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Fairfield, CA The Shooting of Councilman Matt Garcia

Alex Constantine - September 3, 2008

Councilman shot - Fairfield stunned

One of the youngest elected officials in the state, Matt Garcia wanted to make his city a better place - now he's near death, and the police want to know why

Demian Bulwa,Henry K. Lee, Chronicle Staff Writers
September 3, 2008
Page A-1

(09-02) 21:34 PDT Fairfield -- Friends say Matt Garcia had a trait rarely seen in young people: extreme civic pride. He began telling people when he was in the sixth grade that he was going to become the mayor of his hometown of Fairfield.

When he was critically wounded Monday night outside a friend's house in a quiet Fairfield neighborhood, Garcia was well on his way to fulfilling his dream. At just 22, he had emerged from modest roots to become a popular city councilman and one of the youngest elected officials in the state.

"Most kids in Fairfield couldn't give a damn about this city, but Matt loved Fairfield," said his friend Ryan Kelly, 22. "I don't know what it was, but he thought this was our place, and he was going to make it better no matter what."

As Kelly stood near a growing memorial for Garcia outside Fairfield's City Hall on Tuesday, he said, "I admired him. It's a damn shame."

Garcia was declared brain-dead Tuesday morning at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, where he had been airlifted after he was shot once in the back of the head. He remained on life-support late Tuesday, and his parents planned to pay him a final visit at the hospital this morning, said family spokesman Ronald Marlette.

In keeping with Garcia's wishes, his organs will be donated, Marlette said.

Police said they had no suspects in the shooting and no idea why anyone would want to kill Garcia.

He was talking with a female friend in the driveway of her family's home in the Cordelia section of Fairfield about 8:30 p.m. Monday when someone stepped out of a parked car and, from a distance of about 50 yards, fired several shots from a small-caliber handgun or rifle, said police Lt. Bob Bunting. The woman, identified by several neighbors as Jennifer Tarbell, who is 18 or 19, was not hit.

The shooter then got back into a midsize, American-made sedan and drove west, Bunting said.

Tarbell shouted for help, witnesses said, prompting a group of neighbors on the 5000 block of Silverado Drive - including a registered nurse and men who were sharing Labor Day beers in a nearby garage - to rush to Garcia as he lay unconscious.

Garcia was rushed to a nearby school field and then airlifted to the Walnut Creek hospital.

It was not known whether Garcia was the shooter's intended target or whether his position on the council was a factor in the shooting, although Police Chief Kenton Rainey called it an "attack on democracy."

$50,000 reward

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the shooter's conviction. Shell casings found at the scene have been sent to a state Department of Justice lab for analysis, Bunting said.

Neighbors and police said violence is rare in the Cordelia Villages subdivision, where a number of law enforcement officers own homes. The isolated neighborhood is southeast of where Interstates 80 and 680 meet.

Tarbell's father, Paul Tarbell, answered his door Tuesday afternoon and said he, his wife and daughter were resting after a long night. Asked if his family was OK, he responded, "No, we're not OK," and said he was concerned for his family's safety.

"Our hearts and prayers go out to (Garcia's) family," said Paul Tarbell, who declined to comment further.

A neighbor who was one of the first to respond to the shooting said Jennifer Tarbell appeared to be in shock as she called for help on her cell phone.

The 36-year-old man, who asked not to be named out of fear for his safety, said he had told Garcia, "Try to hang on. I don't know if you can hear me, but hang on. They're on their way."

7 homicides in 2007

The shooting stunned residents and civic leaders in Fairfield, the seat of Solano County. The diverse, fast-growing city of 105,000 people is roughly halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento and is home to Travis Air Force Base, an Anheuser-Busch brewery and the Jelly Belly Candy Co.

It has a moderate crime rate, recording seven homicides last year and six in 2006.

Dozens of mourners, some crying openly, gathered outside City Hall as word spread that Garcia was declared brain-dead. Mourners placed roses and candles around a campaign sign that read, "Change for Fairfield! Matt Garcia," and they held hands in a prayer circle.

The City Council meeting scheduled for Tuesday night was canceled.

"It is a horrifying experience," Mayor Harry Price said. "It makes absolutely no sense. Matt is one of the bright guys whose charm and serious approach to life has inspired so many people."

Councilman Chuck Timm said of Garcia, "He is such a bright young man, just so full of energy, full of life, and his biggest asset was he can relate to a 13-year-old kid and a 55-year-old adult and everybody in between."

Only 21 when he was elected to a four-year term in November, Garcia was the youngest councilman in city history and among the youngest in the state, Price said. Garcia turned 22 in July.

Garcia cited community development, crime prevention and economic growth as key issues in his campaign. He said that his father was a former gang member and that therefore he had a personal stake in persuading youths to avoid that life.

"The main problem Fairfield faces is crime, and most is tied to our youth," Garcia's campaign Web site reads. "Matt is honest, sincere, and passionate and will always do what is best for Fairfield."

Born and raised in Fairfield, Garcia graduated in 2004 from Armijo High School, where he was vice president of the senior class and was also selected as prom king and homecoming king.

'The most popular kid'

Kelly said he had been friends with Garcia since they met playing Little League baseball. "He was the most popular kid in school. It wasn't even a contest," Kelly said. "He was so nice and so giving and wanted everyone to succeed so much."

Veronica De La Cruz, 21, another friend, said, "Everyone who knew him well knew him as being perfect. Everyone who didn't know him was jealous of him."

Her friend Cesalie Arias, 21, called Garcia a "Mexican fairy tale," saying his success was a point of pride for Fairfield's large Latino community.

Garcia attended classes at Solano Community College in Fairfield for two years after graduating from high school. He was working at First Bank in Fairfield when he was elected, and he later got a job at a San Francisco engineering firm.

Garcia visited local high schools to recruit people to serve on the city's youth commission, Price said. He played on two softball teams.

On his MySpace page, Garcia posted an entry a week ago that read, "I have been thinking about my life and it is not complete, but it is getting there. I thought about the things I have accomplished over the years; it has truly been a blessing. It just shows people when you put your mind to something you can make it happen. I still haven't accomplished everything, but I am working towards it and I believe if it is God's will, it will happen."

Chronicle Staff Writer Bob Egelko contributed to this report. E-mail the writers at dbulwa@sfchronicle.com and hlee@sfchronicle.com.


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