Rey Garza spotted Jonathan Santellana as he exited a friend's apartment at the northwest Harris County complex where Garza, a rookie Navasota police officer, served as a “courtesy officer” (someone who works security, typically for free or reduced rent). Garza grew suspicious when he saw Santellana, 17 years old and one hundred pounds lighter than Garza's hulking figure, holding something in his hands as he walked back toward his car. The off-duty cop even crossed paths with the teenager as he walked to his apartment to grab his gun.
Two years after Garza shot and killed Santellana in that apartment complex parking lot, the teenager's family is independently asking for a Harris County grand jury to reconsider criminal charges against Garza. While a grand jury last year did not indict the officer, who claims he shot Santellana out of fear for his own life, Santellana's parents say new evidence in the case warrants a second look.
After grabbing his gun from his apartment on November 13, 2013, Garza walked up to his car, which was parked in the apartment complex's lot next to Santellana's white Chevy Malibu. Garza claims he saw the teenager inside his car putting a “green leafy substance” into a prescription pill bottle, according to an expert's report on the incident (it's unclear from the record and past reports whether police ever found drugs on Santellana). Garza, his former bosses at the Navasota Police Department (Garza has since left the department), and Harris County Sheriff's investigators say the off-duty cop identified himself as an officer, badge in hand, as he approached Santellana's car to investigate.
Yet the passenger in Santellana's car that day, Kalee Marsteller, claims that all she saw was a tattooed guy in a T-shirt, gray gym shorts and sandals banging on the driver's side window with a gun in his hand, demanding they open the door. According to a federal lawsuit Santellana's family filed against the City of Navasota and Garza last week, the teenager threw the car into reverse, thinking they were being robbed.
Garza has said he opened the driver's side door to yank the keys out of the ignition when Santellana started to reverse. Claiming he was pinned between Santellana's car and his own, Garza began to fire.
Yet according to a crime scene reconstruction expert hired by Santellana's family, Garza's version of events “is not consistent with any of the factual evidence” in the case and conflicts with two eyewitnesses to the shooting, including the passenger in Santellana's car.
Cam Cope, president of Auto Fire & Safety Consultants of Conroe, writes in a report on the shooting that Garza couldn't have been where he said he was — pinned between cars — when he shot at Santellana. There were no powder burns or gunshot residue on Santellana's car and the majority of the bullet casings recovered from the scene were in the middle of the parking lot.
According to Cope's report, Garza must have kept firing at Santellana's vehicle as he drove away from the officer — one other bullet that hit near the front driver's side “was fired by a tall standing person and from a distance,” Cope writes. “Not only were the occupants (of Santellana's car) in extreme danger, but so were the many other guests and residents of the surrounding area of the large apartment complex, at a busy time of the day,” Cope writes. “There is no physical evidence to support the allegation that the shooter was ever threatened, harmed or in danger of the white Malibu.”
Citing the discrepancies flagged by Cope's report, Santellana's family this week announced they'd independently submit evidence to a grand jury to reconsider the case — a rare move that sidesteps prosecutors. Cary Bovy, a Round Rock attorney who serves as Navasota's legal council, said he couldn't comment on the expert's findings because he had not yet seen the report. “We'll just let the courts handle it and make our case through the court system,” he said, declining further comment.
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An autopsy report shows Santellana died from bullets to the back and back of the head. Yet no bullet holes were ever documented in the driver's seat or headrest.
According to the expert's report, Santellana's passenger testified in a deposition that Santellana leaned over and pushed her down to protect her as bullets flew through the car. “Jonathen would have been leaning over her to protect her, exposing the back of his head and back,” the report states.
You can read the expert's full report here: