Shooting death of Officer Pavelka
After 10 months on the force, Burbank Police Officer Matthew Pavelka responded to a call for backup at the Ramada Inn parking lot. It would be the rookie’s last ride.
The routine stop in November 2003 escalated into a hail of gunfire that left Pavelka dead and a veteran officer severely injured. The events of that night stunned the community and a police department that had not lost one of its own in a shooting since 1920.
The ensuing manhunt, which involved hundreds of local, state and federal agents, ended when the 19-year-old fugitive, David Garcia, was captured by Mexican authorities after spending two weeks in a small town south of Tijuana.
Though more than six years have passed since the 26-year-old son of a Los Angeles Police Department detective was killed, Garcia has yet to stand trial for the alleged killing.
Garcia was indicted in April 2004 on one count each of murder, attempted murder, possession of a controlled substance for transportation and five counts for weapons violations.
The trial has officially been postponed by scheduling conflicts, medical issues and, now, the latest allegations of misconduct and excessive use of force at the Burbank Police Department, potentially tainting the witness pool for the prosecution.
Despite the ongoing FBI investigation, prosecutors say they are ready to move ahead with the trial.
“The case will move forward; we just don’t know how this investigation will impact the evidence we present,” said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Keri Modder, who is prosecuting the case. “The only idea I have of who is being investigated is what I read in the paper.”
‘His hand was out of my view’
Officer Gregory Campbell was patrolling the Ramada Inn on San Fernando Boulevard on the night of Nov. 15, 2003, and noticed two men in a black Cadillac Escalade with no plates. The windows were down and the smell of “burnt marijuana” was coming from inside the SUV, according to Los Angeles County Superior Court records.
Campbell contacted the driver, Ramon Aranda, and his passenger, Garcia. After he radioed for backup, Campbell returned and spoke with Aranda through the window.
Pavelka arrived and stood by the passenger-side window as Campbell asked Aranda to step outside.
“As he got to the ground, I noticed that his hand was out of my view, as if he was trying to pull something out of the front side, which made me think possibly he had a gun,” Campbell later testified.
Garcia told detectives that Aranda retrieved a .40-caliber handgun from between the seat and center console before getting out of the vehicle and shooting at Campbell, according to court documents filed by prosecutors. Campbell, in grand jury testimony, said he was struck and lost consciousness.
Pavelka told Garcia to put up his hands before exchanging gunfire with Aranda, who died during the shootout.
In interviews with detectives, Garcia said he took one of his handguns and fired 11 shots though his window while seated in the vehicle, according to court records. He then retrieved a second handgun and, as Pavelka dove for cover, fired another six shots at the officer as he lay on the ground, according to grand jury testimony.
Garcia fled the scene on foot.
Campbell survived his injuries, which included gunshots to the abdomen and neck. Pavelka, a Simi Valley High School graduate and Air Force veteran, was taken to an area hospital where he was later pronounced dead.
‘It will never bring back our loss’
Garcia escaped to Mexico, allegedly with the aid of fellow gang members and associates in the drug trade as authorities geared up for what would become a 13-day manhunt.
A San Fernando Valley gang was blamed for Pavelka’s death. More than 60 people, including Garcia’s father and brother, were arrested during the massive manhunt before authorities used interrogation and intelligence on Garcia’s communications to track him down in Mexico.
At one time or another, nearly every Burbank police officer participated in the investigation, authorities said.
“We were able to do this because of the group of people involved,” said former police Chief Tim Stehr, who as a captain led the manhunt.
Following Garcia’s arrest, a relieved group of officers watched the statue outside police headquarters begin to overflow with rows of bouquets, candles and messages to the fallen officer.
“It will never bring back our loss,” then-Chief Tom Hoefel told his officers. “But there’s a tremendous sigh of relief.”
‘A long time to wait for justice’
Sources close to the situation described a period in which both sides “seriously discussed” a plea deal in which Garcia would serve out his remaining days behind bars. Though neither side will publicly discuss the details, any such discussion is now off the table, as prosecutors have made it clear they are seeking the death penalty.
Court appearances have been continued more than 50 times — a high number, according to attorneys outside the case.
“The amount of time has been frustrating,” Stehr said. “I truly believe that this is a long time to wait for justice. [But] I believe justice will be served.”
Prosecutors indicated last spring that they were ready to try the case. But by summer, prosecutors told the judge they didn’t know if any officers involved in the Garcia case were part of the FBI probe into misconduct.
Modder, the deputy district attorney on the case, said her office continued to hold back to allow the defense to evaluate the potential impact of the FBI investigation.
Michael Brennan, a professor at the USC Gould School of Law and an expert on the death penalty, said depending on the nature of the allegations of misconduct, defense attorneys would likely argue that there was some connection between the FBI probe and Garcia case.
“The argument — generally when it comes to police misconduct, use of force and tactics involved — is if you can show a pattern of activity or a group of officers where they have engaged in a type of conduct . . . then it could become connected,” Brennan said.
Garcia’s attorney, Seymour Amster, said he would prefer the FBI and every officer in the Burbank Police Department to “waive their privileges and let everything come to me,” a request outside law experts deemed unlikely.
Amster argued that he needed the information related to the FBI’s investigation in order to determine if it related to the treatment of Garcia. Though there is a ways to go, Amster said he was confident any wrongdoing by officers would eventually be made public. That, he said, could affect any potential penalty phase.
“It’s all going to come out in the end,” he said.