Suspect in 1989 murder arrested
He's accused of killing man in Palisade
The suspect in a brutal murder in Palisade in the late 1980s was arrested Monday, after he eluded authorities for the first 20 years after the crime, was captured in Mexico, then avoided conviction for the Colorado crime in Mexican court.
Rafael “Shorty” Aguilar Garcia, now 67, was taken into custody by Denver police officers who found that a first-degree murder warrant for his arrest still existed in the U.S.
Garcia is accused of the 1989 murder of 38-year-old Charles Porter in Palisade. Garcia’s ex-wife, who was romantically involved with Porter at the time, told sheriff’s deputies that shortly after midnight on July 4, 1989, Garcia showed up at her home in the 3600 block of F Road. He allegedly forced his way in, stabbed Porter, then shot him twice in the head with a shotgun at close range. Garcia fled the site of the shooting, and didn’t resurface again for 20 years.
He was unsuccessfully prosecuted in Mexico for Porter’s murder under a section of Mexican criminal law several years ago.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Megan Terlecky said Thursday that she didn’t know the circumstances leading to Garcia’s arrest Monday by the Denver Police Department, and representatives from the department would not release any information because Garcia was transferred to Mesa County.
Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein said that even though Garcia had been tried in Mexico in connection to Porter’s killing, the original warrant for his arrest was still active in the U.S.
“This is a capital case, it’s first-degree murder with a possibility of life (in prison) as a sentence and it has no statute of limitations,” Rubinstein said. “This kind of warrant remains active forever.”
Rubinstein said Garcia is currently in the country legally, although neither he nor Terlecky knew how long Garcia has been back in the U.S., nor any other details about his immigration status.
After his arrest in Denver, Garcia was transferred to Mesa County, where he appeared before County Judge Gretchen Larson on Thursday to be advised of his possible charges. Garcia appeared in yellow jail garb, fidgeting with his glasses, and was accompanied by a Spanish interpreter and a public defender.
Larson agreed to Rubinstein’s request that Garcia be held without bond in the case during his prosecution, and ordered that he appear before District Judge Lance Timbreza at 8 a.m. Oct. 20.
Garcia’s latest arrest marks the beginning of a new chapter of a complicated and unusual case.
Pete Hautzinger, who was Mesa County’s district attorney in 2009 when Garcia was captured, said the outcome of Garcia’s earlier prosecution by Mexican authorities was disappointing. Hautzinger said he initially believed it would be a “slam-dunk” case.
After Garcia’s 2009 arrest, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reached out to Mesa County law enforcement about whether they’d be interested in cooperating with Mexican authorities to see the then 59-year-old prosecuted.
Mexico is notoriously hesitant to extradite its own citizens to Colorado, a death-penalty state, even if prosecutors offer assurances that they aren’t pursuing the death penalty. As an alternative, however, Mexican federal criminal law allows Mexican prosecutors to try a citizen of Mexico for crimes committed in another country if the original investigating agency will turn over the case – a practice spelled out in Article 4 of the Mexican federal penal code. When FBI investigators reached out to Hautzinger to see if he was interested in handing the case over to Mexican prosecutors, he agreed.
The district attorney’s office applied for a grant of about $10,000 that was needed to obtain Spanish translations of all the necessary reports, Hautzinger said. Current Colorado Department of Public Safety chief Stan Hilkey, who was serving as Mesa County’s sheriff at the time, flew to Mexico City along with sheriff’s investigator Lissah Norcross, and a representative from the state attorney general’s office. The trio presented the case to Mexican federal prosecutors, who agreed to try Garcia. The proceedings took considerable time, and Hautzinger and Hilkey said it was much later that they learned that the prosecution had been unsuccessful.
“I was disappointed,” Hilkey said. “I have a high degree of confidence that the right guy was being looked at. I don’t know what the barrier was.”
Hautzinger said he thinks Garcia’s case was the only time the Mesa County DA’s office has made use of the Article 4 provisions to cooperate with a prosecution in Mexico.
“I don’t know the particulars of what happened down there, but I was very disappointed to learn that he had either been acquitted or let out,” Hautzinger said. “I don’t know if I’d recommend Dan (Rubinstein) or anyone else prosecute under Article 4” without learning more about what happened in Garcia’s trial in Mexico.
Rubinstein and Hautzinger both said that the concept of “double jeopardy” doesn’t apply in Garcia’s case, because his original court proceeding was in a sovereign nation with a completely separate jurisdiction.
“If he was dumb enough to come back to the United States, we’re free to prosecute him,” Hautzinger said.
Garcia’s arrest and pending prosecution comes as a relief to Hilkey, who at the time of the shooting was in his first three years as a deputy and was on duty.
“I was still pretty new and we were out in the middle of a field in the dark going after a killer we thought might be armed. You don’t forget something like that,” Hilkey said. “I’m glad (Garcia was re-arrested). … It was a brutal killing. I like to see cases like that resolved.”