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After a shooting suspect’s ‘reign of terror,’ a California sheriff blames the state’s sanctuary law

Gustavo Garcia is suspected of killing at least two people and injuring several others in a 24-hour “reign of terror.” (Video: KSEE24 News)

The first shots rang out just after 1 p.m. on Sunday, on a road lined with orange trees in Exeter, Calif. A farmworker standing on a ladder heard a car slam on its brakes, then felt himself falling in a hail of bullets. As he hit the ground, he realized that he had been shot in the chest.

The random drive-by shooting at the orchard marked the beginning of what local officials would later describe as one man’s “reign of terror” in agricultural Tulare County. Within 24 hours, Gustavo Garcia would kill one, injure at least six others, rob thousands of dollars from a convenience store and lead a wrong-way chase down a busy highway in a stolen truck, according to police, who believe he may also have been responsible for a second homicide that is still under investigation.

Now, the area’s top law enforcement official is placing the blame on California’s controversial “sanctuary state” law, known as Senate Bill 54, or the California Values Act. Garcia had previously been deported and was arrested just days before his violent rampage, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux told reporters Wednesday. But because of the law, he said, his officers were unable to coordinate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“That tool has been removed from our hands,” he said. “And because of that, our county was shot up by a violent criminal.”

Before his alleged crime spree, Garcia, 36, had been removed from the U.S. twice, first in 2004 and then again 2014, ICE officials said in a statement to local media outlets on Wednesday. Before his second deportation, he had spent 27 months in federal prison for illegally reentering the country. A statement from the agency called the weekend’s violence “an unfortunate and extremely tragic example of how public safety is impacted with laws or policies limiting local law enforcement agencies ability to cooperate with ICE.”

Speaking to the media on Wednesday, Boudreaux agreed. Garcia had been arrested on Thursday, he said, after a caller reported that he was behaving erratically. He had tested positive for a controlled substance — Boudreaux didn’t specify which one — and spent 10 hours in custody. Then, because the offense only carried a misdemeanor charge, he was released.

While Garcia was in jail, ICE officials learned about his arrest and issued an immigration hold, the agency said. But the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office let him go — because they had no choice, Boudreaux said. Under state law, the office is barred from honoring ICE’s detainer requests, unless the agency obtains an arrest warrant signed by a federal judge.

“Before SB 54, Gustavo Garcia would have been turned over to ICE officials,” Boudreaux said in a statement. “That’s how we’ve always done it, day in and day out. After SB 54, we no longer have the power to do that."

Instead, Garcia was released. Just three minutes after the drive-by shooting at the orchard on Sunday, surveillance camera footage captured him wandering into the AA Gas and Grub mini mart in Exeter, where he fired several shots at the ceiling and told the cashier to give him $2,000 in cash.

Later that night, he reportedly shot at a woman sitting in her car in the parking lot of a Motel 6 in Tulare and sent a volley of bullets flying into a Shell gas station in nearby Pixley before shooting and killing a man who was standing outside a gas station in Visalia. At around 3 a.m. on Monday morning, Visalia police got another call: Garcia was standing in his ex-girlfriend’s backyard, yelling threats at her as he shot at her house. But by the time they arrived, he had disappeared.

Close to sunrise, a deputy from the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office spotted Garcia’s gray Honda SUV on a flat county road outside the city and tried to stop him, police said at a Monday news conference. Garcia shot at the patrol car and ran into a nearby orchard, according to authorities, eventually coming across three farmworkers with a GMC truck. Brandishing his gun, he demanded that they let him take it, police said. Then, he sped out of town, driving south in the northbound lanes of Highway 65. He had smashed into multiple cars and was fleeing police at speeds of more than 100 mph when he was ejected from the truck at around 7 a.m. on Monday morning and was pronounced dead at the scene. Four people were hospitalized as a result of the collisions, and one sustained critical injuries.

Both the man shot in the orchard and the woman shot at the Motel 6 are expected to survive; all those injured on the highway also survived.

When California Democrats passed Senate Bill 54 on a party-line vote in September 2017, lawmakers argued that the legislation would help ensure that undocumented immigrants feel safe reporting crimes to the police and aiding in prosecution. In an attempt to compromise with law enforcement agencies, which vehemently opposed the bill, they included a provision allowing officials to report an individual to ICE if that person has been convicted of certain felony offenses, including driving under the influence, during the past 15 years.

Garcia had previously been convicted of armed robbery, Boudreaux said. But since the charge was just over 15 years old, the sheriff’s office couldn’t use that as a reason to detain him for ICE.

Tulare County is an agricultural powerhouse, home to dairy, citrus and pistachio farms that often rely on undocumented labor. Throughout the news conference, Boudreaux repeatedly emphasized his support for law-abiding community members who lack American citizenship, pointing out that one of Garcia’s victims had been an undocumented migrant farmworker.

“We didn’t enforce immigration on him,” he said. “We cared for him. We investigated the crime for him."

Boudreaux said Wednesday that he agreed with some aspects of the sanctuary state policy, which also prevents officers from asking about an individual’s immigration status. “We don’t want to enforce immigration laws with our police officers in the field, that’s not our function,” he said. His complaint, he said, is that his deputies can no longer contact ICE after arresting a suspect.

“Maybe, just maybe, if we could have reached out to our law enforcement counterparts, these acts of violence could have been prevented,” he said.

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