By Gwynneth Redemann
MERCED, CA- In a preliminary hearing here in Merced County Superior Court, Judge Carol Ash this week found sufficient evidence for multiple felony charges, including attempted murder and robbery, against Thomas Garcia, an alleged member of the Norteños gang.
According to arguments made by Deputy District Attorney Natalia Enero, on March 3 Garcia and other members of the Norteños gang were parked outside of a Shop & Save Market when Garcia followed the victim, intending to rob him of his belongings.
The victim told the detective and responding officer on the case that Garcia tried to rob him, but when the victim refused and fought back, Garcia pulled out his gun and shot the victim.
Detective Javier Artiaga said Garcia’s ankle monitor location, tracked by a website called Behavioral Intervention (BI), indicated he was at three scenes related to the incident, including the crime scene around 7:52 pm.
Defense Attorney Jeffrey Castleton questioned law enforcement’s ability to speak to the location Garcia during the crime, given that the ankle monitor is tracked by a third party (BI).
Castleton asked the witness if he “had gone to school for computer technology” or “if [he] had taken any classes on how GPS systems work?”
Detective Artiaga answered “no” to all of the questions Castleton asked about his education on the ankle monitoring devices, indicating his limited expertise on the actual functioning of the devices.
Castleton continued, asking whether anyone checked if the ankle monitors were functioning properly during the time of the incident with the defendant.
Again, Detective Artiaga answered with a resounding, “No.”
Defense Attorney Christopher Loethen, attorney for Garcia’s girlfriend, who is being charged with accessory related to the crime, asked whether Detective Artiaga was “aware of a margin of error” with the ankle devices and whether he “had received specific training on how to use the system?”
Detective Artiaga answered, stating that he was not aware of this and that he had not received any training on the particular tracking mechanisms of the devices.
DDA Enero redirected the conversation, asking whether the tracking systems “had ever not worked or if [he had] ever seen them malfunction?”
According to Detective Artiaga, he had never experienced the GPS tracking ankle monitors not working properly and had no reason to believe that anything had interfered with the tracking of Garcia on the night of the robbery.
The prosecution moved on to another witness who was also a detective with the Merced County Sheriff’s Office and had experience with members of the Norteños gang, including Garcia.
The detective testified, explaining his understanding of the Norteños gang and the previous encounters that he had with Garcia.
According to the detective, Garcia was an active gang member in the Norteños for about “three to four years” and had tattoos that showed his gang affiliation including a web tattoo with four dots. He also was seen in social media posts “putting up gang signs.”
Enero asked the detective what common activities the Norteños gang participated in and whether something like robbery was typical of the group.
The detective responded, stating that “robbery, homicide, possession of firearms, etc.,” are all activities that the Norteños gang engages in.
Enero also asked “how it benefits individual gang members by committing these robberies” such as the alleged robbery with defendant Garcia.
The detective stated, “They get respect, they get notoriety because not every gang member that possesses a gun is willing to go out and commit a robbery.”
He continued, “That’s their [gang members] social mobility system. They do these things (like robbery, shootings) so that they get more status.”
In the closing arguments of the preliminary examination, Castleton argued the victim was unable to identify Garcia as the robber, given pictures of various suspects.
Castleton also tried to reduce the enhancement charges against his client by suggesting “sometimes gang members go off script,” implying no premeditation to the crime.
Although the prosecution noted surveillance from the night indicates that a group of Norteños had been sitting outside the market in their cars for a few hours, with one of those members matching the description of Garcia.
Judge Carol Ash had “strong suspicion” and found “sufficient evidence” to move forward with a majority of the counts including attempted murder, robbery, and felon possession of a firearm.
The charges against Garcia’s girlfriend were dismissed, because Judge Ash found that there was insufficient evidence proving that she was involved in the alleged crime, aside from being at the residence where Garcia was staying after the incident.
Garcia is set to appear for an arraignment hearing on Nov. 10 prior to trial setting.