‘It was very painful’: Police wrongly accused a man after his mother was fatally shot in Pacific Beach
Mary Garcia was fatally shot Sept. 13 in Pacific Beach; her son was arrested and charged in her death, but he was freed a week later
About 12 hours after 65-year-old Mary Garcia was fatally shot in Pacific Beach in September, her son was arrested and accused of murder.
A little more than a week later, the charges against her 27-year-old son were dropped. San Diego police weren’t certain he was the killer, according to court records.
The records offer the clearest account yet of the investigation, revealing a glimpse into how police built a case against Garcia’s son, Daniel Caldera, and how it fell apart. The records also offer a bit of insight into how some people are wrongfully accused of crimes: faulty suspect descriptions, incorrect assumptions by investigators, misinterpretations of a suspect’s behavior.
Caldera was unavailable for an interview. He started a yearlong trauma and substance abuse treatment program a few days after he was released from county jail.
His brother Anthony Garcia visited him in custody. Garcia said the wrongful arrest compounded the pain of losing his mother. “It was very painful for me,” he said.
According to an affidavit in support of an arrest warrant, investigators said Caldera admitted he owned several items of clothing similar to those the shooter was seen wearing in surveillance video recorded at the time of the killing. They also said he made conflicting statements to detectives about whether he was the person in the video.
A witness came forward later and provided information that essentially absolved Caldera of the crime. He was released from jail a week after the fatal shooting.
Detectives ultimately found evidence they said points to a new suspect: Felipe Villegas. No motive has been disclosed.
The San Diego Police Department referred questions about the investigation to the county District Attorney’s Office.
The office said in a statement that prosecutors follow “the evidence and law when making charging decisions.”
“Investigations don’t end after charges are filed and sometimes new evidence leads to additional charges or additional defendants being charged,” the office said. “In a few cases, the new evidence leads to a dismissal of charges.”
“We are committed to pursuing fair and equal justice, and work with our law enforcement partners to deliver it.”
Mary Garcia was shot in her head on the beach near Reed Avenue, south of Crystal Pier, about 12:35 a.m. on Sept. 13.
A witness told detectives he saw a woman, later identified as Garcia, and a man on the beach. The man extended his arm straight out and shot the woman, the witness said, according to the warrant.
The shooter ran east toward the boardwalk and north on the walkway.
The witness ran toward a group of foreign exchange students and asked them to call 911.
Garcia was taken to a hospital, where she died.
At the scene, officers found a shell casing.
As the investigation unfolded, detectives obtained surveillance camera video of the suspected shooter.
The footage shows the gunman walking south on the boardwalk, jumping over a sea wall and walking onto the beach, according to the warrant. The person disappears briefly, and the footage does not capture the spot where Garcia was shot. Then the person reappears, jumps over the sea wall and walks away, headed north on the boardwalk.
Hours later, an unrelated matter led police to Caldera.
Police responded to a report of a disturbance at a property management office on Mission Boulevard, a few blocks away from the spot on the beach where Garcia was killed.
According to the warrant, the disturbance involved an SUV — a Honda Pilot — and a man, later identified as Caldera, who told police he and his mother were living in the vehicle. The Honda was registered to Garcia.
According to the warrant, investigators said Caldera seemed nervous and lied when asked to provide his name. He was wearing beige pants that looked similar to what Garcia’s suspected killer wore, per the surveillance camera video, and officers noticed what looked like a blood spot on the pants. They also saw a black Adidas hat in the vehicle that matched a cap the suspect was wearing.
The observations led to Caldera being placed in handcuffs. He was arrested on suspicion of murder.
When detectives interviewed him, they showed him an image of the shooter from the surveillance camera footage. Asked whether he was the person in the photo, Caldera gave conflicting answers, according to police.
Caldera said he was wearing white shoes, not black shoes like the man in the video, the night his mother was killed, although he said he owned black shoes. The suspect wore a black hoodie, and Caldera said he owned a black jacket. He said the Adidas hat was his, and that he wore it “frequently over the past week,” according to the warrant.
Two days after the fatal shooting, Caldera was charged with murder in San Diego Superior Court. He pleaded not guilty.
‘What would mom want?’
Anthony Garcia said his mother relocated from Turlock, in California’s Central Valley, to San Diego around February to be with Caldera, who was struggling with substance abuse and anxiety.
Garcia, who lives in the Los Angeles area, said his family learned about his mother’s death from the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office but didn’t get many details. He initially assumed his mother died in her sleep.
He worried about whether his brother was OK and tried to contact him but was unsuccessful. He didn’t know it yet but his brother had been arrested.
It was a news article that revealed the circumstances: His mother had been killed, his brother arrested.
“What would mom want?” Garcia said he asked himself.
The answer: to be there for his brother, he said. He recalled that their mother had told them that one day she’d be gone and that they’d need to band together.
When Garcia visited his brother in jail, Caldera said he was innocent. He seemed hopeless, Garcia said.
“I couldn’t see that light in his eyes,” he said.
Garcia said he didn’t ponder whether his brother was guilty. He was mostly in shock that his brother was in jail and Garcia was afraid to “lose” another family member.
While Caldera sat in jail, the investigation continued — and ultimately took a turn.
The San Diego Police Department’s crime lab determined that a red spot found on Caldera’s pants was not blood as initially suspected. And testing showed no gunshot residue on his hands or the clothes investigators collected as evidence.
Detectives tracked down a man who spoke to the killer before the shooting, as seen in surveillance video. When they interviewed him, the man said he knew Caldera — but he didn’t know the person in the video.
“At this point in the investigation, we had been unable to locate evidence supporting Daniel Caldera’s conflicting statements that indicated he was the suspect in the surveillance video,” San Diego police Officer Boe Dower wrote in the warrant.
On Sept. 20, a week after the fatal shooting and Caldera’s arrest, he was released from jail. The charges against him were dropped two days later.
A turn toward a new suspect
Detectives continued to review video and discovered the shooter arrived at the beach around midnight the day Garcia was killed and left about 10 minutes later. The gunman was driving a red Jeep Wrangler, according to the warrant.
The license plate led detectives to the registered owner: Villegas’ girlfriend. She told police he owns a car but he sometimes borrows hers.
On Sept. 15, Villegas told her he was going to visit family in Alabama. Instead he was arrested in Texas.
Authorities in Texas allege Villegas stole a woman’s purse and wallet and fired two rounds at her at a hotel in Pecos in Reeves County about 5:50 a.m. Sept. 16. The woman was not injured.
About 45 minutes later, he allegedly carjacked a Ford F-250 at gunpoint at a gas station in the city of Monahans, in Ward County, Texas, but he was shot once in the chest and crashed. He was arrested a short time later.
Found in the stolen pickup was a 9mm handgun, registered to Villegas, according to the warrant.
On Sept. 23, San Diego police served a search warrant at Villegas’ home on Garnet Avenue. Detectives found clothes that matched those worn by Garcia’s suspected killer: two black sweaters, a pair of tan pants and a pair of black Nike shoes with sand on the bottom. They found three 9mm shell casings — similar to the casing found on the beach where Garcia was killed — and an empty gun case.
They also reviewed cellphone records, which showed Villegas’ cellphone was connected to cellphone tower near the homicide scene at the time of the shooting.
San Diego police detectives eventually flew to Texas to collect evidence, including Villegas’ handgun. Later, through a ballistics test, police determined the gun fired the casing officers found where Garcia was shot.
Villegas remains in custody. He will be extradited to San Diego, but not before he faces charges in Texas, according to the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office.
After he was released from jail, Caldera — who has two daughters, ages 3 and 7 — moved into a sober living home. His brother said he experienced cyber bullying over the false accusations against him and was paranoid because he was afraid his mother’s killer would come after him.
Caldera relapsed and was kicked out of the home. He was unsheltered for two days before he called Garcia and asked for help.
Caldera completed a weeklong program at a detox center, then started a program at a trauma-focused treatment facility. The latest program will last a year.
“I hope for the sake of himself and his children he will come out of this stronger,” Garcia said. But he also hopes other traits — his brother’s friendliness and trust in others — don’t vanish. “I hope it doesn’t cause him to harden his heart.”
Justin Brooks, director of the San Diego-based California Innocence Project, said Caldera’s arrest is proof of flaws in the criminal justice system, namely the police work that leads to prosecutions.
“The fundamental problem is (police) go along with their theory and then build the case from there,” Brooks said. “It’s very dangerous when police quickly move to one assumption and then move from there.”
Brooks said the case shows police sometimes make assumptions based on vague descriptions of suspects — or their clothes — or zero in on family members who they believe are acting strange, even though their actions may be a result of trauma as opposed to guilt.
To make an arrest, police rely on probable cause, which Brooks characterized as vague. The legal standard is generally defined as “reasonable” belief that someone committed a crime.
“When police are arresting a son in the murder of his mother, you would think they would be scrupulous,” Brooks said. “You’re compounding a horrendously traumatic event with another horrendously traumatic event.”
He said wrongful arrests can hurt not only the wrongly accused but also future prosecutions, because defense attorneys can cast a sense of doubt upon the case police built.
Asked to respond to Brooks’ comments, the Police Department deferred to the statement from the District Attorney’s Office.
Garcia said his family is not upset with police. His family believes they were acting in the best interests of his mother, Garcia said.
He described his mother — who left behind seven children — as kind, spontaneous and affectionate. He said her laugh “would fill up the room.” She enjoyed cooking and singing along to music from Carlos Santana, Marvin Gaye, Kenny G and “anything (else) with a sax,” Garcia said.
Garcia said he didn’t grieve his mother’s death right away. He was too concerned about his brother’s situation. Now he is ready for closure. He hopes for justice in his mother’s case.