ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Alan Garcia had just picked up his two children from school when it happened. He was trying to get off a freeway, and another car forced him out of his lane.
Garcia gestured toward the other driver and swore at him. Then, authorities said, the seemingly trivial episode on Tuesday turned deadly. A man in the other car opened fire on Garcia’s pickup truck, hitting his 4-year-old daughter in the head and shocking New Mexico’s largest city.
The apparent road-rage slaying began with one vehicle cutting off another, police said Thursday, two days after the fatal confrontation.
Garcia told police he heard two gunshots. Then his 7-year-old son said, “She’s bleeding,” referring to his little sister.
The suspect, identified as Tony Torrez, continued to pursue Garcia’s truck and fired twice more, according to a criminal complaint released Thursday. Garcia pulled over and tried to give first aid to his dying little girl as a bystander called 911.
When help arrived, Lilly Garcia was lying on the tailgate of her father’s truck in the median, bleeding heavily.
Police said Torrez, who was arrested Wednesday, admitted firing on the family as they travelled on Interstate 40, Albuquerque’s main east-west freeway. He has been charged with murder, assault, child abuse and other crimes. He made a court appearance from jail via video as a judge reviewed the terms of his $650,000 cash-only bond.
“This is possibly one of the most wanton and atrocious acts in the history of this city,” Judge Chris Schultz said.
According to the complaint, police received an anonymous tip from a caller who alleged that the 32-year-old had acknowledged shooting the child after he said Garcia’s truck tried to run him off the road. Police said they believe it was a random encounter and that the two didn’t know each other.
“The two drivers exchanged words when Torrez pulled out a gun” and fired, the statement continued. “Lilly was hit at least once in the head.”
Todd Farkas, a public defender assigned to the case, declined to comment but said he planned to release a statement on Friday.
The little girl’s grandfather said the attack left the family deep in mourning.
“They really have to do something about this. It’s a problem,” Jose Garcia said, referring to gun violence.
He spoke to The Associated Press in Spanish as he stood outside the family home just south of the highway where the shooting occurred in a newly developed area of west Albuquerque.
After the shooting, a man alerted a dispatcher to a truck stopped on an I-40 median with “an adult holding an unresponsive child,” according to a roughly minute-long call released by police.
Two nurses showed up and tried to save the girl’s life before an ambulance rushed her to a hospital, where she died, Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden said.
Jonell Tafoya was taking her 15-year-old daughter home via I-40 and remembers seeing the two cars engaged in a fight. It appeared as though the father was deliberately trying to keep the car from passing him as they argued, she said, describing it as the “truck really egging it on.”
“The red truck was kind of swerving to keep the red car behind them,” Tafoya said. “When we were leaving the overpass, I said ‘Something bad is going to happen from this.”‘
Looking back, Tafoya believes the girl’s father should not have been driving so dangerously. At the same time, nothing justifies the suspect pulling out a gun, Tafoya added.
Officer Simon Drobik said the best approach in a road rage situation is to avoid engaging with a problem driver, take down the license plate number of the other vehicle, and call police.
“It takes two people,” Drobik said of road rage. “You have to let it go.”
The young girl’s death spawned an outpouring of sympathy nationwide. A GoFundMe account for funeral services and other expenses received more than $64,000 since being created Tuesday. The hashtag #JusticeForLilly began showing up on social media.
Torrez has been tied to violent crimes in New Mexico dating back a decade, but all of those cases were dropped, including a fight in July 2006 in which he was charged with aggravated battery and assault. A grand jury indictment says he assaulted another man with a handgun and also applied force to a woman with the weapon or touched her with it, intending to injure her.
The only crime for which he’s been prosecuted was a misdemeanour speeding violation in 2013.
Around that time, charges including abandonment or abuse of a child and aggravated battery of a household member were dismissed after the victim died. Prosecutors also were not able to proceed with 2006 domestic violence charges.
Lindi Walsh worked with Lilly’s mother, Veronica Garcia, at a drugstore five years ago and keeps in touch with her through Facebook. She recalled how much her friend wanted a second child. In the weeks following Lilly’s birth, the new mom often posted pictures with the infant.
“You could see through Facebook how radiant, how thrilled she was to have a baby girl,” Walsh said. “One thing I know is Veronica is a very affectionate and loving person. Her kids are her world, no doubt.”
The 4-year-old loved dancing, singing, school and shopping at Target, according to her family. Before Torrez’s arrest, Veronica Garcia told Albuquerque’s KOAT-TV that her daughter “had this personality that was just over and above her age.”
“She just had this smile and beautiful big brown eyes that just light up a room,” Veronica Garcia said in between sobs. “She was so polite. She just grabbed your heart from the first time that you met her.”
At a news conference late Wednesday, the police chief released details of Torrez’s arrest and information about an unrelated shooting that evening that left one of his officers critically wounded. A man was later arrested in that case.
“For me, this is a terrible day,” Eden said.
Associated Press writers Bob Seavey and Terry Tang in Phoenix contributed to this report.