Ciro "Needed Killing"
It began with a knock on the front door, as had so many murders before it. Ciro Garcia had come to the rundown trailer on Gun Club Road in West Palm Beach to claim his wife. Kim Garcia was deep in a crack addiction. He had heard Kim was living with two lesbians who supposedly seduced her into a new lifestyle. Ciro wanted her back.
Maria White answered the door, expecting a buyer for the crack they sold from the trailer with the baby-blue trim. It was her place, and 32-year-old Kim and her two girlfriends had been squatting there for a month. They all fed their crack addiction by selling it to others. Glass pipes and lighters littered the floors. Maria had heard Kim's reasoning for getting high every day: so she could hide the memories of 34-year-old Ciro's abuse, how he used to punch and beat her daily. But Maria didn't recognize the man that stormed past her into the kitchen.
"Are you going to give me the papers to the car?" Ciro demanded of Kim. She was sitting at a small folding table lighted by the sunlight from the trailer's kitchen window on the morning of July 17 last year. He wanted the title to the car they had bought together and also demanded the birth certificates for their two children. But really, he wasn't leaving without her.
"They're in the car," Kim answered. "Go take it. I don't care."
"Well, are you going to come with me?" Ciro asked, his short and muscle-filled frame -- just five feet, six inches tall but 179 pounds -- loomed over Kim. He had a wide, scarred face that projected a nasty scowl.
"No. I'm tired of being hurt."
From the living room of the double-wide, 36-year-old Lucia "Lou Ann" Alvarado got nervous. She was the unelected leader of the women. "I don't like how he looks," Lou Ann said to the fourth girl in the trailer, Rhonda Kennedy, before ducking into the rear bedroom for a gun she kept under a mattress.
Meanwhile, Kim had turned her back to her husband. "I'm not going with you," she said, looking out into the weed-filled backyard. Ciro took a couple of steps back and grabbed a seven-inch knife with a beige handle from the kitchen counter. He grabbed Kim's shoulder and jabbed the blade through the tender skin of her lower back. Kim screamed as Ciro stabbed her again and again. The knife ruptured Kim's spleen and split her intestines, spilling the dark blood that flows through those organs.
From the bedroom, Lou Ann emerged with a silver Raven handgun. She saw Ciro plunging the knife into Kim, perhaps four or five times now. Florida law allowed Lou Ann to shoot Ciro dead in an effort to protect her friend. She was about to try.
Lou Ann pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. Her father's lessons on how to shoot a gun came back to her. She undid the safety, cocked it, and this time fired three shots into the roof of the trailer as a warning. The sound of the .25-caliber handgun reverberated off the metal walls and plywood floors, and Ciro took notice. He ran for the door with Lou Ann following close behind.
Outside, Ciro's silver Isuzu pickup with a white camper top waited just steps away in the circular driveway. Jose Bertrand, whom Ciro had asked to accompany him that day, stood by, shocked at the sight of the woman chasing his neighbor with a gun.
Lou Ann stepped into the frame of the trailer door. Now the law forbade her from shooting Ciro because her friend was no longer in jeopardy. If she shot him now, even though she had just saved Kim's life, she could face murder or manslaughter charges and possibly spend her life in prison. As Ciro ran toward the truck, Lou Ann wildly unloaded the rest of the Raven's four or five bullets at Ciro's back. A bullet pierced Ciro's right hand, just below his wrist, and a second slammed him in the left shoulder. The slug passed through his back, punctured his lung, and came to a stop just before coming out of his chest.
"I can't drive," Ciro said to his friend, handing him the keys to the Isuzu. The knife dropped into the crabgrass of the front yard. Blood spilled over Jose as he helped Ciro into the bed of the pickup. Jose jumped into the driver's seat and angled the truck toward the road.
Meanwhile, Lou Ann ran back inside for a basket in the hallway where she kept spare bullets. She loaded two more in the gun, watching through the kitchen window as Jose loaded Ciro into the truck. With the gun reloaded, she stepped outside again. "You bastard!" she yelled as Jose turned onto Gun Club Road. Lou Ann ran for the driveway, unloading the gun again at the truck as she ran.
Inside, Kim slumped to the floor under the kitchen table. A ragged brown carpet, doing a poor job of covering the plywood floor, absorbed her blood like a sponge. "Did he get me in the back?" she asked, reaching around to feel the gaping wounds with her fingers. She found other slashes in her wrist and stomach that were covering her in blood. One gash that punctured her lung made her breathing laborious and slow. "Oh my God. He got me in the back. He stabbed me."
Shock came over Kim. Rhonda cradled her as blood spilled on the floor. Lou Ann came back into the trailer and held a towel onto Kim's back to stop the bleeding. "Kimberly, don't go to sleep, don't go to sleep," Lou Ann repeated over and over.
Quiet now, Kim's eyes closed.
July 17, 2002, must've been an exciting day for Eric Keith, a rookie detective with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. His assignment to conduct an inquiry into the stabbing and shooting on Gun Club Road would be his first murder investigation. A bronze-star recipient as an airborne lieutenant in the first Gulf War, Keith had spent five decorated years in the patrol car. His supervisors had picked him as deputy of the month in March, and his handling of a near-race riot in Delray Beach the year before had won him accolades from the higher-ups. High marks during regular reviews earned him a promotion to the robbery/homicide division as a detective, and he had spent two months in training.
Now, the rookie detective would have to prove himself in his first solo investigation, a possible double homicide. Keith would spend just over a month on his inquiry. His conclusion would surprise legal experts who later disagreed with his findings, saying they contradict Florida law. How he came to his determination offers some revealing insights into the thinking of those who investigate murder and the way they decide who will go free -- and even who should die. At the end, the investigation may have disappeared into a category police and prosecutors speak of in private as "N.K.," as in the victim "needed killing."
Early into the detective's inquiry, Lou Ann had bragged to several friends that she would never face charges. She claimed to have worked for the sheriff's office for years as a confidential informant. She had gotten off lightly on several previous arrests in exchange for her help in nabbing drug suppliers she knew from her months as a dealer, several of her friends said. Her criminal record seems to support it. In the past four years, Lou Ann had walked away with little more than a few months in jail for charges including prostitution, car theft, possession of narcotics equipment, and driving with a suspended license as a repeat traffic offender. So it probably wasn't surprising when Keith began the investigation by treating Lou Ann gently, without charging her with a crime or putting her in handcuffs.
Still, Keith opened a case file into possible charges against Lou Ann and Ciro. Obviously, Ciro earned little sympathy as a man who had just stabbed his wife, possibly to death. Lou Ann's case held just the opposite emotions: She had shot a man who had just finished trying to kill his wife. But her decision to chase after him as he fled meant she could spend just as much time behind bars.
Early reports released to the press from sheriff's office spokesman Paul Miller claimed Lou Ann shot Ciro as he was stabbing Kim. Miller said Lou Ann's quick thinking could have saved Kim's life. In response, a reporter from the Palm Beach Post asked Lou Ann how it felt being a hero. "That's what everyone's telling me," she told the paper, "but I don't know."
Contradicting those early press reports, Lou Ann told Keith and other deputies that she shot Ciro in the back as he ran away. Others in the trailer confirmed the story. Maria tearfully recalled for Keith how Lou Ann chased Ciro out of the trailer. "I saw Lou Ann come out [of the bedroom] with the gun and fire into the air," she said during a tape-recorded interview. "It really scared me." Then, as Ciro ran toward his truck, Lou Ann shot him from the doorway, she told Keith.
Just hours after she shot Ciro, Keith sat Lou Ann down alone for a tape-recorded interview at the sheriff's office. A broad woman, Lou Ann weighed 187 pounds and stood just an inch over five feet. A crown of short, curly black hair surrounded her pudgy, pockmarked face. The detective asked her briefly about her background, and she told him she had completed the seventh grade and could read and write.
Choking back sobs, she spent 19 minutes repeating what had happened that morning. "He just started stabbing her over and over, so I shot up in the air so he'd be scared," Lou Ann said. "He started running out the door, so I kept shooting at him till he left. I had to reload the gun and shot again as he was driving away." Four times, Keith took Lou Ann through the story. Ciro stabbed Kim. Lou Ann got the gun. She fired three warning shots into the ceiling and then shot directly at Ciro as he ran away from the trailer.
Then, nine minutes into the interview, Keith paused the tape. He clicked the recorder back on two minutes later without explaining why he turned it off. When he came back, he seemed to help Lou Ann set up her defense. "When you ran out of the trailer towards the car, you kept shooting," Keith said. "Can you tell me what was going through your mind at that point, why you kept shooting?"
"She was bleeding," Lou Ann answered. But that wasn't the kind of statement that would aid in her defense. That sounded like revenge.
"Did you feel threatened by him or --"
"Yeah," Lou Ann said, with the correct answer that just might make a jury pity her. "He still had the knife in his hand."
Near the end of the interview, with Keith's guidance, Lou Ann altered her story. Stumbling over his words, the detective said, "This is very important, so I want to make sure we're clear. Um, inside the house -- I'm trying to count for all the shots you took. Um, you fired definitely one shot towards the ceiling?"
"So there should be a bullet up in there?"
"I think. I'm not sure," Lou Ann mumbled.
"All right. I know it happens quickly," Keith assured. "Um, how many shots did you fire -- other than that one -- inside the trailer?"
"About three probably."
"And they were pretty much all at Ciro?" Keith asked, again appearing to lead her down the right path.
At the end of the interview, Keith spelled things out: "You understand I'm not charging you with anything, right?"
"You understand you're not under arrest. Have I made any promises to you?"
A half hour after Lou Ann shot him in the back, Ciro Garcia lay in the bed of his pickup. Jose had driven him a mile and a half away to a 7-Eleven on Belvedere Road, where his friend hoped to call Ciro's brother for advice. Deputies would find them there minutes later, but until then, Ciro had his last breaths to take.
With two bullet holes in his lung, every breath would've felt like knives sliding through his flesh, much like the pain he had inflicted on his wife. Blood was pouring into his lung channels, and his breathing would become quicker and more painful until his lungs could no longer work. But worse, blood poured from his back and wrist into streams flowing across the bottom of the truck bed and onto the asphalt below, leaving him increasingly cold and weak.
In his last minutes, Ciro flipped facedown on the truck bed as he struggled to breathe. Perhaps he thought back to the home he kept in rural Guerrero, Mexico. It's a small cinder-block and stucco house, with a cornfield out back. Men with wooden plows pulled by donkey tend it for him. It was nearly harvest time, the corn leaving a sweet smell in the air and the stalks tall and sharp to the touch.
Or perhaps he thought of his funeral to come. His family keeps a photo album of the weeklong ceremony, which follows centuries of local tradition. Based on funerals he had attended since he was a boy, he would have known exactly how it went. His body was laid out in his home for two days as mourners arrived to pray by the corpse. His mother hung sheets in front of a shrine adorned with costume jewelry, rows of candles, and bunches of fresh-cut daisies and carnations. At the end of the mourning, relatives carried his casket through the dirt streets of the village with a parade-style procession of his relatives. Leading the group was an old-style band, with a trumpeter, a saxophone player, and two drummers. He was buried in the family plot in a graveyard surrounded by a stone wall covered in faded stucco. His two brothers dug the shallow hole that left a mound the size of a single bed. Flowers in a tin can adorned his grave, next to a statue of the Madonna.
But through those comforting images, he would have to know that it's not likely he'd see the Madonna. Mixed with his own blood was the blood of his wife, who as far as he knew, he had just murdered. She was the woman he met 11 years earlier when she was six months pregnant. He took Kim into his home when her daughter was still an infant, and he would raise her child along with the two children they would eventually share together. Near the end of their marriage, Ciro watched helplessly as Kim became addicted to crack. She'd go through times where she would quit, only to relapse. Then she left him to feed her addiction full time. She didn't want to let her children see her stoned, so she moved in with the three women in the Gun Club Road trailer. It had been a month since they shared a bed, but Ciro had never let her go. He wouldn't let his wife disappear into the black hole of crack addiction. He would drive by the trailer several times a day and tail her car. In the end, though, faced with the realization that he would have to live without her, he would try to murder her instead of give her up.
Ciro died sometime around noon July 17, perhaps with the harrowing thought that he had just stabbed to death the woman he loved. What he didn't know was the fate of his killer.
Seven days after the shooting and stabbing on Gun Club Road, Keith took his tape recorder to room number 205 at Delray Community Hospital, where Kim Garcia was making a painful recovery. Doctors had removed her spleen. They took out her intestines, restructured and repaired them, and then methodically put them back. Thirty two staples held her stomach together, and her arm would be useless for months from two deep slashes.
She replayed what she remembered for Keith: "After the third stick, I... fell to the ground. I was losing consciousness. I heard bullets, and then I heard [Lou Ann] say, 'Kimberly don't go to sleep. Don't go to sleep, Kimberly.' I saw him run, and that's the last thing I remember. I remember I thought I was dead. I can remember not being able to breathe. I kept saying, 'Help me. Help me.'"
She told the detective that Lou Ann had come to visit her, but their friendship had died with Ciro. But for Lou Ann's sake, for the benefit of her defense to criminal charges, Kim needed to tell Keith how she feared for her life and that Lou Ann was responsible for her being alive. It didn't exactly go that way.
"You're the victim of an aggravated battery. Obviously Ciro's not around to charge," Keith said in a dry, matter-of-fact tone. "Um, but as far as, um, the whole circumstance, what is your feeling toward [Lou Ann] and her actions? I know it's not a fair question."
Kim was in tears. "I know it's not a fair question because a little bitty piece of me does have a little bit of, you know, anger, because she took the life of my husband with her. Whether he was going to take my life or not, he was still a man of, you know, 11 years of my life, the father of my children."
After the interview, Keith did little more to investigate the manslaughter charge. If he ever searched the trailer ceiling for warning shots, there's no indication of it from the 28 pages of notes he kept on the case. Keith also failed to investigate how the bullet entered Ciro to determine when he was shot. Witnesses said Ciro was stabbing Kim with his right side facing Lou Ann. The bullets couldn't have entered his back and hand from that angle but could have when he was running away. The investigation never determined why Lou Ann, a convicted felon, owned a gun. Keith could have charged her with possession of a firearm, which could have landed her in jail for several months.
In addition, the sheriff's office determined that Ciro must have been shot in the trailer because there was blood on the door. But a sample of the blood taken that day was never tested to determine if it came from Kim, whose blood was on the knife Ciro carried out the door. Blood swabs taken at the trailer were sent instead to the sheriff's office evidence locker. Sheriff's office officials denied New Times access to inspect or photograph the evidence.
On August 23, more than a month after he began his investigation, Keith sent a copy of his case file to the State Attorney's Office in West Palm Beach with the recommendation that no charges be filed. Just 12 days later, Assistant State Attorney Mary Ann Duggan sent a letter to Keith agreeing with the rookie detective's assessment. Lou Ann's "use of deadly force" was justified because Florida law allows it "to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony," Duggan wrote. Ciro was still in the act of aggravated battery when he fled from the trailer, the prosecutor determined. "Therefore, homicide charges will not be filed in this tragic incident."
Experts sought out by New Times flatly disagreed with that interpretation of the law. Chris Slobogin, a criminal law professor at the University of Florida law school, says the threat ended when Ciro ran out of the trailer with his back to Lou Ann. Geoff Alpert, a use-of-force expert and criminology professor at the University of South Carolina, agrees. "It became an issue of, can you shoot a fleeing felon?" Alpert says from his office in Columbia. "When you shoot someone running away, it's clear you're trying to punish and not stop." The law does allow police officers to shoot fleeing felons, but most departments have rules against it, Alpert says, and no Florida law allows civilians to shoot fleeing suspects.
West Palm Beach lawyer Marc Shiner, a former prosecutor who achieved fame for convicting teenager Nathaniel Brazill of shooting a teacher, agrees that the law could be interpreted to support Duggan's claim. Ciro's escape could be interpreted to be a continuation of the crime he had just committed. The assessment goes against the general rule, however, that deadly force is forbidden on a fleeing suspect. What's more, Duggan's quick conclusion was "very, very odd," Shiner says. Typically, prosecutors begin a murder investigation by filing their case in the courthouse and conducting an inquiry that could span several months. Then, prosecutors present the evidence to a grand jury, which decides if charges should be filed. Duggan did none of those things.
More likely, Keith and Duggan used logic that steps outside the law, Shiner says. It's the kind of conclusion reached in closed courthouse conference rooms and never mentioned in case files or news reports. "When I was a prosecutor," Shiner says, "I heard people call these cases an 'NK.' It stands for 'needed killing,' as in, this guy needed to be killed. Chances are, they looked at this and said, 'This guy deserved to die.' Is it right? No, but it happens."
The State Attorney's Office would not make Duggan available for comment, and Keith's supervisor, Sgt. William Spencer, says the detective is too busy to talk about his investigation. Spencer says the ultimate decision on whether to charge Lou Ann was up to the State Attorney's Office. "If [Lou Ann] is in fear of whether [Ciro] is going to return, it's up to the state to decide," Spencer says. "The girl was justified in everything she did. He could've turned around and come right back in the trailer and continued doing what he did." As to whether Lou Ann was an informant and got some protection for it, Spencer says he wasn't aware of any help she's given the sheriff's office. But what's most relevant, Spencer says, is the fact that it'd be difficult getting a jury to convict Lou Ann, asking, "How do you arrest somebody for saving a life?"
With the Gun Club Road trailer cordoned off by crime-scene tape, Maria, Kim, Lou Ann, and girlfriend Rhonda had to find a new place to live last July. After spending eight days in the hospital, Kim reportedly moved back into the Lake Worth apartment she once shared with Ciro. It's a projects-style tenement laid out in long, rectangular buildings. Trash bins overflow long before pickup day, and there are crack dealers on several corners nearby. Vines and weeds have covered the bushes out front. No one answered the door during several attempts by New Times to locate Kim there.
Maria says watching a man die and seeing her friend nearly bleed to death helped convince her she needed to clean up. She spent six months in drug rehab before taking a job as a telemarketer. She toured the trailer recently, stepping over empty cigarette packs, convenience-store cups, and rat turds that littered the floor. The bloody rug had been thrown away. Code-enforcement violations hung on the door from years of neglect to exposed wires and fist-sized holes in the floor and walls. The blue striped mattress underneath which Lou Ann had fetched the gun still lay on the bedroom floor. Maria poked her finger into a penny-sized hole in the metal front door where she said the detectives pulled out a bullet. Was it a warning shot or one meant for Ciro? Keith's report doesn't mention it.
Maria's trying to sell the trailer. "I'd have nightmares if I moved back in here," she says in the kitchen where Kim nearly died. "I mean, there was a stabbing and a shooting here."
Lou Ann and her girlfriend ended up at the home of Rhonda's sister on Mango Drive in suburban West Palm Beach. They were both there on a recent afternoon, although they didn't have much to say about the murder. "What's this all about?" Lou Ann, in a baggy gray T-shirt and baseball hat, asked from the front porch. "The investigation is over. It's been over. We don't have anything to talk about."
Rhonda tried to calm things down. "I'm sure it's no big deal," Rhonda said. "This has been over for months." Lou Ann wasn't in the mood to talk. She took a step inside the small blue home just a few miles south of Gun Club Road and ordered Rhonda to follow her.
But before she left, Lou Ann said: "I'm going inside. I'm going to call Eric Keith. I know he'll want to hear about this."
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