Before dying in police pursuit, suspect shot, killed at random during ‘reign of terror’

Before dying in a car crash during a police pursuit in Porterville on Monday, a man carried out a 24-hour “reign of terror” in Tulare County — robbing a store, killing a stranger and shooting others in random acts of violence, according to police.

Suspect Gustavo Garcia, 36, who was ejected from a vehicle and died after fleeing police at more than 100 mph on Highway 65 around 7 a.m., “had no regard for human life,” Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux said at a news conference Monday afternoon.

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Garcia’s criminal record dates back to 2002, including charges for illegal possession of firearms and meth. While Boudreaux did not confirm Garcia’s immigration status, he said federal documents show he was deported in 2014 and faced Immigration and Customs Enforcement violations three times prior to that.

Garcia’s crime spree started around 1 p.m. Sunday when he shot a farm worker who was on a ladder picking fruit in Exeter. The farm worker, who has not been identified, was shot in the chest but is in the hospital and expected to recover.

Police believe that shooting was random and was meant to distract law enforcement from Garcia’s next crime: an armed robbery three minutes later at the AA Gas and Grub on Kaweah Avenue in Exeter.

Surveillance footage shows Garcia firing shots at the ceiling and demanding more than $2,000 in cash, though no one was injured during the robbery. Police are searching for another possible suspect who took part in the robbery: a Hispanic male in his late 20s to early 30s; between 150 and 160 pounds with a dark tattoo on the outside of his forearm. He was last seen wearing a dark blue collared shirt and dark pants.

Later Sunday evening, Garcia tried to shoot and kill a woman in her car in the parking lot of a Motel 6 on Blackstone Avenue in Tulare.

The woman called 911 reporting gunshot wounds to her arm and chest area around 7:30 p.m. The woman was a guest at the hotel and did not know Garcia.

“She made eye contact with the subject, and he followed her to her parking spot, and for unbeknownst reasons, fired at her vehicle,” said Matt Machado, Interim Tulare Police Chief. Her wounds are not life-threatening.

Shortly after that, police believe Garcia was involved in an assault with a deadly weapon in Visalia. Police are also investigating Garcia’s connection to a homicide that happened around the same time in Lindsay.

Around 1:30 a.m. Monday, police believe Garcia fired shots at a Shell gas station in the Pixley area.

About an hour later, police say Garcia shot and killed a man at the AMPM on Lovers Lane in Visalia. That victim has been identified as Rocky Paul Jones, 51, of Visalia. Police say there is no known relationship to Garcia, and that surveillance footage shows the men exchanging words prior to the shooting.

Less than an hour later, around 3 a.m., police say Garcia went to the home of his ex-girlfriend, in the 2400 block of North Sol Street in Visalia and fired several rounds while threatening her from her backyard. She and her children were able to escape unharmed, but Garcia fled before police responded.

Around 5 a.m., a police officer stopped Garcia after recognizing his vehicle, but the suspect did not stop and escaped into an orchard near Road 140 and Avenue 256.

That’s when police say Garcia held three farm workers at gunpoint and stole their truck, and fled the scene again. He traveled southbound in the northbound lane of Highway 65 at high speeds and “attempted to strike vehicles,” according to California Highway Patrol.

Four people were hospitalized from car crashes involving that, including one Fresnan with critical injuries.

Garcia fired shots at officers’ vehicles during the chase but no officer was injured. Officers also fired shots in return.

Garcia was ejected from the stolen truck during a collision around 7 a.m. and was pronounced dead at the scene.

The pursuit lasted about two minutes, police say.

Boudreaux said Garcia’s string of random and brazen acts makes the case unique, pointing out that most crimes the community is accustomed to involve targeted gang activity.

Officers are “scratching our heads” about a motive, but Boudreaux hinted that Garcia had recent relationship problems. An autopsy has yet to reveal if drugs or alcohol were involved.

“These were not chosen targets, which makes it more dangerous,” he said. “This person was targeting anyone that got in the way. He equally was not deterred by the acts of law enforcement. He was a violent person.”

Several agencies, including the Visalia Police Department and Exeter Police Department, worked with the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office on the case.

Boudreaux said up to 12 crimes involving Garcia are currently being investigated, but that the case is ongoing and more evidence is needed.

“Let me say this: As we were in the room preparing for this press confernce, we began learning of additional cases,” Boudreaux said.

Mackenzie Mays is The Bee’s investigative reporter. Previously, she worked at the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, her home state. In 2018, she won a McClatchy President’s Award, a George Gruner Award and was a national finalist for the Education Writers Association Awards.