AP Exclusive: 17 seconds of terror in gov't office shooting

AP News
|
Posted: Oct 29, 2015 3:17 PM
AP Exclusive: 17 seconds of terror in gov't office shooting

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Homeland Security Department missed clear warning signs of a disgruntled federal agent's descent toward violence and could have intervened before he started a deadly gun battle inside a government office building in southern California, according to a confidential, internal investigation obtained exclusively by The Associated Press.

The government's investigation, which started nearly a year after the shootings and took 18 months, revealed new details about the private life of the dead supervisory agent, Ezequiel "Zeke" Garcia, 45, and clarified how the February 2012 gun fight unfolded inside the Long Beach offices of U.S. Homeland Security Investigations. Garcia died from a gunshot to the back of his head. An unarmed senior regional manager, Kevin Kozak, suffered serious wounds to his hands, abdomen, back and leg.

Garcia's supervisor, Perry Woo, killed Garcia after Garcia started shooting — firing 23 rounds from his service pistol in 17 seconds — without warning during a disciplinary meeting. Garcia reloaded and resumed firing during the shooting before Woo killed him.

The report offers an unusual glimpse behind factors that drove one of the most sensational instances in recent years of workplace violence, which kills more than 700 Americans each year. The AP obtained a censored copy of the 36-page report, which was marked "for official use only," five months after requesting it under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. Kozak, 54, who struggles with debilitating injuries and may lose his leg, filled in key details during an exclusive interview with AP that the Homeland Security Department discouraged him from granting.

"I never thought I'd have to defend myself in a secure office on a secure floor in a secure building," Kozak said. "Wow, was I wrong."

The government concluded that Garcia was a walking advertisement for workplace intervention. His previous supervisor, John Rocha, said Garcia told him that the agency "had taken away from him everything that mattered" and said he had to "talk (Garcia) off the ledge every day in an effort to motivate him to work," the report said.

His estranged wife was so worried about ominous remarks by Garcia two days before the office shooting that she wrote them on an index card.

Garcia had been the subject of four sexual harassment complaints one year earlier, which later were substantiated, and he complained to coworkers that his bosses were unfairly scrutinizing him in order to demote him after 21 years in federal law enforcement.

"The review revealed missed opportunities for intervention that, had they been pursued, may have prevented the tragic result," the report said. It said Garcia's behaviors before his death "demonstrate acts of misconduct and behavior that would have alerted management, if they had been aware of his history."

Still, the report identified no one person to blame for failure to predict the shootings. "No reasonable person could have predicted the precise date, time, place or magnitude of violence," it said. "Garcia's known and reported easygoing disposition may have masked the reality that he was capable of committing a violent act at any moment."

Woo and Rocha declined through a government spokesman to speak with the AP.

The report described the dramatic late-afternoon confrontation in the office. During a disciplinary meeting, Garcia rose from his chair, drew his pistol from his hip holster and fired across the desk at Kozak, who wrestled with Garcia over his gun while being shot.

Kozak screamed at Garcia, "Don't do it! It's not worth it! We both have kids." Garcia answered, "It's too late!"

Kozak collapsed behind his desk from his wounds, as Garcia circled to continue firing. Woo fought for the gun, but Garcia threw him onto an office couch and aimed his gun at Woo. Badly bleeding from at least seven bullet wounds, Kozak stood to attract Garcia's attention.

"Zeke, it's me you want! I'm here!" he yelled. When Garcia turned toward him, Kozak yelled to Woo: "Shoot him! Shoot him!"

Woo stood, drew his weapon and shot Garcia once.

The investigation also revealed:

—The government briefly revoked Garcia's authorization to carry his gun and badge in August 2011, six months before the shootings, because he told his Los Angeles supervisor, Rocha, that he had been taking Vicodin over the previous eight months for back pain. Rocha said he opposed Woo giving Garcia back his gun because he worried that Garcia was suicidal or might hurt others, but Rocha said he was overruled and didn't memorialize his concerns over fears Garcia might sue him. More than three years after the shootings, the government hasn't changed its rules to make it harder for federal agents to get their guns back in such cases.

—Around the same period, Garcia told a medical staffer that "his condition was worsening and he felt as though he was mentally shutting down" but was not suicidal, the report said.

—Before the shootings, the Homeland Security Department held training for federal employees to recognize signs of potential workplace violence, including absenteeism, depression, physical complaints, mood swings and talking about problems at home. Rocha said he had recognized those signs in Garcia.

—Since at least 2008, Garcia had sought treatment for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and back pain, and had prescriptions for depression, anxiety, insomnia and pain. The day Garcia opened fire, an autopsy found a mild psychostimulant in his system from one of his prescriptions. His ex-wife, Balbina Garcia, told the AP in an interview that FBI investigators found pills in his car, including Vicodin, that she said he had stopped using.

—Garcia was seen cleaning his pistol in the office on the day of the shootings and carrying two extra magazines on his belt for two days prior to the shooting.

—Garcia was deeply bitter about what he perceived as unfairness when he was transferred after the harassment complaints from Orange County to Los Angeles, some 80 miles from his home. He believed his team was being scrutinized and expected to show up at 8:30 a.m. and account for the agents who worked under him on a whiteboard. He was later transferred to the agency's offices in Long Beach, and was denied a request to move to its offices in San Bernardino. "He thought that he was being punished," Balbina Garcia said.

—Garcia blamed his post-traumatic stress disorder and back pain on his mistaken arrest in 1997 by the Los Angeles Police Department when he was working undercover. Garcia said he suffered serious neck and back injuries during the arrest and later complained about emotional distress. Garcia applied for permanent disability payments but was denied. "Garcia was not able to obtain justice, to his satisfaction, for the wrongful assault," the report said.

—Garcia complained that commuting roughly five hours daily irritated his back injury and interfered with his efforts to reconcile with his ex-wife, who told investigators that she wanted to end their marriage over his infidelity.

Kozak said the Homeland Security Department failed to perform due diligence allowing Garcia to return to full duty and giving him back his gun.

"The agency was grossly negligent," said Kozak, a former federal prosecutor. The shooting "should never have happened. He shouldn't have been allowed to come back to work."

The deputy director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Daniel Ragsdale, who commissioned the investigation, said the agency is ensuring that managers are trained to detect potentially violent behavior in employees and "redoubled our efforts to make sure the left hand and right hand know what (the other's) doing." Those include a new peer counseling program to encourage agents to talk to each other, seek help and identify warning signs.

The report also identified problems with the emergency response after the shootings, including a lack of medical supplies and trained employees in the offices. In an echo of the agency's failure to hear any warning signs of Garcia's slide toward violence, some federal agents on the same floor as the shooting didn't hear the gunshots or calls for help as the episode unfolded, the report said. They were running on treadmills in a fitness center with headphones in their ears.

___

Follow Tami Abdollah on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/latams.