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The Killing Floor

In Colorado's highest-security prison, two inmates beat Michael Garcia to death while a crowd of corrections officers watched. Why didn't anyone stop it?

Jack Miyamoto was 87 years old. Mary, his wife, was 74. They'd lived in the neighborhood for forty years without incident. Nobody could think of anyone who would want to harm them. But within days of the murders, Denver police arrested seventeen-year-old Michael Garcia, who lived five houses down the block from the Miyamotos and had once attended Bible study in their home.

The police theory of the case was simple: Garcia had slaughtered the couple because they had the audacity to wake up while he was burglarizing their home. A bloody footprint in the bedroom was matched to one of Garcia's shoes, and blood on the shoe matched that of Jack Miyamoto. A friend of Garcia's, Kenneth Espinoza, said that Garcia phoned him hours after the murders and blurted out, "I killed somebody." Another friend, Paul Duran, claimed that Garcia showed him the loot from the burglary--a few dollars in silver coins, a woman's gold watch--and offered to share it with him.

"I said, 'Man, you killed them for this? It ain't worth it,'" Duran testified. "He said he got scared and freaked out."

At his 1993 trial, Garcia claimed that he'd served as a lookout for the burglary while Duran (who had a prior record for manslaughter) did the actual killing. But police found no evidence of an accomplice, and Garcia had already boasted about the killings to too many people, including a roommate at Gilliam Youth Center, who testified that Garcia had described stabbing Jack Miyamoto in the eyes.

The jury showed Garcia more mercy than he'd shown the Miyamotos. They didn't believe, for example, that he'd gone to the Miyamotos' house with the intention of killing them. They found him guilty of felony murder, burglary and robbery of the elderly. But there were things about Garcia the jury didn't know, such as his prior involvement in dozens of burglaries; or the time he threw a brick at a 72-year-old man, causing injuries that led to the man's placement in a nursing home (Garcia claimed that the man threw the brick at him first); or his assault on a six-year-old boy for teasing his cousin.

Denver District Judge Paul Markson was informed of these matters at sentencing. He listened to special prosecutor Richard Bloch recount Garcia's criminal history and describe the Miyamoto murders as "one of the most horrible crimes I have ever laid eyes on." Then he gave Garcia two consecutive life sentences, plus an additional 64 years to grow on.

Behind prison walls, Garcia continued to maintain his innocence. He admitted to committing burglaries and assaults in his "confused" youth but insisted he'd been getting back on track, working as a janitor at South High School and attending classes at the time of his arrest. "The DA's job is to persuade you to think that I'm a monster," he wrote in one impassioned letter to the court. "But I am on a spiritual level right now that is above any situation I may be in for years...I'm not a murderer."

On the street Garcia was known as "Pico"; among his many tattoos was an abdominal ornament that read "Mr. Pico." In CSP he called himself Casper, but his fellow inmates didn't consider him a particularly friendly ghost. He had a reputation for "running his mouth behind the door"--taunting other prisoners from the safety of his cell.

One prisoner says he considered Garcia a friend for several months until the youth's hopes for a reduced sentence began to fade. "Then he started getting real disrespectful with me," the prisoner recalls. "He had a bunch of enemies, because he liked to run at the mouth like he was Superman or something. The way he was acting, I believe that he had a death wish. You don't disrespect people like he was and get away with it, especially in this kind of environment."

Garcia received several disciplinary reports in his first three years at CSP, including one for assaulting another inmate and one for making threats to a staff member. But over the past two years, his record improved dramatically, and prison officials decided he was ready for the PRO Unit. On September 23, the day before the murder, he was moved from another section of the program into unit D-2, where he first came into contact with Johnny Estrada and Matthew Clark.

Estrada and Clark both say they'd never crossed paths with Garcia before that day. They say they exchanged no words with him, not even a dirty look, and have no idea why he attacked them the next morning.

Other prisoners who knew Garcia speculate that he was hungry for respect, eager to "earn some stripes." They say there were rumors going around CSP, dating back to his murder case, that he had snitched on his accomplices--despite the fact that he'd been convicted largely because his friends snitched on him.

A snitch jacket is a terrible thing to bear. "He was getting rode by some of the other guys, because snitches are not well-liked in prison," says one observer. "Next to a child molester, it's the lowest form of life in here."

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