A 19-year-old man accused of starting a shootout on a crowded Ventura beach testified Wednesday that he got a gun only after two years of living in fear of assaults by a Santa Paula gang.
Alejandro Garcia--the only person charged in the Aug. 5 shooting at San Buenaventura State Beach--admitted to a jury in Ventura County Superior Court that he fired the first shots that day, but said it was in self-defense. He said he was carrying the .44 magnum because Santa Paula police have not stopped gang intimidation and violence in the community.
Garcia said he knew three teen-agers who died in violent, gang-related incidents. Going to the police was not an option, he said, because “people get away with murders in my town.”
While his testimony offered a glimpse of how local gang violence reached the shores of a popular beach, law officials said Garcia brought a lot of his troubles upon himself.
“He created a situation for himself that is continuing to grow,” said Santa Paula Police Cmdr. Bob Gonzalez. “The average citizen doesn’t go to the beach armed with a gun to get some sun or play and frolic in the waves.”
Gonzalez also said officers have done a commendable job responding quickly to gang violence in Santa Paula, a city of nearly 27,000 residents. He attributed unsolved gang crimes to a lack of cooperation by witnesses.
Garcia is charged with two felonies--assault with a firearm and grossly negligent shooting--and two misdemeanors, carrying a concealed firearm and carrying a loaded firearm in public. Authorities say he is not a gang member but associates with known gang members.
During about three hours of testimony, Garcia told the jury that gang violence and intimidation is an everyday occurrence in Santa Paula. He said teen-agers carry heavy artillery in their cars and students hide guns in the pockets of their oversized sports jackets.
“Would they actually take them on campus?” asked Deputy Public Defender Todd Howeth.
“Yes,” Garcia responded.
Apparently astonished, Howeth repeated: “On campus?”
Garcia again said yes.
The defendant said gang members first began picking on him after he stood up for his cousin. Once, he said, he was pummeled by gang members as he left a local fast-food restaurant. He was also assaulted several times at school, he said.
During 1991 and the first part of 1992, gang members pointed a gun at him five times, Garcia testified. On two occasions they pulled the trigger, but the gun apparently jammed each time, he said.
“It clicked,” he told the jury.
He said he believed that police and school authorities would not do much to help him. “And then you would be known as a rat, and it would get worse,” he testified.
He said he finally moved to Fresno with his grandparents in March, 1992, after gang members fired at his car when he went to buy water for his mother one day.
He had come back to the area to visit his family the day before the beach shooting. By then, he said, he had acquired a gun for protection.
He said he went to the beach to fish with two cousins and a friend. One of them saw the gang members. Garcia said he pulled his gun to scare them off. He said the gang members kept approaching.
He told the jury he fired into the sand. His targets ran but turned around and shot back. He said he and his friend got back in their vehicle and sped off.
Before leaving the beach, however, Garcia said he reloaded his gun and shot in the sand again.
On cross-examination by Deputy Dist. Atty. Kim G. Gibbons, Garcia admitted that he had problems controlling his temper and fought a lot while a student at Santa Paula Union High School.
The jury in Judge Charles W. Campbell Jr.'s courtroom is expected to begin deliberations in the case today.
Times correspondent Julie Fields contributed to this story.