There's no dispute that Joseph Anthony Galarza pissed off gang cops in the Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD).
During numerous vehicle stops as a passenger, Galarza--a low-level marijuana distributor--fled on foot, easily outran less fit officers and won the label "a runner"--in other words, someone who would not stay to fight cops.
Perhaps you can't blame him from running. In 2006, cops let a police dog viciously attack him and then charged him with assaulting a police officer--yes, actually the dog--after he used his hands to try to protect himself from the bites.
Three years later, Galarza was on probation after going to prison for the illegal pot sales when SAPD gang officers watched him sprint away from another vehicle stop. The cops tried to pin two serious felonies on him, but Orange County prosecutors rejected the charges as a stretch.
On the afternoon of April 17, 2009, the gang unit huddled before a shift to discuss their frustrations. They devised a plan to capture Galarza that night. This time, the officers promised themselves, he wouldn't escape, according to court records.
At about 6 p.m., several police cars stopped a vehicle driven by Galarza's girlfriend not far from South Coast Plaza. Galarza, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, uttered a brief prayer, opened his door and, as was his habit, began running away. Officer Jason Garcia got out of his car with his Glock handgun drawn and repeatedly yelled for him to stop.
But an unarmed Galarza got about 40 feet, reached a six-foot wall and, using both hands to grab the top of the wall, tried to scale it.
As he was on the verge of falling to the other side of the wall, Garcia--who was carrying a Taser and was within range to use the non-lethal weapon--fired three Glock shots from a distance of about 10 feet. One missed. One hit Galarza in the back. One slammed into the back of his head.
Both hits were lethal, according to an autopsy report on the 22-year-old man's corpse.
To justify the killing, Garcia claimed the absurd: While successfully scaling the wall, Galarza stopped, swung his body to face him, held onto the wall with one arm and reached into his waistband.
The officer asserted that he believed Galarza, who had never once fought officers in numerous encounters, was in the process of reaching for a gun.
Of course, the autopsy report definitively proved the unarmed man had been gunned down from the rear.
And there was this weighty fact: Three witnesses--including a CHP officer and two other eyewitnesses who didn't know each other--insisted that Galarza never turned to face Garcia and never reached into his waistband before the fatal gunshots.
SAPD issued an error-filled press statement that whitewashed the killing and The Orange County Register robots piled on, declaring the victim had been "dangerous" and falsely alleged that Galarza had been wanted for "weapons violations," the charge that prosecutors had already deemed worthless.
On a pro-police website, an administrator opined on the killing that "If you run from the cops, you'll die tired." Comments included: "F**K him, good shot!" and "Who says felons have to be armed to kill them?" and "Where's the grave? I gotta piss."
In 2010, lawyers for Charlene Galarza, the victim's mother, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court in Santa Ana.
Police never admit any wrongdoing in such cases and followed that line in this matter. Garcia justifiably felt threatened before the killing, they argued. In fact, the department helped bolster the cop's record before he hit the witness stand by giving him a "Golden Badge Award" for alleged "Exemplary Performance."
But the lawsuit never reached a jury.
Santa Ana officials got Galarza's mother to settle the case before trial for $75,000--a deal U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford approved this week inside the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse.
After the settlement, SAPD added a memo to the case file. They said they agreed to pay the money only to "avoid the costs" and hassle of a trial, and added, "We wish that the record be made clear that at no time has [the SAPD] admitted fault or liability or anything other than a settlement."
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Certain cops in Orange County believe they can execute unarmed citizens and then concoct a disingenuous excuse that they felt forced to kill because, though heavily armed, they feared for their own safety.