Man’s death ends ‘reign of terror’

Gustavo Garcia, 36, of Visalia dies in high speed chase after leaving trail of victims in crime spree from Sultana to Pixley

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

TULARE COUNTY – A Visalia man went on a murderous rampage up and down Tulare County earlier this week that didn’t stop until he died in a high-speed chase.

Gustavo Garcia, 36, of Visalia killed at least one person and possibly another, shoot three others, shot at several more, and sent four more to the hospital in a violent crime spree that spanned a dozen crime scenes from Sultana to Pixley in less than a day. What made the crimes more terrifying is that little is known about the motives for Garcia’s rage and if and how the seemingly random acts of violence are connected to the ex-convict.

“The suspect’s life ended in a traffic accident but we can say that his reign of terror is over,” Sheriff Mike Boudreaux said at a press conference on Monday, Dec. 17 at the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office Headquarters. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims.”

Joining Sheriff Boudreaux at a press conference Monday were Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar, California Highway Patrol Lt. Scott Goddard, Exeter Police Chief John Hall, and Tulare Interim Police Chief Matt Machado. Sheriff Boudreaux pointed out that the press conference was a testament to the collaboration between law enforcement agencies in Tulare County, but also to the sheer scope of Garcia’s savagery.

What began Sunday as an attempted murder of a farmworker in an orchard and an armed robbery at a mini mart minutes later in Exeter, evolved into a crime spree around Tulare County, including the murder of a man at a gas station in Visalia, shootings in Pixley, Sultana, another shooting in Visalia and an attempted murder at the Motel 6 in Tulare. Lindsay Police are also investigating a murder, they believe, involved the same suspect.

“As we were in the room preparing for this press conference, we learned of additional cases,” said Sheriff Boudreaux, who said the Sheriff’s Department is still investigating if the Lindsay case is connected.

The random acts of violence began on Sunday afternoon. Just after 1 p.m. on Dec. 16, deputies responded to a shooting in the area of Balaam Avenue and Filbert Road in Exeter. A farmworker was on a ladder picking fruit when he heard a car slam on its brakes. He then heard three or four gunshots. As he fell off the ladder, he noticed the ladder was being hit by gunfire. And when he landed on the ground, he realized he had been shot in the chest. He was taken by to Kaweah Delta Medical Center where he was treated for serious injuries but is expected to make a full recovery.

Less than five minutes later, a man walked into the AA Gas and Grub, 520 S. Kaweah Ave. in Exeter, demanded money from the clerk and then fired three shots at the ceiling. There were several employees and customers but no one was hurt. The suspect got away with more than $2,000 in cash. Deputies believe the shots were fired at the farm worker to serve as a distraction to law enforcement before heading over to rob the gas station.

Deputies were able to track down surveillance video of the robbery and shooting in Exeter and determined the car involved in both crimes was a silver Honda Pilot SUV. Video from the gas station also showed a second suspect get out of the same vehicle and enter before Garcia, possibly to scout out the location. Exeter Police Chief John Hall described the man as a Hispanic male adult, in his late 20s to early 30s, standing 5’6” to 5’8” feet tall and weighing between 150-160 pounds. The man had short black hair and was wearing a dark blue shirt and dark pants. He also has a dark-colored tattoo on the side of his right forearm. Police are also seeking information on the silver SUV.

“This person and vehicle, we believe, are connected to other cases,” Sheriff Boudreaux said.

The crime spree continued south. At 3:20 p.m. that afternoon, the Lindsay Police Department was dispatched for shots fired in the 100 block of North Harvard Avenue. Officers located a 38-year-old Hispanic male adult, whose name was not available as of press time, suffering from a gunshot wound. LPD reported that a man, whom they also believe to be Garcia, fired several rounds at the victim while he was standing in front of his home. The suspect was transported by ambulance to an area hospital where he was later pronounced dead.

“The car that was involved in this case matches the description of the one involved in other cases,” Lindsay Police Chief Chris Hughes said. Anyone with information is encouraged to call Lt. Ryan Heinks at 559-562-2511.

That night, Garcia tried to shoot and kill a woman at the Motel 6 in Tulare. Interim Tulare Police Chief Matt Machado said his officers responded to a shooting at Motel 6, 111 N. Blackstone Ave., at 7:30 p.m. A woman said she was walking to her car when she saw a man walking toward her. He followed her to her car and then suddenly began firing at her vehicle.

Upon arrival officers contacted the victim, a 56-year-old female, who had a gunshot wound to her arm and chest, according to Tulare PD. The injuries did not appear life-threatening and she was treated at a local hospital. The victim said she did not know the man.

“We later learned of the officer involved shooting and the collision,” Chief Machado said. “The victim then positively identified Garcia as being the person involved in the shooting.”

About 15 minutes later, Garcia shot another person. At 7:57 p.m., Visalia police responded to the 1500 block of West Oriole where a man was found with a gunshot wound. The man said he was in his car when the shots were fired and was not immediately aware he had been shot. He was taken by ambulance to Kaweah Delta Medical Center where he was treated for the non-life threatening wound.

The Sheriff’s Department stated that Garcia continued his “rampage” into the south county. At 1:24 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 17, Garcia is believed to have fired shots into the Shell Gas Station, 560 E. Terra Bella Ave. in Pixley.

“This situation definitely could have been much worse,” Sheriff Boudreaux said.

Just an hour later, Garcia was back in Visalia. At 2:33 a.m., Visalia officers responded to a “shots fired” call at the AM/PM gas station, 600 Lovers Lane, where they found a man who was dead. Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar said the deceased male was later identified as Rocky Paul Jones, 51, of Visalia. Salazar said the shooting appeared to be random and that police are still investigating if the two men knew each other. All Salazar could confirm is that Jones was at the store prior to Garcia’s arrival and that they had a brief interaction before Garcia pulled out his gun and shot Jones several times.

Less than an hour after the murder at the AM/PM, around 3:15 a.m., Garcia went into the backyard of a home in the 2300 block of North Sowell Street and fired several shots, but it was unclear as of press time if the shots were fired into the home, in the air or into the ground. Chief Salazar said the home belonged to a woman who said the shooter was her ex-boyfriend, Gustavo Garcia, who made threats at her while firing the gun. This was a key break in the case as VPD was able to identify Garcia and learned he was the same suspect being sought by the Sheriff’s Department and Exeter Police.

“Something made him distraught, emotionally,” said Sheriff Boudreaux, who was careful not to draw direct correlation to the ex girlfriend. “There may have been a relational situation that came to an end, something that really impacted his good decision making.”

Thirty minutes later, he also fired shots at a home in Sultana. Police were unsure how the locations were related. “We are incredible fortunate that more people were not hurt,” Sheriff Boudreaux said. “These acts of violence were random. This person targeted anyone who got in his way. He was a violent person.”

At 5 a.m. Monday, Visalia Police spotted the silver Honda Pilot near the intersection of Dunworth Street and Mineral King Avenue. This kicked off a brief pursuit traveling westbound on Mineral King.

“He was able to evade officers by blowing through stop lights,” Chief Salazar said.

At 6:40 a.m. Monday, Sheriff’s deputies spotted a stolen vehicle stopped on the side of the road on Lovers Lane at Avenue 256 south of Visalia. Deputies believed the car was broken down and that Garcia was nearby. That’s when Garcia fired on deputies, who then fired back.

“The suspect very brazenly opened fire on deputies and we are very fortunate that none of them were struck,” Sheriff Boudreaux said.

Garcia next ran into a nearby orchard where Sheriff’s deputies and Visalia officers began to set up a perimeter. While in the orchard, Garcia found three farm workers returning from work when he took their 1988 GMC 1500 pickup at gunpoint and drove off.

“Deputies who were involved in the shooting … they ran into harm’s way. They are truly heroes,” Sheriff Boudreaux said. “VPD officers who teamed up and moved in on the suspect, whom they knew had just fired on deputy Sheriffs. They are heroes as well.”

Visalia Police Officers were able to catch up with the carjacked vehicle and Tulare County Sheriff’s Deputies followed behind them, as Garcia led them on a chase eastbound on Highway 137. By this time, multiple agencies from around the county were assisting and Garcia began swerving into oncoming traffic.

“It appears he was trying to ram cars off the road to district law enforcement,” Sheriff Boudraux said.

He passed the intersection of Highway 137 and Highway 65 near Lindsay at speeds more than 100 mph. South of Lindsay, Garcia began driving southbound in the northbound lanes of Highway 65, again attempting to strike vehicles, before colliding with oncoming traffic at Linda Vista Avenue at 7:12 a.m. on Dec. 17. The truck initially hit a 2010 Honda and a 1987 Mazda before his momentum hurdled the carjacked pickup into a 2003 Honda and a 2017 Hyundai. The drivers of the 2003 Honda and Mazda suffered major injuries and were taken to Kaweah Delta Medical Center in Visalia and Sierra View Medical Center in Porterville, respectively. One of them remains in critical condition. The driver of the 2010 Honda and the Hyundai suffered moderate injuries and were take to Sierra View. All are expected to live.

“Our prayers go out to them and we pray for their recovery,” Sheriff Boudreaux said.

Lt. Scott Goddard with the Porterville office of the California Highway Patrol, said the collision was devastating as cars are not designed to take head-on impacts at speeds of 100 mph in one direction and 60 mph in another.
“The cab separated from the bed of the truck, the axle separated from the frame and it was spread over quite a distance,” Lt. Goddard said.

The initial impact ejected Garcia through the front windshield and he was pronounced dead at the scene. An autopsy had not been conducted to determine if Garcia was under the influence of drugs or alcohol but the CHP indicated that they did not appear to be a factor.

“We won’t see him brought to justice, but we can say that his reign of terror for Tulare County has come to an end,” Sheriff Boudreaux said.

Garcia had a history of criminal and violent behavior. Sheriff Boudreaux said his rap sheet dates back to more than 15 years when he was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon in Reedley, Calif. and armed robbery in Fresno County in 2002. He was sentenced to two years in prison for the armed robbery. In 2003 he was arrested for vandalism and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. In 2012 he was arrested for being under the influence of and in possession of methamphetamine as well as drug paraphernalia. Earlier this year, he was arrested for being under the influence of drugs and providing false information to an officer.

It is also not known what Garcia’s immigration status is. He had an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hold in 2004, 2012 and 2014 and he appeared in federal court for immigration reasons in 2012 and 2014 before being deported in 2014.

Anyone with information regarding this investigation is encouraged to call the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Camacho or Detective Burns at (559)733-6218. Or send anonymous information by text or email to TCSO@tipnow.com or call (559) 725-4194.

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