Accused killer Garcia will face trial in Mexico
Stan Hilkey was 24 and in his third year as a Mesa County sheriff’s deputy when he was called out just after midnight on the Fourth of July in 1989.
He joined the search for a man suspected of shooting to death a neighbor.
It was a pitch-black night, and Hilkey remembered thinking, as he and other officers combed the orchards of East Orchard Mesa, that the man could jump out from behind a tree in the darkness and fire at them before they saw him.
In the nearly two decades that have passed, the Sheriff’s Department and jail moved to new locations and Hilkey worked his way up the ladder to become sheriff.
But one thing didn’t change: Rafael Aguilar “Shorty” Garcia, the man suspected of killing Charles Porter in an apparent love-triangle dispute, was still roaming free out there somewhere.
Until last week.
Garcia, now 59, was captured in Mexico in connection with the slaying of the 38-year-old Porter, who was stabbed and shot twice in the head with a shotgun at close range. The arrest ends a bout of frustration for investigators, who had drawn up a warrant for Garcia within hours of coming upon the bloody crime scene and knew he had fled to Mexico, but were unable to nab him.
“Evidence wasn’t the issue. Locating him was,” said Mesa County sheriff’s investigator Lissah Norcross, who worked hand-in-hand with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office for the last three years to dig into the cold case.
In an unusual legal step, Garcia will be tried not by Mesa County prosecutors in state district court here, but by Mexican prosecutors in a federal court there.
As an alternative to extradition, Mexican federal criminal law allows a Mexican citizen who commits a crime in the U.S. to be prosecuted in Mexico if the original investigating agency will turn over its case.
Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said this is the first time a local case will be tried in another country.
The arrest comes just two months before Garcia would have avoided answering allegations permanently. In this particular murder case, Mexico had a 20-year statute of limitations, investigators said.
Authorities were motivated to move the case to Mexico in part because that country won’t extradite suspects who are accused of first-degree murder and, therefore, eligible for the death penalty. If the case were tried locally, the charges likely would have to be reduced to second-degree murder, which would result in a lighter prison sentence.
However, after considering Garcia’s age, the emotional toll a trial would take on Porter’s family and the expense of extradition and putting on a murder trial here, Hautzinger said it made more sense to allow Mexican officials to try the case.
“It’s certainly a life sentence,” he said. “He’s never going to see the light of day. We could have jumped through all the hoops to try to get him back up here, but time in a Mexican prison is probably more strenuous.”
Hilkey said Porter’s relatives, who have since moved from the area, wanted authorities to catch Garcia on U.S. soil so he could be tried on first-degree murder charges. However, after
it became apparent Garcia would not return to the United States, investigators re-examined their options.
Norcross said Mesa County investigators knew almost immediately, based on conversations with his relatives, that Garcia had fled to Mexico. But after working the case hard for a year, they weren’t able to find him. The case went cold.
Then, in 2006, Norcross and LuzMaria Shearer, coordinator of the Foreign Prosecution Unit of the state Attorney General’s Office, picked up the investigation and began looking into the possibility of pursuing a foreign prosecution.
Norcross and Shearer rifled through boxes full of evidence and reports in the case and had documents translated into Spanish. They reinterviewed witnesses to the crime. They mailed everything to federal prosecutors in Mexico for them to determine whether they believed there was a sufficient case to prosecute.
Then, they and Hilkey traveled to Mexico in February 2008 to make their case to a judge.
“1989, that’s a long time ago,” Shearer said. “We had enough information to locate a suspect and felt very confident with that information.”
After hearing the evidence, a Mexican federal judge signed a warrant for Garcia’s arrest a few months ago, and Garcia was apprehended Thursday afternoon.
Mexican government offices are closed until Wednesday because of the swine flu outbreak, so Shearer had not received word back yet on the exact charges Garcia is facing. She recommended charges of first-degree murder and other lesser charges of assault and attempted murder.
Shearer said it will probably take a judge anywhere from six months to two years to hand down a judgment and sentence, which is the next formal step in the process.
“It depends on the case itself,” she said. “Being that it’s an old homicide, I’m sure it will be a big challenge.”