Officer Michael Garza: From rising star to SAPD castoff
City officials begrudgingly reinstated officer in 2015, years after he shot and killed man outside the man’s home
SAN ANTONIO – Editor’s note: This story is part of KSAT Defenders’ “Broken Blue” investigative series digging into misconduct and disciplinary procedure in the San Antonio Police Department. The series will culminate with a one-hour investigative special airing on Jan. 12 at 9 p.m. For more reporting on this topic, click here.
Perhaps no story encapsulates the power of the San Antonio Police Officers Association and its current influence on officer discipline more than that of Officer Michael Garza.
Garza was a 10-year veteran of the San Antonio Police Department hailed by supervisors as one of the top undercover officers they had ever worked with, when he was involved in a fatal officer-involved shooting in July 2012.
**Warning: graphic content below**
While on-duty and working an overnight surveillance assignment July 26, 2012, Garza agreed to pick up a former roommate named Abigail Hernandez at her far West Side apartment and drop her off at the Thirsty Horse Saloon.
Hundreds of pages of records related to SAPD’s subsequent internal affairs and criminal investigations of Garza show that he and Hernandez texted each other throughout the night. Garza later admitted to investigators that Hernandez was an on again off again love interest.
While Hernandez texted with Garza, who was still on-duty, she also received a deluge of calls and text messages from the father of her young child, Alfred Aragon.
Hernandez at first responded to Aragon but her answers became more sporadic as Aragon’s communications got more desperate and angry, according to records of the conversation.
“Why are you ignoring my calls? (sad face emoji), Why can’t you give me 5 minutes of your time? Is that too much to ask for? Are you talking to someone else? Are you? Please tell me. Please stop ignoring me!!!!” wrote Aragon in a series of text messages Hernandez did not answer.
Aragon then began to send Hernandez private images of her he had on his phone.
“Karma is a b***** and so are you! You are so history!!! Im cutting your cheap fake a** off!!!” wrote Aragon.
A violent collision course
Text message records indicate that Garza picked up Hernandez from the bar just before 2 a.m. and drove her back to her apartment in the 8200 block of Micron Drive.
Hernandez told Garza that Aragon had been harassing her all night via telephone.
Upon arriving at the apartment complex, Hernandez spotted Aragon’s vehicle backed into a parking spot.
Aragon then walked up to Garza’s unmarked SAPD work truck, opened its passenger-side door and began to yell at Hernandez, records show.
Garza pulled away as Aragon followed on foot. After Garza and Hernandez left the complex, Aragon pulled past them in his vehicle and turned onto Culebra Road, leading Garza to believe Aragon had left the area for good.
Garza’s decision to return to the apartment complex would turn out to be a fateful one.
Records show Aragon returned to the complex and parked next to Garza’s truck.
After Aragon again attempted to open Garza’s passenger-side door, he walked toward the front of Garza’s vehicle and pulled out a 9mm handgun, according to a sworn affidavit signed by Garza three days after the incident.
Aragon made several attempts to fire the weapon but it would not discharge, according to the signed affidavit.
Garza then drove off and attempted to exit the complex again, records show.
Aragon then called Hernandez and after she put his call on speaker phone, Garza heard Aragon say, “Everybody’s going to die tonight,” according to the affidavit.
As Garza and Hernandez waited for the apartment’s exit gate to open, Aragon fired several shots at the truck, striking it several times, records show.
As Garza and Hernandez approached the intersection of Culebra and Ingram Road, Aragon pulled up alongside them and fired again, this time striking Hernandez in her stomach and wrist, according to records related to how the shooting played out.
A diagram of Garza’s work truck shows that it was pierced by bullets a total of 12 times.
Instead of driving to get Hernandez medical attention for wounds that were “bleeding profusely,” Garza began to engage in a “cat and mouse routine” with Aragon while Garza spoke to SAPD dispatchers, with each man pursuing the other man’s vehicle at times, according to records.
The pursuit eventually ended on Aragon’s street, the 2300 block of Field Wood.
According to Garza’s account of what happened next, Aragon ran toward a tree in front of a house as Garza got out of his truck and identified himself as an officer.
Garza then fired his service weapon eight times. Aragon then moved toward the walkway of his house and as he crouched down, Garza moved in closer and fired his weapon one more time, according to records detailing the shooting.
Garza believed Aragon was reloading his weapon when he fired the final shot, records show.
Aragon then collapsed onto his back. Garza kept Aragon at gunpoint until another officer arrived on scene and helped him handcuff Aragon, records show.
Aragon died at the scene. An autopsy performed on him revealed gunshot wounds to his arm, foot, back and “upper right side.”
The 9mm pistol used to shoot Hernandez was not recovered at the scene, records show.
SAPD the next day put out an alert asking residents in the area of Field Wood/Culebra/Reed Road to alert police if they happened to find the weapon.
The Defenders could find no record that the gun was ever recovered.
A handgun found inside his home was a different caliber and did not appear to be used in the shooting, records confirm.
Aragon’s two teenage daughters and the young child he shared with Hernandez were inside the home at the time of his death, records show.
Crime scene investigation photos obtained by the Defenders show Aragon’s key in the lock, just feet from where he died.
Garza was not injured in the shooting.
Hernandez survived her injuries.
An SAPD shooting team investigator called to the scene detected alcohol on Garza’s breath and the officer would later test positive for alcohol after submitting a sample of his urine, records show.
Garza receives indefinite suspension
Months after the shooting, in November 2012, Garza received an indefinite suspension.
Records show he was found to have violated SAPD policies and procedures related to use of city vehicles, conduct and behavior, drinking on duty, sound judgment, truthfulness of members and use of city equipment/property.
Records show Garza had permission to drink while on duty, as long as he informed his supervisors afterward.
In fact, he was provided money to do so, as long as it helped him maintain his cover as an undercover officer attempting to infiltrate criminal operations.
Still, the violation for use of intoxicants was listed in his final termination paperwork.
The case against him, however, had developed major holes by the time his appeal went before a third-party arbitrator in January 2015.
Hernandez, who was described as disoriented by SAPD investigators who questioned her after the shooting, had deleted 10 text messages sent between her and Garza the night of the shooting.
Records confirm those messages could not be found because SAPD’s Technical Unit lacked the updated software needed to recover them.
Additionally, the arbitrator slammed the city for using Hernandez as a fact witness because her statements were found to be inconsistent and false.
“It is disturbing that the City has admitted that while there are, according to phone company records, ten (10) text messages missing from the time period between July 26th, 8:05 to July 26th, 11:30 they did not acknowledge that their investigation was not complete,” the arbitrator’s ruling states.
The arbitrator also said that Garza was consistent in his statements after the shooting and that the internal affairs investigation of him fell short of being fairly and objectively conducted.
In June 2015, the arbitrator shortened Garza’s indefinite suspension to 15 days, time served.
The rubber gun squad
Garza was also cleared of criminal wrongdoing in the shooting.
But that did not stop city officials from sneering at his reinstatement to the department.
When asked about Garza’s return to the force in July 2015, then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley said, “I am appalled that an arbitrator has given Michael Garza, who was fired by Chief (William) McManus in 2012, his job back. Officer Garza was drinking while on duty, was not truthful and did not follow departmental rules the evening he shot and killed someone.”
The family of Aragon did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.
A wrongful death lawsuit filed by them against Garza and the city was dropped in early 2017, according to federal court records.
Garza, meanwhile, remains a member of SAPD.
In fact, records obtained by the Defenders show that he was involved in a grievance against SAPD earlier this year related to shift differential pay.
City human resources records confirm that Garza is assigned to the department’s off-duty employment office, which schedules officers to work off-duty assignments at city facilities.
Garza is part of the “rubber gun squad,” a derogatory phrase used by police officers to describe the work environment of other officers who are no longer permitted to carry a gun or wear a uniform.
Many of them are assigned to clerical positions that keep them away from interacting with the public.
SAPD officials declined to make Garza available for an interview for this story.
“Clearly, the current collective bargaining agreement limits the Chief’s ability to appropriately discipline officers that deserve to be disciplined. We intend to bring those issues to the next contract negotiation with the police union," said City Manager Erik Walsh in a statement to KSAT. "I am hoping the police union will agree that these cases tarnish and impact the community’s confidence in our police department. The residents of San Antonio expect better behavior from police officers than what these individuals demonstrated, and frankly, so do I. Fortunately, the conduct of these few does not reflect of the high character of the more than 2,300 other officers on the streets protecting our community today.”
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