Victim advocates, family struggle to cope with Sampson Co. murder-suicide

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WARSAW — When Crystal Martinez and Shavonia West describe the early September morning when they first learned of the death, their voices take on the cadence of two young women recalling the details of a shared nightmare. It was the day West and Martinez came face to face with the worst possible outcome of their chosen work, the one they had been warned about but could never be prepared for.

“I was actually off that day and I just couldn’t process that it was her; I had just seen her a week prior to the incident,” remembered Martinez, who, along with West, works as a victim advocate at Warsaw’s domestic violence and rape crisis center, Sarah’s Refuge. “I got a call from the director and she said, ‘Do you have a client named Shirley Garcia?’ I said ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘You need to come to the office.’ I was trying to process it but I couldn’t and I think I just lost it for a moment.”

“I didn’t think it was going to happen,” West recalled. “I was off that day too and I just felt like I needed to support the team, so I came in. It was just an emotional roller coaster.”
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The bare facts of the case barely hint at the terrible loss inflicted on the families and friends left behind: On the morning of Sept. 5 the body of Shirley Gil Garcia, 55, was discovered at the home of the Hudson family in the 4900 block of Old Warsaw Road near Clinton. Garcia, who died from a gunshot wound, was a longtime employee of the Hudsons. Her estranged husband, 67-year-old Carmelo Garcia, was quickly named as a suspect. During the course of a manhunt for Carmelo, schools in the Hobbton and Midway districts were locked down due to threats made against other members of Shirley Garcia’s family.

Shortly after 11 a.m., the body of Carmelo Garcia was located at his residence at 611 Henry Vann Farm Road, approximately 20 miles away from the Hudson residence. According to an autopsy report, Garcia hanged himself.

Almost two months after the murder, those who knew and tried to help Shirley Garcia are still working to come to terms with the seemingly senseless acts of that day.

“Shirley was like a mother to me,” Jorge Gil Calderon, her nephew, stated plainly when describing the woman who came to America to help raise him after his mother was killed in an auto accident.
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According to Calderon, Carmelo Garcia had a history of violence. Calderon said his uncle served time in a Florida prison for attacking a girlfriend, receiving a lengthy sentence that was reduced due to good behavior. In North Carolina he spent 2-3 years in jail for similar offenses, said Calderon.

“The second time he got out of prison is when he met my aunt and they got married. He worked a year or two and then quit. He hadn’t done anything in 45 years. He had no foundation of honest living. He just lived off my aunt.”

Calderon explained that his uncle came from a wealthy Puerto Rican family. He said Carmelo’s father ran labor camps in the U.S.

Calderon said six months prior to his aunt’s murder, Shirley visited her home country of Costa Rica with her two grandchildren in tow. In an effort to mend their increasingly rocky marriage, Calderon said he persuaded his uncle to accompany them. However, after Carmelo began acting irrationally, Shirley sent him home on an early flight.

“He humiliated my aunt, called her foul names in front of the family. He was threatening everyone; there was no reasoning with him. He was like Jekyll and Hyde,” Calderon said of his uncle.

At this point, said Calderon, Carmelo’s behavior became increasingly bizarre and threatening. Several days after he returned from Costa Rica he showed up at Calderon’s work, brandishing a gun and raving irrationally.

“He said he had contracted a disease and needed to go to a hospital in Maryland. It was crazy stuff. I could see there was no connection between the person he was and the one in front of me. He was gone.”

After the Costa Rica incident, Calderon said Shirley made the decision to leave her husband, a development that led Carmelo to become increasingly desperate.

While his aunt was still in Costa Rica, Calderon said he made the decision to contact Sarah’s Refuge on her behalf.

Calderon was well aware of the help Sarah’s Refuge could provide. Several years ago, he enlisted the organization’s services to help free himself from an abusive relationship and gain custody of his two children. In a somber twist of fate, it was Calderon’s uncle, Carmelo Garcia, who recommended that he seek assistance from the domestic violence center.

Calderon first contacted Sarah’s on his aunt’s behalf last summer, in July or August. When Shirley came back from Costa Rica, she spoke with Martinez, telling her she had moved into a hotel in Clinton.

“She said she just wanted to get away from her husband and that he kept on going to Jorge’s (Calderon’s) work talking bizarrely. She said he was verbally abusive and she wanted nothing to do with him anymore,” said Martinez.

According to Victoria Grey-Allen, executive director of Sarah’s Refuge, a magistrate was contacted and efforts were made to take out a restraining order. Carmelo Garcia, however, was one step ahead of the law.

“He started living in his car, so they didn’t have any way to find him to serve him with the papers,” said Grey-Allen.

Throughout this time, no law enforcement officer ever made contact with Carmelo.

Zero to 100

Both Calderon and Grey-Allen point to a perceived lack of control as the flash point that led Carmelo to escalate his abuse from verbal and emotional to violently physical.

“He started losing control. Shirley stressed that she was the financially stable one. He was frustrated because he was just receiving retirement,” said Grey-Allen.

“I think he panicked then, he knew he would have to take care of himself,” Calderon believes. “All his family was up north in New Jersey or in Florida. He felt alone, like it was the end of the road. He had no one to care for him.”

Martinez and Grey-Allen agree that Shirley understood Carmelo was capable of physical violence, including murder.

“She said, ‘He knows that whatever he does to me, he’s either going to go to prison or he’s going to just kill me,’” said Martinez.
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“He told her exactly what he was going to do: kill her and then kill himself. I think in her heart she knew that he wouldn’t stop until that was accomplished,” Grey-Allen commented.

Grey-Allen described the situation as “going from zero to 100” during the days leading up to the murder.

In a last ditch effort to get Shirley back, Carmelo called his nephew and told him someone had broken into his house.

“He said Shirley needed to come back,” remembered Calderon. “When I went out to his house to investigate, I found all the stuff that was supposedly stolen crammed into a van in his yard. The things he was saying didn’t make sense, they didn’t fit reality.”

Calderon still seems visibly shaken by the changes he saw in his uncle. “This was a man who I once let babysit my children. Now he was a danger to my family. He was just crazy.”

As Carmelo spun further and further out of control, Shirley was doing her best to begin a new life.

“This was a woman who did everything right,” said Grey-Allen. “She changed her residence, she changed her phone number, and she changed her vehicle. The only thing she didn’t change was her job.”

That decision, said Calderon, was based on her relationship with the Hudson family.

“She started working with them as a nanny 15 years ago and then became basically a personnel assistant. She was like a part of the family.”

Shirley’s relationship with the Hudsons would eventually be turned against her, said Martinez.

“We believe he (Carmelo) staked out the house and learned the family’s routine, when they were there and when she would be alone.”

The descriptions of the final days of Shirley Garcia’s life have an almost inevitable finality, as if all that could be done for her had been completed, and all that remained was the grim epilogue.

The week before the murder, Shirley came into Sarah’s Refuge to speak with Martinez and West.

“Jorge (Calderon) called while she was here, because his uncle came to his business with a gun talking crazy,” West recalled. “We talked to her about coming into the shelter, but she had already moved. They (the Hudsons) had provided a place for her in Teachey and she didn’t think he knew where she was living.”

Three days before the murder, Calderon told Carmelo he wanted him out of his life permantly. “I told him not to call or try to see my children. We cried and prayed together. He was calm, said he was going to Florida.”

The next day, said Calderon, his uncle called and told him, “You pray to God. I pray to the devil because he’s the one who’s got my back.”

The day before the murder, Calderon saw Carmelo riding in a van. “I called him and asked what was going on. He said, ‘I’m in Florida.’ But I’m right behind him, looking at him.”

The next morning Calderon received a text message from one of Shirley’s sisters in Costa Rica. She told him she had been on the phone with Shirley and had heard a scream followed by a gunshot. While he was driving through Warsaw on his way to Clinton, he received a final call from his uncle.

“He said, ‘Shirley’s dead. I don’t have much time.’”

Aftermath

“The murder was premeditated and unfortunately, there’s nothing anyone could have done,” Grey-Allen noted. “I think he (Carmelo) counted on her not quitting her job because he knew how important it was to her. The Hudson family feels so much guilt, because they feel like because of her love for them it cost her her life. She wouldn’t leave.”

Grey-Allen said, though she herself has faced similar incidents over the years, Shirley Garcia was the first client that West and Martinez had ever lost to violence.

“We have a staff meeting every month and I always try to prepare them for the worst case scenario that could happen in this line of work, but I don’t think they were ready. You can’t ever be ready for something like this.”

Martinez, who worked most closely with Shirley, said she was “a mess” when she first learned of Garcia’s murder. “It just didn’t seem real,” she confided.

“It just shocked me,” West remembered. “I came into the office because I figured they would be not okay, and I was not okay.”
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Asked what lasting effect they believe the murder will have on the staff of Sarah’s Refuge, each of the women pointed to a renewed commitment to help those who are abused and in need.

“I say to myself, ‘We can’t lose another one.’ It’s like a mantra I keep saying over and over. I know it’s probably not realistic, but…,” said Grey-Allen, her voice trailing off.

“We have always taken our jobs seriously, but it has kind of inspired us to fight harder. I don’t want to get another call saying that someone else is gone,” West explained.

“Even on days when we’re tired,” said Martinez, “I meet these women and their whole life has changed. So I need to push to give my all because this is their life.”

West emphasized that threats need to be taken seriously, by individuals as well as law enforcement.

“When I do support groups, I tell people, ‘If someone threatens to kill you, you believe them.’ They’re not just saying that. For it to come out of their mouth they’ve processed it and thought about it and there’s a very possible chance they’ll try to carry that out.”

Looking back on the life of his aunt, Calderon offers an unsentimental but loving portrait. “She had a very strong character; she was rough around the edges and she would curse. She was very course; she had always been like that. But she was like my mother; she raised me for 15 years of my life. She was the person who helped keep the whole family together.”

Through his work with the non-profit organization Warrior of the Light Ministry and his own personal studies, Calderon said he has gained some insight into the darker realities of life.

“Many people don’t have a realistic view of our world. Pain and suffering will come your way, that’s a fact. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can from this experience.”

Calderon said he continues to struggle to make some sense of the evil that exists in this world, to provide both himself and his family with a means of understanding the unfathomable.

“My children have a lot of questions. I can only try to explain and give them answers as they grow up. I just pray to God to give me the wisdom to raise them with some sense of peace and closure to this whole situation.”

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