'Mildly Retarded' Man, Whose Repeated Calls Led to Fire Department Crash, Exonerated

Categories: Law & Order
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Don't touch that dial!
A San Francisco man was acquitted last week of 21 misdemeanor counts of falsely reporting an emergency -- an investigation kicked off after a firefighter crashed a department pickup truck while responding to one of the bogus calls.

Jose Garcia's public defender, Corey Farris, calls the fact the case was tried at all the "outrage of the week," since authorities never attempted to put a stop to her 25-year-old "mildly mentally retarded" client's behavior prior to arresting him.

While Garcia's number couldn't be tracked on many of the calls since he persistently dialed the non-emergency dispatch line, on four instances he gave dispatchers his address at an eight-unit apartment building on San Jose Avenue; one time he gave his name; and twice he left his phone number, Farris says.

"I honestly think the battalion chief [who crashed] got pissed off and wanted to find out who it is," Farris says. Sixth battalion chief Michael Kearney -- the chief in question -- understandably denies that.

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The San Francisco Fire Department is down one pickup truck after Jose Garcia's spate of calls...

Garcia made 21 calls between March and June, reporting "a smell of smoke" at various locations throughout the city, Farris says. Even though dispatch would inform firefighters that the caller was likely their serial smoke-reporter, Kearney notes that the fire department is mandated to respond each time -- with up to a 12-vehicle team required when someone reports smoke in a building.

At issue was the Garcia's mental capacity: While he has never been diagnosed, the public defender argued that he is "mildly mentally retarded" and a "little bit simple," having been in special ed classes in high school and accompanying his mom to her job as a crossing guard daily. Garcia said in his police interrogation that he "wanted to save people," she says. The district attorney argued that he showed obvious signs of guilt: never once sticking around to help out the crew once they arrived, and never telling his family about the smoke even when he called from their apartment.

Whatever the cause for the calls, while responding on June 1 with his emergency lights on, Kearney blew a stop sign in his department pickup truck at San Jose and 25th street while he was reaching to turn on his siren. He T-boned a car driving through the intersection. No one was injured. While the California Highway Patrol found Kearney to be at fault by blowing the sign, the fireman wasn't issued a ticket. The truck is still out of service. 

After the crash, the city ramped up efforts to track Garcia down. On June 3, the dispatch supervisor called in a police investigator to show him a list of bogus phone calls from the same caller. The dispatch supervisor had requested that AT&T trap the originating phone of these false reports "because the final known call resulted in the SFFD Battalion Chief" responding and getting in an accident while doing so, according to the police report.

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Yet Garcia wasn't caught until he made four more calls on June 8. The police arrested Garcia from his family's San Jose Avenue apartment and booked him into custody. His family bailed him out for $6,300.

Farris, the public defender, motioned to have the case postponed for six months to see if Garcia would strike again -- since he had no criminal record -- but the DA did not relent. Farris successfully motioned to keep any mention of the crash out of the trial.

"Throughout his statement [to police] he just said 'I called to save people.' They tried to get him to say 'you called because you wanted to see fire engines,'" Farris says. "I think it's pretty outrageous, especially with someone who's mentally slow, that you wouldn't go to the house and say 'This is a problem, why don't you stop,'" Farris continues. She adds that Garcia hasn't made any more calls since the trial. 

The jury deliberated for three hours before finding Garcia not guilty on all counts. 

Kearney says he's just happy the calls have stopped. "When people report something and we respond, we wipe out our resources. And if something else comes in, a medical or fire emergency, all these units are already at that other area."

Or, like his former truck, out of commission entirely.

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