Today the family of Tony Garza joined lawyers from the civil rights law firm Hadsell Stormer Renick & Dai LLP in filing government tort claims against the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, and California Highway Patrol for the murder of Tony Garza. California law requires the filing of a government tort claim before suing law enforcement agencies and officers for money damages under state law. The family and their attorneys have also sent letters to the U.S. Attorney, California Attorney General, and San Bernardino and Riverside County District Attorneys calling for the prompt investigation and prosecution of the officers responsible for this unjustified killing of a man with mental illness who posed no threat.
Shortly after 10 a.m. on Feb. 5, 2023, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputies responded to a report of a box trailer fire northeast of Yucca Valley, CA. Lifelong Inland Empire resident Tony Garza, 44, was legally burning some personal items on his own property. Garza was experiencing a mental health crisis and fled from the deputies who arrived to investigate. The deputies aggressively pursued Garza for 35 minutes down HWY 62 to I-10, ending in the police murder of Tony Garza for no reason other than that he had fled. Terrified and alone, he ran into the desert to escape the many law enforcement officers pursuing him. He had committed no crime.
Garza was chased down and murdered by San Bernardino Sheriff’s Deputies Nicholas Krinder (Badge No. H9017) and Bill Abernathy (Badge No. I3847) at the Whitewater cutoff. An independent autopsy report requested by Hadsell Stormer Renick & Dai LLP on behalf of the Garza family confirms that the deputies shot Garza at least twice in the back and at least twice after he had collapsed and was lying wounded on the ground, striking Mr. Garza a total of 12 times. Although the law enforcement agencies have refused to date to release any video footage of the incident, a bystander to the killing provided their eyewitness video, which shows Garza being shot in the back by deputies as he runs away.
The family has paid for two billboards for the next six months. One is near the Whitewater cutoff on the I-10 near where Garza was murdered, and the other is on Highway 62 in Joshua Tree down the street from the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department. The billboards feature a photograph of Mr. Garza and read: “My only crime was mental illness & the system killed me.” The family hopes that these billboards will call attention to the crisis in obtaining treatment for mental illness and bring people forward who have more information about what happened to Garza that day. The billboards ask people to call the Garza family’s attorneys at 626-585-9600 to provide any information or video footage of the incident they may have.
Tony Garza grew up in a close-knit family in the high desert and lived in Joshua Tree for 38 years. He was born in Palm Springs. He was the youngest child and only son of Matilde and the late Tony Garza, and grew up doted on by his three older sisters, Vicky, Berta, and Silvia. Tony was loving and outgoing and was a star athlete at Yucca Valley High School. He learned to deep sea fish with his dad in Morro Bay. He was a beloved uncle to his niece and nephew, Marissa and Marc, and a dog dad to Rasta, who now lives with Tony’s mother. Tony owned Garza Metal Fabrication, a welding business, and made gates, fences and artwork for the community. On February 25, Tony’s mother, sisters, nieces and nephews, gathered with friends and family members to celebrate and remember his gentle loving spirit and a beautiful life that ended in a brutal and preventable tragedy.
In 2021 Garza’s mental health began to decline, and his mother and sisters sought help. Over two and a half years, the family called different organizations, government agencies, the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department, and approximately 20 lawyers, and made multiple visits to the local crisis center to get Garza help. At every turn they were denied because Garza would have to seek mental health assistance himself.
Mr. Garza’s mental illness was well known to the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department, whose deputies were the first to investigate the box trailer fire and later were responsible for the murder of Garza. Although law enforcement officers are trained to identify potential signs of mental illness and de-escalate encounters with such individuals, the involved deputies completely ignored this training, needlessly escalated the incident, and shot to death a terrified and non-violent man who posed no threat.
“The courts and the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department knew that he was suffering from mental health issues and instead they only made things worse,” said Garza’s sister, Silvia Garza-Littman. “Our brother’s mental illness struggles were known to San Bernardino Sheriffs and the Joshua Tree District Attorney. NO ONE would step up to help our brother despite multiple requests from our family. The same people we begged for help for two and a half years failed Tony at every turn and ultimately, murdered him.”
In 2021, sheriff deputies visited Garza for a wellness check. He needed care and counseling and feared the deputies, but they arrested him for following them in his truck.
During his court proceedings in 2022, a judge determined he was not mentally competent to stand trial and ordered that he be held for one week until a room at a mental health facility could be made available. One week turned into five months and the promised mental health treatment never materialized. Garza languished without care, away from the support of his family, without access to mental health services. His family later learned that County officials had never even put Garza on the 800-person waitlist for a mental health bed. When he was finally released on January 24, 2023, he was ordered to find his own mental health help within 48 hours. Garza went to the court ordered offices in the 48 hour window and learned there was a four to six month waiting list just to be seen. Twelve days after his release, he was murdered by law enforcement.
“Tony Garza had a mental health crisis,” said HSRD attorney Brian Olney. “He needed help, but the County failed him. Instead, deputies chased him into the desert, repeatedly shot him in the back, and continued shooting him even after he had collapsed to the ground. This was not law enforcement—it was murder.”
“The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department, alongside the Riverside Sheriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol, brutally murdered a terrified and mentally ill Tony Garza,” said HSRD attorney Rebecca Brown. “The violence that Tony suffered in the last moments of his life is incomprehensible, and these law enforcement agencies must be held accountable.”
“I am heartbroken. The deputies who murdered my son have taken something irreplaceable from me.” said Garza’s mother, Matilde Garza. “No parent should ever have to read their own child’s obituary. I am heartbroken and devastated. A piece of my heart is now missing.”
The Garza family seeks $20 million in damages with hopes that this case will force real change in how the County treats those experiencing mental health crises.
“To this day, no one has knocked on our mother’s door from law enforcement to tell her that her son is dead,” said Silvia. “We want to see the deputies who murdered our brother held accountable. Our brother was a decent, loving hardworking man who was sick and needed help. Help that was denied to him at every turn. It should not be this hard to get someone help. The lack of mental health support is a crime in and of itself. We are losing loved ones.””