East Side Story
Why was Michael Angel Garcia murdered?
Thursday, May 16, 2002
So far, everyone tells the same story about what happened on the night of April 17. Michael Angel Garcia, 18, and his brother Julian, 17, were walking home on the sidewalk along Rider Avenue in their Eastside Salinas neighborhood. They were within sight of the house where the Garcia family-Michael and Julian, older sisters Sandra, Lorraine and Lupita, and mother Nilda-has lived for 28 years.
Michael (Mickey to his family) had worked that night at a new job clerking at a local liquor store. His mother Nilda, along with Julian, picked him up at the store at 9:30 or so for a ride home. The brothers wanted to go to a neighbor''s house to say hello. It was late, but Nilda knew the friend and so she dropped them off. About 40 minutes later Michael and Julian set out for home on foot.
Near the corner of Amarillo and Rider, Michael heard something behind him. He told his little brother to stop laughing and be quiet. Julian said afterward that Michael saw something behind them that made his face look scared. Someone, or maybe more than one person, was back there walking after them.
A city detective said later, "We have no idea who he saw. We''re assuming he knew who these other people were."
Julian sensed trouble and said to his brother that they could just run home from where they were-it was less than a block away. Michael said no, just be quiet and walk faster. After that, Michael pushed Julian to the ground and said don''t get up. Then either Michael got on top of his little brother to protect him or he fell on him.
At home, Mrs. Garcia was watching a movie on TV. Michael''s older sisters Sandra and Lupita were there too. It was about 10:40pm. Mrs. Garcia heard a gun shot. Then another.
Out on the sidewalk, Michael didn''t move when Julian said to get up. Julian says it was then that he realized his brother had been shot.
Julian, a tall and lanky sophomore who runs track and plays football at Everett Alvarez High School, tried to carry and drag Mickey home. He made it to a spot under an ornamental tree and ran to a neighbor''s door, and then another, knocking and pleading for someone to come outside and help his brother.
No one responded. Julian learned later they were scared by the gunfire.
Leaving Michael on the sidewalk, Julian ran home and nearly broke down the front door. He burst into the living room and cried, "Mama! Mama! They shot Mickey!"
Sandra ran out of the house to her little brother and started giving him CPR. Soon everyone was out in the street while Lupita called the police. She also called the oldest sister, Lorraine, 32, who drove over from her house right away and arrived about the same time a patrol car pulled up.
Sandra remembers looking up from doing CPR and seeing a lot of backs of cops. They told her to get away from her brother so they could take over. An ambulance rolled in and the paramedics tried to revive Michael. Sandra looked at the crew and wished they''d jumped off the ambulance faster.
Mrs. Garcia watched them use the defibrillator on her son. Describing it later, she mimics the hand-held paddles that the medics hold on a victim''s chest to send an electrical shock to the heart. Later she said she knew Michael had no pulse when they put him in the ambulance. Days afterwards, the coroner told one of the sisters that the bullet killed Michael straight away. If he''d been shot in the emergency room, even then and there, they couldn''t have saved him, the coroner said.
Two weeks later, on the evening of May 2, Mrs. Garcia sits at her kitchen table with her daughter Sandra and Marie, Michael''s girlfriend of two years. They''re writing thank-you notes to Michael''s co-workers. They are all still mourning. Mrs. Garcia has not slept well. She doesn''t want to talk about it at all.
"He died on the road we live on," Sandra says. "He died on the road he walked on the way to school since he was five. He wasn''t looking for trouble. He was coming home."
Michael Garcia was a fieldworker''s son. He liked to read books about history-Mexican bandits and Aztecs. He was not interested in sports. Last spring, he wore a dapper zoot suit with a floppy black hat, drooping wallet chain and two-foot necktie to the Everett Alvarez High School prom.
Friends and family describe Michael as easygoing. A cool kid. A good kid. Caring. Quiet but with strong opinions. Respected by the other students. A committed boyfriend. A stay-at-home kind of guy. Someone who turned his life around, and was doing everything a young man from East Salinas could do to get out of East Salinas.
In a town infected by chronic gang violence, where boys in some quarters are forced to claim allegiance either to the Nortenos (the "northerners") or the Surenos (the "southerners") and then live and die by that choice, they say Michael was not a thug. He was not a gangbanger.
Michael Garcia was a devoted Bob Marley fan. The walls of his bedroom are covered floor to ceiling with posters of the late reggae great. Michael''s older sisters turned him on to Marley, an icon who sang about the plight of the Third World and preached unity and reconciliation among all people. Lorraine says Michael took the message to heart-the message "that we all have to live to together and be one big family."
Despite the many depictions of Marley inhaling clouds of marijuana smoke in Michael''s posters, his family insists he was not a stoner. Standing in his room, which Mrs. Garcia can still not bear to enter, Lorraine says, "When it came to drinking and smoking, he was clean, and I made sure of that. That was my main thing, at least [for him] to give my mom the honor of graduating."
Sitting at the kitchen table one night in May, Michael''s sister Sandra tearfully remembers him and how he was trying to do the right thing.
"He was just going to do good. He was always saying how he wished everything was better for everybody," she says. "He was just a positive person and it''s hard to be positive when you come from a negative situation."
Michael''s father left the home when he was very young. Sandra says it hurt him that his father was gone.
"That bothered him a lot that he didn''t have a dad," Sandra says. "He knew as he grew up he was the man of the house."
Rising in strength at the same time were East Salinas gangs. Michael was open with his family about the lure of gangs, and the fact that his friends were getting involved.
"That was a big influence around here. We''d be dumb if we said it wasn''t," Sandra says. "There was a time when were worried he would go deep into it and not come out. But he didn''t have the heart for it."
In fact, Michael was walking the straight and narrow.
Before working at the liquor store, Michael worked for the Safe Teens Empowerment Project in Salinas (STEPS), a government-funded substance abuse prevention program. Michael and his girlfriend Marie were undercover "decoys" sent into stores to try to buy booze. They also observed DUI checkpoints and counseled kids on substance abuse.
Rose Colon runs STEPS. She says some other kids called the decoys "junior narcs," but Michael had the respect of his peers. His death saddens Colon because she says he was going in the "right direction."
"Michael''s problem was he just couldn''t help where he lived," she says. "He had to go home to it all the time. That was his neighborhood. He lived in that house since he was a baby."
Violent crime in Salinas-about 80 percent of which is blamed on gangs-has grown steadily since the 1980s. A perennial hot spot is the Eastside. In 1994, when Michael was 11, there were 24 homicides in the city. President Clinton visited in 1996 praising gang prevention efforts, but the violence didn''t cease. There were 15 homicides in the city in 2001 and 18 in 2000. At a popular skatepark near Michael''s East Salinas neighborhood, the kids joke that they''d wear skateboard helmets because of bullets, not concrete.
Nilda, Michael''s mother, started working in the fields when she was thirteen. She did not graduate from high school. She wanted to be sure her children got diplomas. Michael took summer jobs in the fields, but she was determined that it would not be his life.
Michael earned his diploma in January and planned to attend commence- ment at Everett Alvarez High School on June 13. His name will be read with the other graduates.
At the table one night while Sandra and Lorraine and girlfriend Marie were there, Nilda Garcia started speaking in Spanish. Lorraine translated and quickly she had tears in her eyes. Her mother said the only thing she asked of Michael was that he finish high school and get his diploma. She said she was proud of him.
Mrs. Garcia said something else in Spanish that Lorraine does not immediately translate. "She just wants the person responsible to be caught," Lorraine says.
It''s getting to be after nine at night and Julian comes home wearing a tight black skullcap and a black hooded sweatshirt. He talks about wanting to go to college at either the University of Texas or Oregon, but he doesn''t want to talk about his brother or what happened on the night of April 17.
"He''s taking it really hard," Lorraine says.
From the city center, beyond Natividad Medical Center and off Constitution Boulevard, the construction of new, attractive, cloistered subdivisions booms. The roads have exclusive-sounding names like Nantucket, Cape Cod and Beacon Hill.
Michael''s neighborhood lies across Natividad Creek, through a city park via Las Casitas, which drops out on Rider Avenue nearly at the Garcia driveway.
Rider and the surrounding streets seethe with tension. Sworn enemies are neighbors in East Salinas. In Los Angeles, Oakland, and other California cities, gangs live in demarcated territories. On the Eastside of Salinas, Nortenos live across the street from Surenos.
The hostility is readily apparent. One woman working in her yard around the corner from where Michael was shot complained bitterly about the "wetback motherfuckers" who, she says, drive real slow by her house and point guns at her and her family. The woman''s son was about to return from prison, but she didn''t want him around. "I don''t want him to come back to this," she says. "I don''t want him to get killed."
According to a senior probation official, 80 percent of the 1,600 kids on probation in Monterey County are from East Salinas-or South County farm towns like Greenfield and King City. At one point earlier in his life Michael Garcia was one of those kids talking to a probation officer. How he ended up that way no one will say, and it is impossible to know what happened. (Information about juvenile crime is kept confidential by police and the courts.)
No one who knew him offers any specifics. All insist it was not for violence or drugs. "It was just petty things," says his girlfriend Marie.
According to people who knew him, he did have gang-affiliated friends, most likely Nortenos. But they say Michael tried to stay out of it.
Police say Michael was not one of the 2,700 kids in Salinas who are officially listed as "gang-affiliated." But they are treating his death as a gang-related slaying.
"He never was in a gang. He had no tattoos or anything," says his sister Lorraine. "He wasn''t representing anything, blue or red or whatever else is out there now."
For whatever trouble Michael got into, in April 2000 he ended up at Proyecto Unidad, a juvenile education, counseling and treatment center in downtown Salinas. The facility, now called Rising Eagle, offers help for kids who have received a "dual diagnosis," where substance abuse is complicating another problem.
In the morning, the students take academic class provided by the county education department. In the afternoon, they attend group counseling and hear presentations on subjects like domestic violence and AIDS.
"[Rising Eagle] was really good for him," says his sister Sandra. "That opened his eyes. That gave him something that he lacked here. We tried, but being a young male is difficult without a father figure. It [was] a place where he could talk about his feelings."
The students are usually referred by the probation department and likely have found themselves in trouble for truancy, petty theft, and other offenses. Some have been in and out of Juvenile Hall and Youth Court for charges such as burglary, drug possession or assault.
Between 18 and 25 kids are in the program as of late April. All but one is Hispanic, only two are girls, and the majority had some gang affiliation.
As in county probation programs, rivals are forced to coexist. They are not separated. At Rising Eagle, Nortenos and Surenos are made to shake hands at the beginning and end of every day. Colors are not tolerated.
The whole regimen costs $112 per student per day, billed to MediCal. Running the program on site is Shelia Smith.
"The system, the normal way things work for kids hasn''t worked for these kids," she says. "A lot of our kids are gang-involved or have been. Violence has been a large part of a lot of their lives."
"A lot of our kids are in a war. A gang war," she says. "Once you''re in a gang you can''t say, ''I''m not doing it anymore. Leave me alone.'' It doesn''t work that way."
To pass through the Rising Eagle program successfully, a young person must be clean and sober for 60 consecutive days, have gained insight and understanding into substance abuse, and have passed five levels of achievement, each requiring completion of five personal and community service-oriented tasks.
Not all make it, but one of them who did was Michael Garcia.
Smith remembers him fondly. "He was a kid who took everything he could from this program," she says.
Rising Eagle graduates are given a blank ceiling tile to paint, which is then installed above the lobby, outside Smith''s wide-angle window. Michael painted his tile black and gold, with an eagle design. On it he wrote: "The Eagle''s Gift Is Not Just Given, But a Chance to Have a Chance."
Teenagers die. Young people get killed in drunk-driving accidents, sober driving accidents, drug overdoses and occasionally through violence. Survivors are often left asking why; why is that their friend, brother, daughter or teammate had to die so senselessly. In Salinas it can be as gratuitous as wearing the wrong color sweatshirt.
There were 15 homicides last year in Salinas, nine of which involved victims aged 25 or less. There is nearly nightly gunfire in some areas and steady street crime such as robberies and beatings.
This year started off with a large number of youngsters getting gunned down. In February, two young men were shot and a third stabbed in a span of three days. On March 11 an eight-year-old was shot and wounded while playing marbles in Michael''s neighborhood. It was a stray shot reportedly intended for a gang-member. On March 12, a 14-year-old boy was shot and killed in a park. On March 15, two teenagers were shot in a 9am drive-by shooting, leaving a 16-year-old boy dead and a 15-year-old wounded. Police considered all of the shootings gang-related.
The randomness of brutality turns some kids into fatalists at a young age. As one Rising Eagle student who''d been in and out of Juvenile Hall said, "I want to get a good job in the world but I live day by day. That''s me. You can''t dodge a bullet. Whatever happens, happens."
When someone dies in a gang-related violence, "why" takes on disturbing potential. The narrow-mindedness of the gang mentality does not calculate for maybe. It relies on simple math. The enemy simply must be subtracted.
In the case of Michael Angel Garcia, no one wants to point fingers or ask "why" too loudly. Marie, his girlfriend, says she hears all kinds of rumors, but doesn''t listen. She just wants to hear that the killer has been arrested.
Working the case is Salinas city detective Rick Soratos, who happens to be friends with Marie''s mother''s boyfriend, Brandon Hill, a Salinas police officer who patrols East Salinas. Hill knew Michael well.
Hill says that in East Salinas, "You''re either on one side or the other. There is no gray area. For the kids who walk the gray line like Mike, it''s tough.
"A lot of families, when a young man dies, the family says he wasn''t in any gang. I can honestly say Michael was not in allegiance with any one gang. He was in it for himself, to get a diploma and join the Marines and provide for his family and provide for [Marie]."
Detective Soratos, who also knew Michael, cannot provide specifics, as the investigation is ongoing.
Soratos says the "why" of Michael''s murder could have been anything. The investigators don''t believe he owed anyone money, and they don''t believe the slaying was retaliatory.
Speaking vaguely, Soratos mentions the street rule of guilt by association. It''s not impossible to speculate that Michael might have been speaking to a known Norteno, for example, and been seen by Surenos, and the Surenos might have killed him later just because they had the chance. The mentality is that savage. As Soratos says, gangbangers don''t bother to verify. They don''t stop and ask, "Are you claiming Norte or what?" he says.
Another possibility is that Michael was killed by a gang candidate who had to shoot someone to pass an initiation.
"Of course it''s not out of the question that it was a random thing," Soratos says.
In the days after Michael''s death, there was regular gunfire in East Salinas. Only about 20 minutes after he died, according to reports, a 22-year-old was shot in the stomach on Roosevelt Street, not far away. Two days later, Soratos says, someone was shot at further down Rider Avenue. On April 28, at Pellet and Sanborn Streets, also on the Eastside, a man was killed by a flurry of bullets. On Friday, May 10th 18-year-old Josh Rios was shot in the head and killed in a North Salinas driveway.
In a disturbing prophecy, Michael wrote a short essay in April 2001 for the STEPS program where he worked. It was printed in the STEPS newsletter. He wrote, "I hope I never have to face these violent crimes at my school or anywhere else. I also hope that kids wake up and realize violence is not the answer. There is help out there for those who need it."
There is something very chilling, very sinister about Michael''s death. Someone, unidentified for now and maybe forever, sneaked up in the darkness and gunned him down only feet from his childhood home. Did Michael know his killer? Was it a neighbor? Or was it someone sent there to pull the trigger and vanish? Was it, as some of his family believe, some kid with a gun just trying to act "brave"?
The awful specter of an unseen gang out there that has slain a son, a brother and a friend draws down a veil of secrecy and fear. A fear of retaliation descends. A gang is a brutal, well-armed and often intoxicated network locked in a vicious cycle of hate that''s blind but for the enemy''s color. Usually gangs only aim for each other but in Salinas and elsewhere, people know people who''ve died as anonymous targets, randomly and violently.
There was only so much Michael Garcia could do to escape the violence of his neighborhood. In the end, it wasn''t enough.