(Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

The text message popped up on San Antonio police officer Michael Garza’s phone at 8:05 p.m. A 27-year-old woman he sometimes called “my love” needed a favor.

“Do you think you can be my designated driver so I don’t drink & drive?”

“Wen?” Garza texted back.

“Tonight. Drop me off around 10:15. Then pick me up around 1:30…& have sex after :)”

On that night, July 26, 2012, Garza was a valued member of the police department. His superiors praised him as a rare talent in the gang unit with a gift for undercover work. Twice in his 10 years on the force, the 33-year-old was named Officer of the Year.

Now, he is not allowed to interact with the public.

By the end of his shift in the pre-dawn hours of the next day, the officer stood amid a grim scene. The woman sat in his passenger seat, bleeding from two gunshot wounds. Her ex-boyfriend lay dead feet from his front door, shot in the back. And Garza, with blood-streaked hands, watched as fellow officers arrived and began investigating him.

His supporters would later depict Garza as an intrepid officer who possibly saved a woman and three children. City officials would fault him for drinking on duty, failing to seek medical help for a wounded woman, and chasing down and shooting an unarmed suspect.

Garza was fired months later, but like many officers who have faced the same discipline, his career did not end. He instead became one of the hundreds of fired officers across the nation who have been rehired after arbitrators overturned police chiefs’ decisions. As The Washington Post reported in August, more than 451 fired officers have been reinstated to 37 of the nation’s largest police departments since 2006. San Antonio has rehired 31 officers.

A close look at Garza’s case — chronicled through interviews, court documents and police records obtained by The Post through open-records requests — reveals the events that cost Garza his job and the dilemma police departments often face when forced to rehire officers they don’t want.

Some police chiefs reluctantly return guns and patrol duties to officers they fired. Others do what San Antonio’s chief did with Garza: He put him back on the payroll but relegated him to administrative duties, or what the head of the city’s police union calls “the rubber gun squad.”

“They’re basically taking paper clips off paper, filing paperwork or making copies for somebody,” police union president Mike Helle said. Of Garza, he said, “He might as well be a clerk. You took a good cop that made a lot of good cases and you just put him on a bookshelf. Are you really even a cop anymore at that point?”

Top San Antonio officials insist that Garza should remain off the streets.

“Officer Garza’s actions were so egregious, I was flabbergasted when I received word that an arbitrator had overturned the termination,” San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley said. “We felt that he was not capable of serving our community well and was a liability to the city.”

‘A rare ability’

A former military police officer for the U.S. Air Force, Garza joined the San Antonio Police Department in 2002, and it did not take him long to gain recognition.

He was named Officer of the Month for his patrol region in 2004, praised for seizing more than two pounds of marijuana and making 25 felony arrests. He also received commendations for taking drugs and weapons off the streets.

“His dependability, judgment, quality of work, job knowledge, initiative, and work attitude for such a young officer sets such high standards for future officers to obtain,” one notice of merit reads.

In response to requests for an interview, Garza sent an email saying he was willing to answer questions but needed approval from the police department. Below his name were the words “Do What’s Right, Risk The Consequences.” A city spokeswoman said that when department officials followed up with Garza about an interview, he told them he did not want to comment.

Officers who know Garza described him as reserved and a product of the city’s heavily Latino, working-class south side, where children chase “raspa” trucks that sell snow cones instead of ice cream. His body is chiseled and face cleanly shaven in pictures on a Facebook page for “Guns & Hoses,” a charity event that features boxing matches between officers and firefighters.

Retired San Antonio police detective Eddie Gonzales shared a desk near Garza in the gang unit and said he often turned to “Mikey” for help on cases. He recalled that Garza could slip on a bandanna and easily infiltrate groups that other officers couldn’t.

Officer Michael Garza after the encounter in which he fatally shot Alfred Aragon. (San Antonio Police Department)

“The guy was brilliant with his undercover work,” recalled Gonzales, who now works for a nearby police department. “He could go from being a uniform street cop one day to deep undercover the next day. That’s a rare ability.”

Garza, who worked undercover at times as a narcotics trafficker, was instrumental in building criminal cases against members of the Mexican Mafia, Dog Town and the Orejones, another gang-unit detective told internal affairs officers during their investigation into the officer, according to records obtained by The Post. One officer called Garza a mix of “steel nerves” and “unselfish attitude.”

In his first 10 years on the force, Garza was involved in two shootings that drew department scrutiny but did not result in disciplinary action.

In 2005, Garza and another officer fatally shot a 22-year-old driver suspected of participating in a drug transaction. The man refused to pull over for police and later drove toward the officers as they approached his car, according to a report in the San Antonio Express News. “Fearing for their safety,” it says, the officers fired at him at least four times.

In 2006, Garza ordered a man to drop an assault rifle. When the man instead turned to face the officer, Garza shot him in the arm, records show.

In both shootings, the department investigated and cleared Garza of any wrongdoing, according to police records and media accounts.

Former San Antonio police chief Albert Ortiz led the department during both shootings and said that in deciding whether the use of deadly force is justified, “You have to kind of put yourself in the officer’s situation as he’s making these split-second decisions.” While most officers will never fire their weapons, he said, the reality is that some officers are placed in higher-risk assignments.

Ortiz, by then retired, said he watched as media outlets detailed the chaotic night of July 26, 2012 — Garza’s third shooting.

“Man,” Ortiz recalled thinking at the time, “they need to get rid of that guy.”

‘My dad just got shot’

Abigail Hernandez wore jeans shorts, a white blouse and cowboy boots when she stepped out of her apartment about 10:30 p.m. and into Garza’s police vehicle, an unmarked black Dodge Ram pickup truck. He drove her to the Thirsty Horse Saloon.

“U looked pretty,” he texted her afterward. “Can’t wait to c u later. Have fun.”

When she asked to be picked up about 1:30 a.m., he again texted.

“Ok ma. I got half a crown n seven. Guna chug. B der in bout 13 mins and 27 seconds.”

Abigail Hernandez. (San Antonio Police Department)

Garza and Hernandez, who exchanged 40 text messages that night, both chose the word “friend” to describe each other to investigators who later asked about their relationship, police records show. Garza, in statements to investigators, said his girlfriend introduced him to Hernandez and the two later developed a physical relationship. Hernandez did not respond to requests for an interview.

Garza told investigators that he was working surveillance outside two strip clubs when Hernandez asked him for a ride home. He admitted that earlier in the evening he drank 12 to 16 ounces of Bud Light in preparation for an undercover assignment, but he said he was joking about chugging Crown Royal whisky. Texting, he explained, allows people to be someone other than themselves.

“As an undercover officer I have been able to influence drug dealers into making deals solely by text messaging what they wanted or needed to hear,” he said.

When he picked Hernandez up about 1:45 a.m., she looked upset, he told investigators.

Hernandez had gone to the Thirsty Horse for a friend’s birthday party but could not enjoy herself, she told investigators. Her 35-year-old ex-boyfriend, Alfred Aragon, who was the father of her 20-month-old son, kept calling her cellphone.

Aragon also kept texting. While Garza’s messages were flirtatious, Aragon’s showed an escalating desperation.

“Why can’t you give me five minutes of your time?”

“Are you talking to someone else?”

“Are you?”

“Please tell me?”

“Please stop ignoring me!!!!”

Before Aragon started dating Hernandez, he had been married to a woman who died of cancer months after their wedding, leaving him devastated. He and Hernandez lived together at one point and had a contentious breakup, court and police records show. In May 2011, he filed for a temporary restraining order against Hernandez, and the court barred her from, among its restrictions, withdrawing their son from day care and disparaging Aragon or his family in front of the boy. Hernandez later told police that Aragon never physically hurt her but was jealous and had twice vandalized her car.

Aragon’s relatives described him as a reliable compass, always nudging himself and others in the right direction. When he was a rising ninth-grader, he had begged his mother to let him attend a high school across town that offered a better education than the one in his neighborhood. As an adult, he ran a profitable computer repair business and was studying toward a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

But even with his professional accomplishments, his family said, he was most proud of his relationship with his children: three daughters, for whom he was the primary caregiver, and the son he shared with Hernandez. They described him as the type of father who sat embarrassingly close to the stage during violin recitals and who held gingerbread house-building contests every Christmas. He had season passes to SeaWorld, the zoo and Six Flags Fiesta Texas.

“I love you so so so much!” reads a card one of his daughters made for him by hand. “You are such a wonderful father and don’t forget that!”

Text messages sent between Alfred Aragon and Abigail Hernandez. (The Washington Post)

Before he began texting Hernandez that night, Aragon had planned to take his children to the beach in Corpus Christi the next morning.

His 16-year-old daughter saw him studying that evening at the dining room table, trying to get his homework done. His 11-year-old daughter later saw him talk on the phone and then walk to his bedroom and grab a gun, according to what the girls told police and relatives. He told the younger child to go back to sleep.

That was the last time either girl saw him alive.

What is known from police reports and witness statements is that at some point, Aragon drove his white Chevrolet SUV to Hernandez’s apartment complex and backed into a parking space.

He then waited.

“I’m tired of playing games. I want to settle down with you,” he texted Hernandez after 2 a.m. “I know I can make you happy but you keep pushing me away.”

“Leave me alone!” she wrote.

Hernandez was sitting in the passenger seat of Garza’s truck when it pulled into the parking lot. She recognized Aragon’s white car, emblazoned with the name of his company, Alamo Computer Solutions. She told investigators that she asked Garza, who was out of uniform and in jeans and a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt, to drive to a distant part of the lot, where he parked.

Hernandez and Garza gave investigators differing statements about what happened next, but both said that at one point, Aragon approached the truck, tried to open the passenger door and Garza sped off.

They returned a while later, thinking he was gone and parked near Hernandez’s apartment. Hernandez told police that at one point, she put her iPhone on speaker when Aragon called and threatened to kill himself.

“And that’s when he came to the window,” she said, “and he pointed the gun in the window.”

Garza told police that Aragon stood near the passenger-side window and tried to shoot but that the handgun did not fire. The officer said he threw the car in reverse and drove toward the exit. As he waited for a motorized gate to open, he recalled hearing Aragon say through the phone’s speaker, “Everybody’s going to die tonight.”

Then came the sound of multiple bullets hitting the truck and of windows shattering.

Garza told police that he turned onto a major street, Culebra Road, with Aragon in pursuit.

As their vehicles neared a bank about a mile away, Garza said, Aragon fired at them again. This time, Hernandez was hit in the right hand and stomach. Police would later fault Garza for not using “sound judgment” when he “engaged in a vehicle pursuit . . . rather than disengaging the threat and waiting for on-duty officers and medical assistance to arrive or driving to a nearby fire/police station (located two blocks away).”

Hernandez and Garza both recounted her screaming that her son was at Aragon’s house.

Before he was killed, Alfred Aragon fired at Officer Michael Garza’s truck as Garza tried to drop Abigail Hernandez off at her home in this apartment complex. (San Antonio Police Department)

“Mike looked at me and he was like, ‘Are you okay?’ ” Hernandez later recalled in a deposition for a lawsuit. “And I remember telling him, ‘Yes, but we need to get those kids because he’s crazy. He’s going to kill himself. He’s going to kill everybody, Mike.’ And that’s when we turned back around and we proceeded to go to Alfred’s house.”

Garza, in statements to detectives, denied following Aragon the 1.7 miles to his house on Field Wood and insisted that Aragon pursued him. But a surveillance camera at the bank recorded Aragon making a U-turn, followed by Garza. And investigators would later use Garza’s own words to question his truthfulness.

“I’m behind him,” Garza told dispatch. “I got about 6 shots on me. I need EMS to start coming this way. Ok, we took a right on uh, something wood. Fieldwood. . . . It’s 150, 2350 Fieldwood, and he’s pulling in.”

Aragon parked straight in his driveway. Garza stopped at an angle in the middle of the street and stepped out of the truck.

“Police officer!” he said, according to his statement to investigators. “Get on the ground.”

Garza told investigators he fired his weapon after seeing Aragon run toward a tree and raise his hands as if pointing a gun. Aragon made his way to the front door and hunched over as if reloading, Garza said. When Aragon turned toward him, Garza fired again, according to his statement, because he feared for his life. Police, however, would not find a gun on Aragon.

A neighbor who had just put her baby to sleep looked out her window at that moment. She saw Garza shoot as he crouched with one foot on the sidewalk and another on the grass.

Inside the house, Aragon’s 16-year-old daughter heard the gunfire. She crawled on the floor and opened her bedroom door to find her sister and brother in the hallway, she later told police. She also noticed that a bullet had punched through the front door. The teenager called 911.

“I think that my dad just got shot,” she said in a small, shaky voice.

“By who?” the operator asked.

“I have no idea. I just heard four gunshots fired. There’s a hole through my door. And he told my dad not to move before he killed him or something. But I can’t . . . ”

“Do you hear your dad at all?”

“I don’t hear anything.”

‘When in doubt, don’t do it’

In the aftermath, dozens of officers arrived at the pale-brick house. Some placed yellow evidence markers next to bullet casings. One officer brought a car seat to transport Aragon’s son and daughters to a police station. Others took photos and video to preserve the scene.

The images reveal the chaos and anguish of the night:

Jagged holes pocked Garza’s truck, which was hit by 12 bullets.

Hernandez’s white embroidered blouse was stained almost completely crimson.

Aragon’s keys dangled from the deadbolt lock on his bloodstained front door — hinting at why he might have been hunched over and just how close he had been to making it inside.

Inside the house, a half-filled sippy cup sat on Aragon’s bedroom dresser. In the dining room, his laptop and textbooks remained open. He had completed 11 of 16 questions on an ethics test. One he had left unanswered asked him to identify the ethical principle behind the phrase “When in doubt, don’t do it.”

An emergency medical technician pronounced Aragon dead at 3:07 a.m.

Alfred Aragon’s keys hang from the deadbolt lock on his front door after he was shot by Officer Michael Garza early on the morning of July 27, 2012. (San Antonio Police Department)

When his body arrived at the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office, his wrists were bound by handcuffs. The autopsy report details three gunshot wounds to a foot, an arm and his back. The bullet in the back entered the left side, the report says, grazed Aragon’s left lung, perforated his spinal cord and hit his right lung in two places before coming to rest near his chest wall.

Investigators found a trail of eight .40-caliber bullet casings leading away from Garza’s truck and one casing at the edge of the yard, indicating that Garza had fired at Aragon at least nine times.

What police never found was the 9mm handgun they believe Aragon fired earlier that night at Hernandez and Garza. They also found no 9mm bullet casings at Aragon’s house, indicating that he did not fire the weapon there.

Investigators found a second gun, a .32-caliber Beretta semiautomatic pistol, inside the house, under Aragon’s mattress.

Aragon’s mother, sister and niece said they are confident he had no intention of hurting his children after he shot at Garza and Hernandez.

“I’m almost certain when he made the decision to shoot them, his first thoughts were of his kids, like ‘What did I do?’ ” said his niece Ashley Garcia, 26. “And I think that’s why he went back home.”

Clarissa Ramirez, the neighbor who saw Garza shoot Aragon, said she can’t help wondering, “What if he was going to the house to say goodbye?”

In the days after the shooting, Police Chief William McManus took a tempered tone.

“There’s a lot here we really don’t know,” he told the San Antonio Express News.

Irma Aragon, 70, visits her son’s grave weekly after church. For this visit on Oct. 22, 2017, she was accompanied by her daughter Yolanda Garcia, 43, and granddaughter Ashley Garcia, 26, who adjusts flowers at the gravestone. (Ilana Panich-Linsman/For The Washington Post)
“Big freaking joke”

The Chief’s Advisory Action Board, a mix of civilians and officers, convened two months later to consider Garza’s possible missteps that night.

Two violations struck the group as the most egregious, according to a record of the board’s action. Several members recommended indefinite suspension — the equivalent of termination — for allegations that Garza lied in statements to homicide detectives and that he failed to serve the public “with honesty, sincerity, courage and sound judgment.”

McManus, in a letter stamped Nov. 20, 2012, informed Garza that he was suspended indefinitely without pay. The letter cited seven violations including misuse of his city vehicle and drinking on duty. The chief was well aware of Garza’s achievements.

“In my opinion, this incident overshadowed those commendations, letters of appreciation and what have you, ” McManus said, according to a summary of the arbitration proceedings that followed the dismissal. “The night of this incident was a big freaking joke . . . big freaking joke to Officer Garza . . . drinking, texting back and forth with his . . . girlfriend, lover, whoever she was. There was not one bit of seriousness that I saw that was in Officer Garza’s mind the evening of this event until the shooting started. At that point it was too late.”

Police union president Helle said he understands initial condemnation of Garza’s behavior. But examine each accusation, he said, and the complexities come into perspective. Garza had been authorized to drink during past undercover assignments. Other officers have also driven civilians in city vehicles without losing their jobs.

And if Garza had not given Hernandez a ride, Helle said, Aragon might have killed her and someone else.

“If you really think about it, we would be investigating a murder instead of a police-officer involved shooting because somebody would have given her a ride home that night,” he said.

Garza, through the union’s collective bargaining agreement, appealed his firing, and an arbitration hearing was held in January 2015. By then, Garza had been out of work for more than two years. He also faced potential prosecution until May 2015, when a grand jury heard the case and declined to indict him on criminal charges.

On June 22, 2015, arbitrator LeRoy Bartman reduced the indefinite suspension to a 15-day suspension. He also ordered that Garza be compensated for lost wages and benefits and, if possible, “be returned to his former assignment.”

“Given his record and other mitigating circumstances, he is deserving of ‘progressive discipline’ rather than ‘capital punishment,’ ” Bartman wrote in his decision. “It is reasonable to assume that he will correct the behavioral errors he committed in this case and remain a productive officer of the SAPD.”

San Antonio officials denounced the decision.

In local media accounts, City Manager Sculley called it “appalling.”

McManus, a former assistant chief of police in Washington, declined an interview request but provided a statement: “When an arbitrator overturns a police chief’s decision, it undermines the chief’s authority, erodes the public’s trust in law enforcement and is disruptive to the good order of the department. A chief, not an arbitrator, should be the ultimate authority on what’s best for their department and for the community.”

Former chief Ortiz does not see it that way. He said he slept better knowing that someone was looking over his disciplinary decisions.

Alfred Aragon, who was killed in 2012 by a San Antonio police officer. (Ilana Panich-Linsman/For The Washington Post)

“When you get appointed police chief, you’re not God, and you’re not infallible,” he said.

Ortiz was asked to review Garza’s case as a possible expert witness for the defendants after Aragon’s family sued the city, police and Garza in 2014. In a letter filed with the court, he wrote that because of Aragon’s actions, the officer’s “options were reduced to one. He could not let Aragon go inside the house.”

In a recent interview, Ortiz said, however, that he understands why McManus has refused to send Garza back to the streets as an officer.

“Some officers, just because of the nature of the case that sent them to administrative duty, are never going to leave there,” he said.

Helle said Garza was in line to be made a detective before he was fired. Now, he said, Garza spends his days at police headquarters, out of uniform, handling paperwork.

San Antonio City Council member Rey Saldaña said the city is safer without Garza on patrol but at a cost.

The police department, a force of more than 2,200, has five reinstated officers, including Garza, assigned to administrative duty, according to records provided by the city. Those officers’ salaries total more than $350,000 a year. Garza’s annual salary, with benefits, is $72,333.

“Unfortunately,” Saldaña said, “he takes up a salary of somebody who could be out in the community proactively preventing crime and solving some issues that we have in our community.”

Among the headlines in the local media this year, one read, “San Antonio home to most violent gang network in Texas.”

Another: “Rise in violence: San Antonio area wracked by 12 shootings in 5 days.”

Frequent reminders

After the shooting, records show, Garza sent one more text message to Hernandez. It popped up on her phone at 9:23 p.m.

“Jus Wanna c how ur doing.”

In a deposition for the lawsuit filed on behalf of Aragon’s children, Hernandez credited Garza with saving not only her son but also Aragon’s daughters.

“Did Mike Garza do what you would have wanted any police officer to do under those circumstances?”

“Yes,” she said.

The family dropped the lawsuit this year. One lawyer told them he did not think they could overcome the fact that Aragon fired first in the encounter at the apartment complex. Ashley Garcia, speaking on behalf of her family, said they decided against going forward because Aragon’s three daughters didn’t want to spend years reliving the loss.

As it is, there are frequent reminders.

At one of his daughters’ Sweet 16 birthday party this year, Aragon’s photo sat on a table. And in March, nearly six years after she called 911, his oldest daughter will walk down the aisle at her wedding without him.

Garcia said her family will never know why Aragon left his house that night. They will also never accept, she said, that Garza was allowed to keep his job.

“If you can get away with all that, what else can you get away with?” she said. “What else can any other cop get away with?”

Dalton Bennett and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Irma Aragon visits the grave of her son, Alfred Aragon, in San Antonio. She is flanked by her daughter Yolanda Garcia and granddaughter Ashley Garcia. (Ilana Panich-Linsman/For The Washington Post)