YAKIMA, Wash. June 6 2012 — A shoplifting suspect whose fight to disarm a security guard during an escape attempt triggered gunfire outside a Union Gap courtroom was sentenced to 101/2 months in jail Friday.
Michael N. Garza, 20, of Wapato was originally charged with first-degree assault and faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Instead, he pleaded guilty in Yakima County Superior Court to reduced charges of third-degree assault, attempt to disarm a police officer and two counts of reckless endangerment.
Yakima County Prosecutor Jim Hagarty said the evidence simply didn’t support a first-degree assault charge because Garza never had control of the guard’s gun.
“The guard pointed the gun at the defendant’s face and threatened to shoot him, not the other way around,” said Hagarty, explaining his reasoning for a plea bargain.
The incident took place Sept. 1 when Garza appeared in Union Gap Municipal Court on a misdemeanor shoplifting citation.
During that hearing, Municipal Judge Bob Northcott noticed Garza was free on bail after pleading guilty just two weeks earlier to robbing a Terrace Heights video store in 2009. In that case, police said a young man asked about renting movies, but then showed a semi-automatic handgun and demanded money.
When Northcott ordered Garza into custody, he attempted to flee.
The court’s lone security guard tried to stop Garza outside the courtroom, leading to a protracted struggle that spilled into the women’s rest room, where the guard’s pistol discharged twice. No one was injured by the gunfire.
Hagarty said a careful review of the evidence and witness statements did not support the contention that Garza ever pointed the gun at the security guard.
“He just grabbed it and they started struggling,” he said.
In a statement, Garza’s defense attorney, George Trejo, blamed the shooting on the security guard, who Trejo said outweighed the slightly built Garza by more than 150 pounds.
“Despite having a variety of means to subdue the significantly smaller Michael, including punching him, Tasing him or sitting on him, the (guard) threatened the use of deadly force by pointing his firearm directly at Michael’s head and yelling ‘I’m going to kill you!’” Trejo said.
“It was at that point that Michael pushed the barrel of the firearm away from his head and the firearm was discharged twice. Quite frankly, it is the security officer’s blatant use of excessive force that caused this incident to escalate into a near fatal situation.”
Garza was eventually sentenced to six months for the Terrace Heights robbery. On Friday, he was sentenced for the Union Gap incident by Yakima County Superior Court Judge David A. Elofson.
At the time of the incident, Union Gap’s municipal court was at City Hall, which has since been shut down due to toxic mold. The court has since been moved to a fire station on West Washington Avenue. Security was beefed up after the incident and the court now has two guards on duty. Northcott previously reported that Garza’s escape attempt was the fourth since he became judge in January 2011.
A retired county prosecutor, Northcott said Friday he was not happy with the plea deal. “That kid’s dangerous,” he said