Living life as a 'walking ATM'

Marcelino Eugenio Garcia displays some of his scars from when he was shot during a robbery in North Charleston.

Lying face up on a patch of grass near Ashley Phosphate Road, Marcelino Eugenio Garcia thought he was dying.

One bullet had pierced his stomach, another his left leg. Who would put his three children in Mexico through school? Who would support his elderly parents?

Garcia's body throbbed with pain as he watched his attacker get in a car and drive away two years ago. He fumbled for his cell phone to call 911. He gave up waiting for a Spanish-speaker to come on the line and dialed a friend instead.

The waiting felt eternal. A woman walked from a nearby apartment and asked if he needed help. She came back with a towel and put it under his head.

He took off his cap, then placed his keys, wallet and cell phone inside. If he survived, maybe he would get them back.

He had a private conversation with God.

"By then I was in bad shape," Garcia said in Spanish recently while revisiting the spot. "I asked God to forgive me."

Garcia is more fortunate than some of his compatriots. He lived.

He experienced first-hand a trend of violent crimes against Hispanic immigrants in the Lowcountry and the rest of the nation. The new arrivals, particularly laborers like Garcia who arrived here illegally, are much more likely to be robbed than members of the general population. Last year, three Mexican men were shot dead during three separate robberies in North Charleston and adjacent areas.

Easy targets

Garcia's ordeal unfolded two years ago. He calls it mi accidente or "my accident." Within a month of being shot, he was the victim of two more crimes: a home invasion and an attempted home invasion in which somebody fired a gun into the front door of his home.

North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt said street robberies went up several years ago, as soon as large numbers of Hispanics began settling in the city. Criminals took to calling the new arrivals "walking ATMs," easy targets who carry cash and aren't likely to call police.

"That's a harsh way to phrase it," Zumalt said, "but that's the street talk."

Robberies against Hispanics nearly doubled from 2004 to 2007. Over the past couple of years, Hispanics accounted for almost half the city's robberies — five to 10 times more than other residents, given their share of the overall population. The U.S. Census Bureau said Hispanics made up 5.8 percent of the city's population of just under 90,000 in 2006, though that figure likely underestimates the actual number.

Police have tried to curtail the trend by hitting the Spanish-language airwaves and holding regular community crime meetings in the Stall Road area, the center of gravity for the area's Hispanic population. Their message: Don't be afraid to call police, don't carry large amounts of cash, and be careful about walking alone, especially at night after drinking.

Many robberies involved these factors. But Garcia wasn't doing any of them May 12, 2006.

A trip to the store

Garcia was walking down Peppercorn Lane about 7 p.m., after buying long-distance phone cards at La Frontera grocery on the other side of Ashley Phosphate Road.

It was daylight, he had about $30 in his pocket, and he was sober; he said he hasn't had a drink in four years.

The apartment where he lived was only about a block away. As he crossed an empty parking lot on Mountainbrook Avenue, a green Chevrolet subcompact pulled up. A slender, young man got out of the car and followed Garcia across Peppercorn Lane.

The man pointed a gun and tried to rob him, but the language barrier got in the way. He asked for money. Garcia tried to explain he didn't have any. Prosecutors say the man with the gun got angry.

Garcia remembers the gun at his head and the man pulling the trigger. He thinks the safety was on because the pistol didn't fire.

The gunman stepped back. Then he fired once into Garcia's leg, sending him to the ground. The man looked down on him and fired again, the shot lodging itself in his belly.

Garcia looked directly at the assailant. Like so many other details during the episode, he said he'll never forget the man's face.

Two nearby witnesses heard the first shot and saw the second, the 9th Circuit Solicitor's Office said. Witnesses called 911 and followed a green Chevrolet they saw the assailant get into.

North Charleston police started combing streets in the Pepperhill subdivision while a helicopter scanned the area from above. By nightfall, officers had arrested Jerome Harper, then 24, on the far side of the neighborhood.

Authorities said Harper switched cars at a friend's house after the shooting and drove to another friend's house. He surrendered after North Charleston officers surrounded the second house on Stonybrook Road.

Later, Garcia identified Harper from a lineup.

"Us Hispanics, we need to take a good look at the face so that those who do us harm can be brought to justice so that they don't walk free doing damage to us because what happened to me was very sad," Garcia said recently.

At a community crime meeting April 3, Garcia stood in front of a mostly Spanish-speaking crowd of about 100 and told his story.

North Charleston has hosted bilingual crime meetings at New Covenant Church of God on Stall Road for about a year. Councilwoman Rhonda Jerome, whose district includes the area, said they are the best-attended community crime meetings in the city.

At one point while recounting his experience, Garcia broke into tears. But he had some reasons to be thankful.

Earlier that day, in General Sessions Court, he had seen his attacker sent to prison. Jerome Harper pleaded guilty to assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature and attempted armed robbery. Circuit Judge Thomas L. Hughston, Jr. sentenced him to 10 years.

Others in the audience could relate; another Spanish-speaking man spoke of being robbed and also choked up.

'For necessity'

Garcia is short and keeps his jet-black hair shaved, often wearing a baseball cap over it. He looks a decade younger than his 43 years. His English is limited.

He grew up one of eight children in the highlands of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. The family survived by growing crops like corn and beans, their livelihood always at the mercy of the harvest.

He said he came to the U.S. illegally in August of 2002, "for necessity."

He wanted to support his wife and children. He has two daughters, 21 and 16, and a 19-year-old son. He also helps support two elderly parents. Though he passed only the second grade, he wanted his children to get a good education.

But that was nearly impossible to do on a Mexican salary, he said. Back home, he worked at a textile factory from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. During that period in 2000 and 2001, he typically earned $180 a week.

"There wasn't any rest," he said.

From his small town of Santo Tomas Ocotepec, he knows of people who have gone to North Carolina, New York, Washington state and Texas. He decided to head north, too.

First, he arrived in Greenville, then left for the Lowcountry about a week later.

At the time of the shooting, he worked at a concrete job, which he liked. It paid $13 an hour, plus overtime. It helped send his eldest daughter to study accounting.

The job was one of several casualties of Garcia's shooting.

Garcia can no longer do physically demanding concrete work. He settled for a factory job that pays about $5 an hour less, and it isn't full-time. His daughter had to stop studying accounting.

"My life, from one day to the next changed a lot," he said. "It destroyed my life."

Since the "accident," Garcia walks with a pronounced limp. Bullet-sized scars mark entry wounds. His pants droop because wearing a belt hurts his stomach, now marked by a thick surgical scar from top to bottom.

His left ankle doesn't bend and the toes on that foot don't move. He has been talking to doctors about an orthopedic shoe to level him out while walking, since his left leg feels shorter than the right one. It hurts to stretch his hands upward.

His recovery in the immediate days after the shooting began with a 13-day hospital stay. When he returned home, setbacks continued.

Setbacks

Two days after leaving the hospital, Garcia was convalescing on a sofa in the Mountainbrook Avenue townhome when a man with a gun burst through the back door. A nurse who had been attending to Garcia's wounds ran out the front door screaming. The gunman put a gun to his head, then took his wallet and cell phone. A roommate was robbed, too.

Police never made an arrest.

Garcia said that in the following month, June 2006, another attacker attempted to force his way inside the same townhome.

After trying the same rear door, by then braced with a metal bar, the would-be intruder ran around front. He kicked the door about five times, then fired a semi-automatic pistol into the door, a police report said. Police later collected a bullet on the floor near the front door and another lodged in a refrigerator.

The incidents were part of a growing trend or at least one that was becoming more visible in 2005 and 2006. Reported robberies against Hispanics in North Charleston increased 34 percent in each of those years. They kept going up in 2007, though only about 7 percent.

Some of the rise might stem from police convincing Hispanics to talk to them.

Bilingual police detective David Watson answers crime and safety questions in a weekly program on Spanish-language radio station El Sol 98.9 FM. He thinks members of the Hispanic community are starting to report crimes that previously went unrecorded. At the same time, they seem to be taking more precautions, such as not carrying so much cash.

"I honestly believe that they're starting to listen to us," Watson said. "I told them to report these crimes, or they'll continue to happen."

Immediately after an arrest, police usually see robberies against Hispanics drop, he said. That tells them a single group of criminals often is behind a crime wave. The detective thought it unusual for somebody to have been targeted as many times as Garcia.

The police chief said that as a municipal law enforcement officer, he can't do much about illegal immigration but he can do something about violent crime.

"We don't tolerate criminal misconduct regardless of who the victim is," Zumalt said. "While I don't condone the people coming into our country illegally, I won't tolerate anybody being victimized. I'm going to investigate any crime on any person in our community. That's my position, whether they're here legally or illegally."

Though Hispanics usually have been at the receiving end of the violence, authorities have been noticing that more Hispanics are surfacing as suspects. Police are seeing more Hispanic-on-Hispanic crimes. Before the perpetrators were usually from other ethnic groups.

Disturbed

There are some things about Garcia's case that still disturb him. Harper, while awaiting trial, was able to post bail. Garcia said nobody told him that his attacker was free. And he thinks 10 years was too short a sentence and that the law needs to be tougher.

"He could have killed me," he said. "Yes, they found the responsible party, they detained him and he's in prison, but for me, it's very little time. That's a dangerous person."

He holds no ill-will toward Harper's family, though. He saw the defendant's mother in court and felt compassion for her.

At least one thing has improved from Garcia's point of view during the past two years— his legal status in the United States. He secured a U visa, a special work and residency permit issued by the Department of Homeland Security for non-citizens. It allows immigrants who have suffered substantially as crime victims or who have helped authorities investigate or prosecute a crime to stay and work in the U.S.

Garcia said he's grateful to the paramedics, doctors, nurses and detectives who helped him.

"I'm a mellow, peaceful and respectful person," he said. "I'm very grateful to God, that God gave me another opportunity."

Garcia still wears the same baseball cap he had on the day he was shot, the one where he placed his keys, wallet and cell phone. It's a keepsake so he won't forget his "accident." He remembers with digital clarity the details while lying on the grass: His attacker's green car speeding away, the woman from the nearby apartment, the 911 call. There also was the brisk traffic, the drivers going by, either oblivious or indifferent to his plight.

Reach Noah Haglund at 937-5550 or nhaglund@postandcourier.com