LOS ANGELES - Authorities relied on a chest tattoo that depicted the murder scene to apprehend and convict a California gang member for a deadly shooting.
Anthony Garcia, 25, was convicted Wednesday of first-degree murder for the 2004 shooting at a liquor store in Pico Rivera. He could face life in prison for the crime when he is sentenced next month.
Garcia had avoided arrest for four years until he was picked up by police for driving with a suspended license in 2008. Because Garcia appeared to be an active member of the Rivera-13 gang, police snapped pictures of his tattoos, along with his mugshot.
Det. Sgt. Kevin Lloyd was looking through pictures of gang members' tattoos for leads on another crime when one image looked eerily familiar. Lloyd had worked as a sergeant at the Pico Rivera Sheriff's Station when the murder happened Jan. 23, 2004, at Mr. Ed's Liquor store.
"I was working on another case about this gang and looking for other examples. ... I just see that picture and something struck me." Lloyd said. "It looked like a murder from way back when."
Lloyd followed his hunch, driving to the liquor store named on the tattoo and pulling the old case file.
Garcia's tattoo captured the night of the shooting, from the Christmas lights outside the liquor store to the bent light post in the store's parking lot to the convalescent home called the Rivera, next door to the liquor store. The scene shows a chopper spraying bullets on a victim. Garcia's gang nickname is "Chopper."
The victim, John Juarez, is depicted as a Mr. Peanut. The peanut is commonly used as a symbol of a rival gang in Pico Rivera, Lloyd said. The crime scene is under a tattoo on Garcia's neck that reads "Rivera Kills."
The tattoo was so accurate that Lloyd called it a "crime scene sketch and a confession." Garcia's tattoo artist even matched the trajectory of the bullets, Lloyd said.
"Even the peanut guy; he's standing on corner, he gets shot in the head and you can see the shot in the head," Lloyd said. "He lays right there in the liquor store."
Garcia was arrested in October of 2008 and charged with the murder. He reportedly confessed to officers posing as gang members in the jail.
Deputy District Attorney Brock Lunsford prosecuted the case and called Garcia's tattoo a "non-verbal confession."
"It was offensive, the brazenness of it," Lunsford said. "I would never say that he's not intelligent. He was able to avoid detection for four years ... his arrogance got the better of him, not a lack of intelligence."
Lunsford said Garcia spent years perfecting the tattoo. A 2005 booking photo of him from an unspecified charge shows just the chopper shooting bullets at Mr. Peanut. A 2006 booking photo of him from another unspecified charge adds the liquor store and his 2008 booking photo from the suspended license charge shows the complete scene.
Police said they have closely examined Garcia's other tattoos to see if they represent any other crimes but so far they do not believe so. Some of his other tattoos show a man wearing a bandana around his mouth pointing a gun. Another shows a man holding somebody in a chokehold with one arm and pointing a dagger toward their head in the other.
"This is a guy who is so bold ? on gang shootings, there's not a lot of evidence and no one wants to come forward," Lloyd said. "It feels real nice to solve one of these crimes."
Garcia's getaway driver, gang member Robert Armijo, pleaded guilty to the crime and testified against Garcia. He is facing a 20-year prison sentence, police said.
Los Angeles police and experts on gang tattoos said they can't recall another time that a criminal has tattooed such a literal depiction of a crime.
"From the research that we've published on tattoos, this is very bizarre and unique," said George Knox, director of the National Gang and Crime Center. "It's bizarre because it is obviously somebody that is not trying to hide their crime and most offenders do. It's unique because it's not something that we would normally find in a gang tattoo."
Knox said that tattoos by gang members are often a rite of a passage.
"They typically occur early in their career. As they gain status or rise to a position of power, they add tattoos," Knox said. "They're designed to intimidate somebody."
For those gang members who decide to turn around their lives, tattoo removal is often key, he added.
"One of the ways to really try and help them get back on the right path again is to get those tattoos off on their face and arms so they can have a job where they're dealing with the public," Knox said.