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Injured Man Jailed by Mistake for 5 Days


POMONA — Robert Garcia knew his day was ruined when he jumped into the air to drape a shirt over a back yard clothesline and landed on a Christmas tree stand, driving a six-inch spike through the sole of his shoe into his foot.

Little did Garcia know just how bad it would get. As he was hobbling to the hospital, an Ontario policeman searching for a suspect in the shooting of a Pomona police officer thought Garcia looked suspicious. The officer wheeled his patrol car around, pulled out his gun and took Garcia into custody.

For five days, Garcia sat in jail while Pomona police investigated his claims of innocence until they finally determined that they had, indeed, caught the wrong man and released him from custody.

When he was arrested last Thursday, Garcia had the misfortune to be carrying a realistic-looking toy gun in his pocket. Worse, witnesses said he looked like one of the three men involved in the robbery of a Pomona house and shooting of a police officer.

Still, Garcia said, police should have believed his family and neighbors when they told them he was home while the crimes were being committed.

Reflecting on his ordeal at the small house in a working-class Ontario neighborhood where he lives with his mother and other family members, Garcia on Tuesday was still wearing his jail identification bracelet. "I'm going to leave it on until I see a lawyer," he said. "I plan on suing them."

Garcia said his appearance and circumstances worked against him with police.

He wears his hair in a close-cropped style and has tattoos. "I think they figure every person who has tattoos and their head shaved is no good," he said.

His background is not squeaky-clean, Garcia conceded. "I've been in jail for not paying traffic tickets. . . . I used to hang out with gang members--but I was never a gang member myself--and that was when I was 20."

He's 25 now, the father of a 2 1/2-year-old son. "I ain't the perfect person in the world," he said, "but I'm trying to straighten out my life."

Last Thursday, Garcia said, he was in his back yard fixing a washing machine. He ran a shirt through the machine to test it and was throwing it onto an overhead clothesline when his foot landed on the Christmas tree stand.

Garcia said the spike pierced his shoe and went an inch into his foot. He pulled the spike out, but the wound was bloody and painful.

He said no one in the family could take him to the hospital. A friend offered to drive him, but the friend was working on his truck and said it would be 15 minutes before he could get the truck running again.

So Garcia decided to walk to the hospital, which was four blocks away. He was pushing a shopping cart ahead of him for balance, and had the Christmas tree stand in the cart to show the doctor, when police stopped him and took him into custody. Garcia said police did not explain why they were arresting him.

Three hours earlier in Pomona, three robbers had invaded a house in a crime that was interrupted by police. One suspect, Jesus Garcia, 28, of Pomona, was captured a few blocks away but two other suspects escaped after shooting and wounding Pomona police office Roger Mathews. The two men fled to Ontario, with police in pursuit, and then split up. One took a hostage in a pickup truck and led police on a wild, bullet-riddled chase that ended in Santa Ana. The other also stole a truck and disappeared.

Police thought Garcia was the suspect who had eluded them. Garcia said police took him to Ontario Community Hospital to get a tetanus shot and a bandage on his foot and then tested his hands for gunpowder.

Then he was taken to the Pomona police station where, he said, police questioned him about the missing truck, the other suspects and whether he had been to Pomona or Santa Ana recently. Garcia said, "I couldn't tell them nothing. I didn't know nothing."

The incriminating toy gun found in his pocket, he said, was actually a non-working cigarette lighter that he had fished out of a neighbor's trash for his son on his regular rounds of scavenging for cans to be sold for recycling. He said his son hadn't been minding him that morning so he took the toy gun away and put it in his own pocket.

While in jail, Garcia said, he kept thinking about a television show about a man who was mistakenly convicted of a crime and spent 25 years in prison. "I was thinking my son may not see me again until I'm 50 years old. . . . I was scared. There were a lot of times I wanted to shed tears."

He said he didn't find out that police had discovered their mistake until he was brought to Pomona Municipal Court for arraignment Monday and was told he would be released for lack of evidence. Garcia said a detective told him, "We're not sure it's you, and we're not sure it's not you."

But Pomona Police Capt. Chuck Heilman was more definitive. Witnesses who identified Garcia as a suspect were mistaken, he said, adding that police are seeking a suspect who closely resembles Garcia.

Meanwhile, Jesus Garcia, the suspect who was captured near the Pomona house and who is unrelated to Robert Garcia, was arraigned Tuesday in Pomona Municipal Court on five charges, including robbery and attempted murder. He pleaded not guilty. Commissioner Joel Hoffman scheduled a preliminary hearing for April 14 and a bail hearing March 30. The dates coincide with hearings set Monday for co-defendant Regino Deharo, 21, of Santa Ana, who was arraigned on 23 counts, including robbery, kidnaping and attempted murder. Both are being held without bail until the March 30 hearing.

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