Deputy: Shooting victims intended to steal palm trees
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February 2, 2009 - 10:08 PM
By Jeremy Roebuck/The Monitor
EDINBURG - A Donna arborist may have had good reason to suspect three men he shot last week of stealing from him, an Hidalgo County sheriff's investigator said.
One of the shooting victims confessed hours after the attack that he had been scoping out Graham Garfield's family palm tree farm in anticipation of a planned theft, Deputy Samuel Peña Jr. told a judge Monday.
His testimony contradicts earlier statements released by the sheriff's office and claims from two of the three men, who told The Monitor last week they had only stopped at Garfield's property southeast of Edinburg to relieve themselves.
"They were going there to case the area and to steal palm trees," Peña said.
Since his arrest last week, the case has spurred debate among those who argue that Garfield was within his right to defend his property and those who say he went too far. Sheriff Lupe Treviño has staked out a firm position in the latter camp.
The arborist confronted the men as they exited the family business southeast of Edinburg Tuesday night, according to a probable cause affidavit filed in his case.
As they fled, Garfield fired one shotgun blast at their oncoming vehicle and another as they passed, the document states. One of the men - Alejandro Estrada, 21 - later died from his injuries. Carlos Zamarron, 20, and Agustin Casanova, 18, survived the attack.
Although Garfield refused to provide a written statement, he told investigators shortly afterwards that he suspected the men were stealing from the business, the affidavit says.
But in an interview Friday, the sheriff said deputies found no evidence that the men had taken any trees or even had the tools to do so.
"We found absolutely no evidence to justify this crime," Treviño said after Garfield had been arraigned on murder charges
Peña's testimony Monday cast a different light on the events of that night.
Casanova told deputies from the start that he, Zamarron and Estrada had planned to steal from Garfield's family business, the deputy said. Investigators also found a cut fence on the Southern Nurseries property.
Garfield's probable cause affidavit does not mention either development. Casanova could not be reached Monday to independently confirm his alleged statements.
When asked about the conflicting stories Monday, the sheriff maintained that the victims' intentions had no bearing on the case.
"Quite frankly, I don't see what difference it makes," Treviño said. "It doesn't change the fundamental issue."
State law allows individuals to use deadly force to defend their property against unlawful intruders.
But Garfield took the law into his own hands and broke it when he shot at the fleeing men from a public roadway, the sheriff said. Since the intruders hadn't taken anything, Garfield had no way of knowing their plans.
District Attorney Rene Guerra, however, argued that the discrepancy does matter. His office agreed Monday not to object to Garfield's request for a lower bond.
"I had been led to believe that (the intruders) were innocent bystanders," he said. "Obviously, this changes things."
State District Judge Letty Lopez granted Garfield's bond request, lowering it from $2 million to $100,000. By Monday afternoon, he had been released from the Hidalgo County jail.
Now, the district attorney's office will present his case before a grand jury to determine whether Garfield should be prosecuted.
If convicted, he could face up to life in prison and $10,000 in fines.
Garfield's attorney - Ric Salinas - did not return calls for comment Monday.