5-year-old’s murder lays bare a circle of violence
By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org October 21, 2012 5:34PM
Eric M. Galarza, Sr.
Updated: November 23, 2012 6:07AM
ELGIN — A year has passed since Elginites awoke to read and hear news coverage of one of the most shocking crimes anyone could remember.
It was the evening of Friday, Oct. 7, 2011 that someone pumped a half-dozen or so bullets into a car-full of women and children pulling out of a driveway on Elgin’s northeast side, killing 5-year-old Eric Galarza Jr.
It was noontime on Wednesday, Oct. 12 that Eric’s parents, Eric Galarza Sr. and Denisse Ignacio, walked behind the tiny white casket carrying their tiny son out of a funeral service attended by 300 mourners, many wearing white T-shirts bearing little Eric’s face.
It was late at night on Friday, Oct. 14, 2011, when Elgin police announced that after one of the most intense investigations in their history, a probe that Police Chief Jeff Swoboda said involved the entire detective force, they had charged Miguel Hernandez Jr., of Aurora with first-degree murder.
And it was Saturday, Oct. 15, that, even as Hernandez stood in shackles in front of a judge in a Cook County courthouse, dozens of people fed up with it all held a “March Against Gang Violence” down Dundee Avenue and then Elma Avenue to the scene of the crime, led again by Eric Sr. and Denisse.
During that year, some things have changed much and some little.
Hernandez remains in the Cook County Jail. He attended his most recent court hearing last Thursday, as the laborious legal dance that precedes a major murder trial crawls its way toward a trial date no one can even yet estimate.
Elgin still has gang violence, but the number of shootings has dropped, with only one gang-related murder that has occurred in the intervening year.
And in the most surprising twist, the boy’s father has become a much-wanted fugitive from the law himself, and one of the crimes he’s wanted for is allegedly attacking his wife, the dead boy’s mother.
A violent past
Eric M. Galarza Sr., now 31 years old, is no stranger to violence. Police say he has been a longtime member of the Latin Kings street gang, probably since he was a student at Elgin High School. At age 19 he was charged with firing a shotgun into two homes in Elgin as part of a gang operation. In 2001 he negotiated a guilty plea and was sentenced to nine years in prison, though he was paroled early.
A string of run-ins with the law preceded and followed, many involving battery cases or drinking. In the most recent, he had been arrested by the Bartlett Police Department on June 7, 2011, and charged with aggravated battery. According to court records, he allegedly was in the Cadillac Ranch nightclub on Route 20 on the night of June 2, 2011, when he “caused great bodily harm” to a man named Andre Davis by striking him in the face. Davis was taken to St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates with serious injuries. The case was still pending in Cook County circuit court when the little boy was murdered (and is still pending today).
Eric Sr.’s lawyer indicated in pretrial filings that his client is innocent because he was “defending himself or others” against a threat from Davis.
Eric Sr. was released until trial by posting 10 percent of a $60,000 bail bond. Court documents indicate the $6,000 was supplied by his mother, Arlene Galarza of Elgin.
Shots in the night
Family also was on the Galarzas’ minds on the night of the shooting. Eric Sr. and Denisse lived with their three children and other relatives in a home in the generally quiet middle-class neighborhood called Blackhawk Manor. At 7:10 p.m. on Oct. 7, 2011, the family piled into their car and began backing out of the driveway, bound for a Friday-night dinner with the children’s grandparents.
According to police, Denisse’s sister, Christina Ignacio, was at the steering wheel. Riding along were Eric Sr., Denisse, Eric Jr. and the couple’s two other children, then-2-year-old Luis Galarza and then-5-month-old Jayleen Galarza. As Christina began to shift the car from reverse into drive and proceed down Elma Avenue, five to seven shots rang out from the darkness behind them.
Speeding away, the Galarzas frantically tried to determine whether anybody had been hit. They figured out all of them were okay except Eric Jr., who had been hit in the head by a bullet, just above one eye. He was taken to Sherman Hospital but died about three hours later.
The next Friday, Elgin police announced they had charged Miguel Hernandez Jr., then 27, of the 1100 block of Maple Street in Aurora, with first-degree murder.
According to various court documents and a prosecutor’s statement to a bond court judge the next morning, detectives believe that Hernandez Jr. rode to the shooting scene in a black Toyota Tundra pickup that was owned and driven by his father, Miguel Hernandez Sr. of Elgin. Also in the pickup was Luis A. “Chipi” Acevedo. All three, police claim, were members of the same gang as Eric Galarza Sr. — the Latin Kings.
Hernandez Sr. allegedly parked the truck around the corner from the Galarza home and Hernandez Jr. got out, carrying a 9 millimeter pistol. Standing in the street, he then allegedly shot up the backing car.
Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney David Weiner charged that Hernandez Jr. then got back into the Tundra and the three people drove via I-90 to the parking lot of the GameWorks gaming emporium in Schaumburg. There they allegedly met Hernandez Jr.’s girlfriend, Juanita Ortiz, and Hernandez Jr. gave the gun to her.
Hernandez Sr., Acevedo and Ortiz have not been charged in the case.
Hernandez Jr. also has a lengthy criminal record. He was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for attempted murder and aggravated discharge of a firearm in 2004; to three years in prison for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon in 2002; and to 11 months of conditional discharge for possession of cannabis in 2010.
Speaking on Hernandez Jr.’s behalf at his bond hearing after his arrest, Cook County Assistant Public Defender Daniel Naranjo said Hernandez Jr. was single but had two children — one a baby and one, ironically, 5 years old, the same age as Eric Jr.
The accused killer had worked at a factory as a machine operator for four years, the attorney said. Though living in Aurora at the time, Hernandez Jr. was born in Elgin, is a U.S. citizen and had spent his life in the Fox Valley, he said.
He was ordered held without bond.
Something police and prosecutors have not revealed is the alleged motive for the shooting, though investigators say they’re sure Eric Sr. was the gunman’s real target.
One court document filed by the prosecution says Eric Sr. told detectives that he had been “having ongoing problems with Yagi, who was known to investigators as Miguel Hernandez Jr.” Both, according to authorities, were Latin Kings, though one person close to the case said he thinks Eric Sr. may have left or been kicked out of that gang.
According to one report, Hernandez blamed Eric Sr. for a previous shooting that involved some member of the Hernandez family. According to another, and some Internet postings, gang members believed Eric Sr. was funneling information about the Latin Kings to some law enforcement agency. However, Elgin police emphatically deny that Eric Sr. ever served in that role for them.
Going on the lam
In the most striking development in the case, Eric Galarza Sr. would allegedly turn his proclivity for violence against his wife and then disappear, taking with him any testimony he could offer against Hernandez Jr.
According to Wayne Police Chief Dan Callahan and court records, Eric Sr. was driving Denisse from their Elgin home to her job in St. Charles on the morning of June 21, 2012. As they drove in the area where Route 25 intersects with the Stearns Road Extension, they argued over something.
He “punched and choked” her during the argument, according to a court document. After she threatened to tell the police, she said, he pulled a handgun from under the seat of the car and said he would kill her if she did. He then dropped her off at work.
Callahan said that over her lunch hour, Denisse decided to go to the police anyway, so she had a co-worker drive her to the Wayne police station and reported what had happened. Callahan said officers decided the safest way to arrest Eric Sr. was to stake out the business on Kirk Road where Denisse worked, because he was expected to return there at 4 p.m. to take her home. Sitting in unmarked cars, officers from both Wayne and St. Charles put the business under surveillance as 4 o’clock drew near.
“She said he normally backed into a handicapped parking space and waited for her to come out,” Callahan said last week. “But he must have sensed that police were around, because all of a sudden he just took off.”
A high-speed chase was soon underway along Kirk Road, then Dunham Road. When Galarza got to the intersection of Dunham with Stearns Road, he turned eastward onto Stearns but hit a curb, rupturing the car’s front tires. Ditching the car, he ran into the nearby heavily-wooded Pate Philip State Park, according to police.
And that was the last time anybody has been known to have seen Eric Galarza Sr.
Inside the car he ran from, police found two children. Confidentiality laws forbid police from saying who the kids were, but they likely were the same two surviving Galarza children who had been riding with the Galarzas on Oct. 7 and had witnessed the murder of their brother.
Police searched that area for six hours. But despite help from an airplane, a helicopter and search dogs, Eric Sr. somehow gave them the slip.
“We have reason to believe he has fled from Illinois, and there is thought that he may have gone to Mexico,” Callahan said. The chief said the U.S. Marshals Service and FBI have joined in the search. An arrest warrant says the Kane County court system wants him for aggravated domestic battery, aggravated fleeing and eluding, possession of a firearm by a felon, and driving while license suspended.
On Aug. 28, the Cadillac Ranch battery case came up for a status hearing in Cook County circuit court. When Galarza failed to show up, Judge Ellen Beth Mandeltort ruled Galarza had forfeited his $60,000 bail and issued a warrant for his re-arrest in that case, too.
Case grinds on
Like most murder cases, one against Hernandez Jr. has continued through one pretrial hearing after another as prosecutor Weiner and Hernandez’s lawyers seek to find out each other’s evidence and argue legal points. The last such “status hearing” was held on Thursday, after which Judge Kay Hanlon set the next hearing for Nov. 26.
Prosecutor Weiner said he can’t even guess how long it will be until the actual trial starts.
In one hearing last winter, Weiner persuaded Judge Hanlon to remove Hernandez’s defense attorney, Liam Dixon of Elgin, from the case because of a conflict of interest. Weiner had found out that Dixon also had been the defense lawyer for Eric Galarza Sr. when Galarza was charged with that shotgun-shooting case in 2000. Hernandez Jr. now has a new defense attorney, Ralph Meczyk.
As for Eric Sr. disappearing and being unavailable to testify, Weiner said, “We’d prefer to have him but we can proceed without him. Not having him testify is not fatal to our case.”
If Eric Sr. is still in the United States, Weiner said, “I’m confident he’ll turn up eventually. These guys can’t keep out of trouble.”
In bond court after his arrest, Weiner stated that the evidence against Hernandez Jr. includes a videotaped statement by him “implicating himself and putting himself at the shooting;” another person who said Hernandez told him of having committed the crime; shell casings found at the scene that came from the gun Hernandez Jr. allegedly passed off to his girlfriend; identification by two witnesses in a lineup; and video surveillance cameras that captured his father’s Tundra and/or Hernandez Jr. himself at locations close to the crime scene, driving through tollway booths on I-90 without paying, and at GameWorks.
One wonders if Hernandez Jr. would have been caught if his father had bothered to pay $1.45 in tolls as he got on and off I-90 on the night of the shooting.