug. 31 and was “there for a short time and was terminated.” Both Ator and the employer soon after called 911, “complaining on each other because they had a disagreement over the firing.”
Ator left before officers arrived at Journey Oilfield, Gerke said, and called the FBI’s national tip line but made “no threats of any type of violence.” Combs said that the call was “frankly rambling statements about some of the atrocities that he felt that he had gone through.”
Soon after, Gerke said, a state trooper attempted to pull Ator’s gold-colored sedan over for traffic violation on Interstate 20 between Midland and Odessa. Ator opened fire and then carried out the drive-by shooting spree, making his way into Odessa, where he killed a Postal Service employee and hijacked her van. Authorities eventually shot and killed Ator outside a movie theater.
Abbott, Greg (@GregAbbott_TX). “Not only did the Odessa gunman have a criminal history… …he also previously failed a gun purchase background check in Texas… …& he didn’t go thru a background check for the gun he used in Odessa. We must keep guns out of criminals’ hands.” Twitter. 2 Sep 2019.
“Active Shooter Update.” Press release, Odessa Police Department. 2 Sep 2019.
Dillon, Jen O’Malley (@jomalleydillon). “This weekend, a right wing bot network spread the completely false rumor that the Odessa shooter had a Beto sticker on his car. This was even echoed by Trump advisors.” Twitter. 3 Sep 2019.
Frosch, Dan, et. al. “Authorities Suspect Man of Making and Selling Gun Used in Texas Shooting.” The Wall Street Journal. 4 Sep 2019.
Villarreal, Oscar. Sergeant, Texas Department of Public Safety. Interview with FactCheck.org. 5 Sep 2019.
“WATCH: Law enforcement provides update on sequence of events of Odessa shooting.” PBS NewsHour. YouTube. 2 Sep 2019.