A Kent teen pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the 2018 death of Kent Police Officer Diego Moreno in return for a lighter sentence, a decision that has left Police Chief Rafael Padilla with mixed emotions.
Emiliano Garcia, 17, who initially pleaded not guilty to murder in August 2018 after a police pursuit of him resulted in the death of Moreno, entered a guilty plea Wednesday. He is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 15 at the King County Courthouse in Seattle. He remains in custody in the King County Juvenile Detention Center.
“The plea was mutually agreed upon between defense and the prosecutor that the defendant stay in custody until he turns 21 years old,” said a King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office spokesman.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to move the case from King County Superior Court, where Garcia was charged as an adult, to King County Juvenile Court, so he could face sentencing as a juvenile.
“The plea deal charge as a juvenile means he will be out of detention by age 21,” Padilla said at a Kent Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday when an audience member asked him about the case during a presentation about the Kent Police Department.
“I’m not super happy with the sentence,” Padilla said. “But I’ll be honest, I don’t want Emiliano’s life thrown away either. I don’t think there should be a death sentence because he’s so young. But there’s got to be some accountability also, there’s got to be a balance.”
Padilla said Moreno’s family wasn’t real pleased with the plea either.
“They (prosecutors) talked to the families beforehand and they were OK to live with it, but they were not happy,” Padilla said.
Padilla, however, said not going to trial has some benefits as well.
“If we go to trial, there’s a risk that we could lose,” Padilla said about a jury decision. “The other part of that means all of my officers – already devastated with that incident – have to go back and go on the stand. And the way the defense attorney will go about their case is to attack the officers and their decision.
“There’s a silver lining in this that my people don’t have to go through that,” he said.
If a judge agrees to sentence Garcia when he reaches 21, he will be out in four years in December 2023. If the case had remained in Superior Court and a jury found Garcia guilty as charged, he would have faced a sentence range of 10 years to 18 years, according to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
Garcia, then 16, drove a 2003 Dodge Ram pickup pursued by Kent Police Officer Mark Williams, who later inadvertently struck and killed Moreno early on the Sunday morning of July 22, 2018, at the intersection of Kent Des Moines Road and West Meeker Street. Moreno, 35, of Auburn, married with two young children, had just deployed spike strips to stop the truck shortly before he was hit outside his vehicle.
Garcia was charged in adult criminal court because under Washington law, if a juvenile is 16 or 17 years old and is charged with second-degree murder, charges are to be filed into adult criminal court instead of juvenile court.
Prosecutors charged two 17-year-old passengers in the pickup with unlawful possession of a firearm and reckless endangerment, according to court documents. They were each charged in juvenile court and pleaded guilty in December. They each received 60 days in jail, two years of community supervision and 200 hours of community service. The Kent Reporter is not naming the two passengers because their cases remained in juvenile court.
Prosecutors alleged that the occupants of the truck illegally possessed several guns and fired off numerous rounds in a parking lot at El Habaneros bar and restaurant, 1819 W. Meeker St., in Kent, and then fled the scene, driving recklessly and attempting to elude the police.
In this case, prosecutors said, the defendant was committing a dangerous felony by attempting to elude a pursuing police vehicle. This felony created a serious and grave risk to the public and to police. As a direct result of the defendant’s actions, Officer Moreno was killed.
Officer Williams suffered severe leg injuries and was transported to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He is an 19-year veteran of the Kent Police force and has returned to work.
Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jessica Berliner said at the time in court documents that Garcia showed, “willful disregard for the safety of others, including his own friends, innocent bystanders and police officers, directly caused the death of one officer and significant injury to another. … Although the defendant has no criminal convictions, his exceedingly risky conduct throughout the evening demonstrate the substantial risk he presents to the community if he is released without significant bail.”
Garcia admitted he knew police were chasing him, but he fled at speeds of up to 95 mph along Kent Des Moines Road. He crashed the pickup – owned by his father – shortly after hitting the spike strips. None of the teens were seriously injured. Garcia and one passenger fled on foot. The other teen stayed in the truck and told police the names of the other two boys in the truck.
According to court documents and interviews of the three teens by detectives, what turned out to be the fatal night for Officer Moreno began when the boys attended a quinceañera (a celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday). They apparently used cocaine and drank beer at the party, although one of the boys said he didn’t use any cocaine.
The three then met up with four other friends at El Habaneros bar and restaurant, to eat and drink. One teen said they each had between five and six beers before leaving. One of the teens told police his friend had a connection to get them into the bar. That teen also said they had beer on the way to the bar.
A dispute started with what one teen called, “older Hispanic men” at the bar, and one of the boys claimed someone threw a beer bottle at them in the bar parking lot. The groups started to push and shove each other and a few punches were thrown. Two of the teens then decided to shoot their guns in the air to scare the men away.
The one teen told police he fired a Glock 22 that he had purchased from “the streets” in order to look cool. He also admitted it helped to have a gun when he sold marijuana. After they fired their guns, they heard shots from somewhere else in the parking lot, so they ran to the pickup.
Police reported that nobody was apparently injured at the parking lot despite finding about 39 fired cartridge cases in the parking lot from three different types of guns. Detectives found one gun in the pickup after it crashed.
Garcia told detectives after shots were fired his two friends told him to, “just go, just go.” One of the teens said Garcia “panicked” when he saw a police vehicle and sped away.
Police responded shortly after shots were fired and one officer began to chase a red pickup that sped from the scene.
Garcia sped down Meeker Street, went west on Kent Des Moines Road, came back down the hill going eastbound when his truck went through the spike strips.
Moreno parked his car with his lights on in one of the southbound lanes along West Meeker Street. He had exited his vehicle to deploy the spike strips over one of the eastbound lanes of Kent Des Moines Road. Moreno radioed, “good spikes,” to alert other officers that the suspect vehicle had driven over the spikes, indicating that at least one tire should be in the process of deflating.
As Officer Williams, in pursuit of the pickup approached the intersection, he inadvertently struck Moreno with his vehicle, killing him. Williams then collided with vehicles that had been stopped in the left turn lane, waiting to go onto Meeker Street. Nobody in those vehicles suffered serious injuries, according to police.
The report details that despite numerous parked patrol vehicles and the spike strips, the red truck continued through the intersection without stopping. Another officer then picked up the pursuit and saw the pickup driver lose control, hit the center barrier, spin around completely and flip over, coming to rest on its top.
Two occupants fled the truck and jumped over a fence. Police later tracked down both boys at their homes. At some point, friends picked them up and drove them to Garcia’s house on the East Hill. Garcia told police he had keys to the pickup despite not having a driver’s license. He said he told his father he had flipped the truck during a collision.
Garcia told detectives he then went to sleep until officers showed up to arrest him on that Sunday afternoon, about 12 hours after the chase and Moreno’s death.