SAN JOSE -- A 20-year-old transient woman suspected of bludgeoning a 4-year-old girl and her father with a tire iron at an East San Jose Wal-Mart targeted them because they are of Asian descent, the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office said.

Maria Garate, of San Jose, faces one charge each of attempted murder and one count of assault with a deadly weapon, both with hate-crime enhancements because of the racial motive alleged to be behind the Tuesday morning attack. She faces up to life in prison if convicted.

During her brief arraignment Thursday afternoon at the Hall of Justice in San Jose, Garate appeared to be nervously scanning the courtroom before she was sent back to the Santa Clara County jail, where she is being held without bail. Her next court date is May 23.

Maria Garate, 18, was arrested on suspicion of hitting a 4-year-old girl and her father with a crowbar inside a Walmart Wednesday  morning, police said.
Maria Garate, 18, was arrested on suspicion of hitting a 4-year-old girl and her father with a crowbar inside a Walmart Wednesday morning, police said.

"Every parent's worst nightmare" was how Deputy District Attorney Kalila Spain described the attack. She said Garate entered the store, off Story Road in the Little Saigon district, with a specific racial intent.

"Based on evidence we do have, the victims were targeted because they are Asian," Spain said. "This is a premeditated, willful and deliberate act on her part."

The episode was reported just before 11 a.m. Tuesday as the young girl and her parents were shopping when police say Garate approached the child and hit her over the head with a blunt metal object that was initially described as a crowbar but is now listed by prosecutors as a lug nut wrench or tire iron. Garate allegedly tried to hit the girl a second time but her father got in the way and was hit instead.

Garate was soon detained by Wal-Mart security personnel until San Jose police arrived to arrest her. The girl was taken to the hospital and is now at home recovering, Spain said.

Authorities said Garate, who was initially said to be 18 but is actually 20, has a criminal record in Santa Clara County, but nothing that foreshadowed what happened Tuesday. The attack took place just over a half mile from a well-known homeless encampment known as "the Jungle." Police said they had contacted Garate there before, but they could not confirm Garate was a resident of the encampment.

A source told this newspaper that the defendant expressed disappointment to interrogators that she did not injure the girl more severely.

When asked if mental-health issues might have played a role in Garate actions, Spain declined to speculate.

"We don't always know why people commit the crimes they do. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't," she said. "We feel we can prove she went into there to target a family that was Asian."

Video surveillance was given to authorities but is not expected to be made public.

This was the second high-profile attack at the Wal-Mart in just over a year. Haamid Ade Zaid, 34, was arrested in April 2013 after an Easter Sunday melee in which he crashed his car through the front of the store and then started attacking patrons with a blunt object. He was charged with attempted murder, four counts of assault with a deadly weapon, two counts of felony vandalism, three counts of misdemeanor hit and run and one count of reckless driving.

Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.