Why fired resident Anthony Garcia didn't emerge as suspect in 2008 - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, July 21, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 8:23 am
Creighton slayings
Why fired resident Anthony Garcia didn't emerge as suspect in 2008

Dr. William Hunter and his wife were still reeling over the grisly killings of their 11-year-old son and house cleaner when they met with a team of Omaha police detectives. The four officers pressed them hard: Are there any disgruntled students or co-workers who could have done this?

Several names were discussed during that meeting in March 2008, about 10 days after the killings. But there's one name William Hunter doesn't recall raising: Anthony J. Garcia.

Yes, Hunter had played a significant role in firing Dr. Garcia from his medical residency in pathology at Creighton in 2001. But the resident had also left quietly, with no threats or subsequent personal contact of any kind. And it had all been seven long years ago. Hunter simply didn't consider him a likely suspect.

“Honestly, he wasn't on the radar screen,'' Hunter said in an exclusive interview last week. “I didn't think he had any animosity to me.''

Now Garcia stands charged, not only in the 2008 slayings in the Hunter home, but the May 2013 killings of Creighton pathologist Dr. Roger Brumback and his wife. Authorities say both double homicides were precipitated by Garcia's smoldering grudge over his firing by Hunter and Brumback.

Many are now raising the obvious questions: Why wasn't Garcia a suspect in 2008? Did detectives blow a chance to catch him then? Could the Brumbacks' deaths have been prevented?

The World-Herald in the wake of Garcia's arrest Monday dived into those questions, interviewing Hunter, police officials and others close to the five-year investigation into the slayings of Thomas Hunter and Shirlee Sherman. The narrative that emerged goes a long way toward explaining why Garcia never became a suspect in the case.

Consider:

» Though the Brumback killings made it obvious there was likely a pathology department link to the slayings in the Hunter home, that was not clear in 2008. The investigation in the end came to largely revolve around the two victims, both of whom had contacts and connections that seemed to police to offer the most promising avenues for investigation.

» Police nonetheless from the start considered whether William Hunter and his wife — also a teaching doctor at Creighton — could have been the intended targets. Both Hunters were pressed for names of people who might hold grudges against them. But Hunter did not see Garcia as a credible threat. In fact, Hunter found it hard to believe anyone associated with Creighton could have committed the crime.

» Hunter recalls Garcia's name did come up soon after the deaths in a meeting he had with Brumback and another pathology department administrator. But their discussion came to focus on another former resident who eventually became the prime Creighton target for investigators, in part because he looked somewhat like the suspect from police sketches.

» Authorities say the apparent trigger for the 2008 killings was a letter Hunter signed off on to a Louisiana medical board indicating Garcia had failed to complete his Creighton residency. But such verification letters were regular and routine in Hunter's job any time a former resident applied for a new position or license. He had no reason to feel this one, so many years after Garcia left Creighton, would mark Hunter as a target.

» It was only after Brumback's slaying that Hunter mentioned Garcia to police as a suspect, given that Brumback and Hunter both had played important roles in Garcia's firing. Even then, Garcia was so remote in Hunter's memory that he had trouble recalling his name.

» It's conceivable a deeper dive by police into the pathology department could have revealed Garcia as a suspect earlier. Not all pathology department faculty members — including at least one who was familiar with the Garcia case — were interviewed in the initial investigation. Investigators also did not pull all the department personnel files until the Brumbacks were killed.

» Due in part to a pension system that encouraged officers to take advantage of early retirement, the Omaha police homicide unit investigating the slayings was inexperienced, with a new lieutenant heading it and two new sergeants. Some suspect that hindered the investigation.

» An FBI criminal profile that suggested the killer could have been a serial-killing drifter did nothing to steer the investigation in the right direction. But it was perhaps prophetic on one point: It said police would not solve the crime until he killed again.

» If the initial police investigation failed to settle on Garcia as the 2008 killer, it was not for lack of effort. Police poured thousands of hours into investigating the slayings, producing a stack of documents and reports reaching 2 feet high. It appears detectives were still actively working on the case earlier this year, possibly right up to the point the Brumbacks were killed.

Members of Sherman's family are among those who have been critical of the police investigation. The family members at one point hired a private investigator to look into aspects of the case they felt merited more attention, including possible Creighton connections. The private investigator did not look into Garcia but did examine another former resident.

Brad Waite, Sherman's brother, said after Garcia's arrest Monday it was unfortunate that police did not get their man until after the Brumbacks were killed.

“We're relieved they got the guy, but we're pretty upset, though, that two more people had to die before they (solved the case),'' he said. “That's tragic.''

Sam Walker, a longtime University of Nebraska at Omaha criminal justice professor, said it's hard to fault Omaha officers if Hunter and others at Creighton did not point to Garcia as having a possible motive. Officers needed to spend their time and resources pursuing the leads that seemed most likely to point to a suspect.

However, once the case went cold, Walker said, detectives probably should have looked into other possibilities at Creighton, conducting wider interviews and digging into the personnel records.

“I would tend to fault them at that point,'' he said. “You start fresh, cast a wider net and look at the other possibilities.''
Alex Hayes, who served as head of the Omaha police criminal investigation bureau and as chief during much of the time of the Hunter investigation, said a wider search within pathology would have had to be considered in the light of what other potential leads the investigators had available to them at the time. He doesn't think anyone should try to second-guess what detectives in the case did. They worked with the information they had and pursued the leads that seemed most promising.

“It's easy in hindsight to nitpick something to death,'' he said. “Detectives aren't any different than any other human being. They're going to make decisions based on what they know and have at that particular time.''

A closer look at the lives of the four victims


Thomas Hunter, 11

» Sixth-grader at King Science Center

» Killed March 13, 2008, at his Dundee home

» Thomas was described by teachers as an exceptional student who was well-liked by students and teachers. He played YMCA basketball and video games and was a “junk food junkie,” according to his father. He liked science and social studies. Survivors include three brothers and his parents, Drs. William and Claire Hunter.

Shirlee Sherman, 57

» House cleaner

» Killed March 13, 2008, at a Dundee home where she was working

» Shirlee Sherman was an Omaha native and a 1969 Central High graduate. According to her obituary, she was a gardener with a large and loving family. She had a son and a daughter and four grandchildren. She was described as having a contagious smile and being devoted to her grandchildren.

Dr. Roger Brumback, 65

» Former chairman of Creighton University's pathology department

» Found dead May 14, 2013, in his west Omaha home

» Roger Brumback was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up near Pittsburgh. He graduated from Penn State University with a medical degree in 1971 and became board-certified in pediatrics and neurology. In 1986, he moved to the University of Oklahoma Medical Center, where he helped build an Alzheimer's research center. He was chairman of Creighton's department of pathology from 2001 to 2010. During his career, he started two medical journals.

Mary Brumback, 65

» Retired

» Found dead May 14, 2013, in her west Omaha home

» Mary Brumback was born in Richland, Wash., and grew up mostly in Arlington, Va. She earned a degree in pharmacology from the University of Pittsburgh and practiced pharmacy in Maryland for some years. Later she earned a law degree from the University of Oklahoma and practiced family law in Norman, Okla. In 1989, she co-authored a book with her husband, Roger, on dietary fiber and weight control. She had three children with her husband, Roger.

***

Dr. William Hunter was in shock and not completely coherent the first time he sat down with Omaha police detectives, on March 13, 2008. Just before, he had come home to a horrific scene, finding his son and Sherman fatally stabbed in his family's stately Dundee home.

Taken downtown to Omaha Police Headquarters, he was pushed by detectives searching for suspects and motives. Did he have gambling debts? Was he or anyone else in the family involved in drugs? Did anyone at work have a grudge against him?

It was the first of many conversations he would have with officers who were looking for answers in a case that presented no obvious suspects. And it was the start of a futile quest that would frustrate officers and the families of the victims for years.

Several people familiar with the Omaha police investigation into the 2008 deaths say it largely focused on those associated with the two people killed. Hayes says that was the natural place to start. “You start with victimology,'' he said.

And both victims offered several avenues that needed to be pursued. Sherman had taken out a protection order against her daughter's ex-boyfriend. She also knew someone who was associated with drugs. The young Hunter liked to play online computer games and interacted in that way with people all over the globe. Some of the interactions concerned police.

The detectives spent countless hours chasing leads related to Thomas Hunter's online interactions, contacting websites and tracking down computer addresses. They called in a forensic computer expert to make sure they weren't missing anything. That online predator theory was prominent when Omaha police cooperated in a feature on the slayings that aired on the TV show “America's Most Wanted.''

Over time, police exhausted all of those leads. All suspects had alibis that ruled them out.

UNO's Walker said it's become almost gospel among people he's spoken with that investigators spent all their time on those angles and ignored any associated with Creighton. But Hunter and police officials say that's simply not true. There were essentially three detective teams on the case from the start: one looking into Sherman's connections, one looking into Thomas Hunter's connections and the third looking into the connections of the Hunter couple.

Hunter said he was repeatedly pressed on the topic from day one. He and his wife, Claire, both had dealt with hundreds of former patients, students, residents and co-workers. After Claire Hunter returned from Hawaii, where she was away on business at the time of the killings, police asked the two of them to sit down and make a list of people who might have beefs against them.

It was a short list, William Hunter recalls. They came up with about three names. One was a resident Claire Hunter had worked with. Two were students that William Hunter had flunked in classes, one of whom had made a vague threat against the school in a Facebook posting.

A day or so later, Garcia's name came up in a meeting Hunter held with Brumback, who was the chairman of the pathology department, and a senior department administrator. The three had a list of past residents going back into the 1990s and went over it name by name, pondering each as a potential suspect.

Garcia had been kicked out of his residency after 11 months in 2001 for allegedly trying to sabotage another resident who was taking a critical exam. There was actually another resident also booted out over the same incident, though Garcia was seen as the instigator.

Hunter, as director of the pathology residency program, was deeply involved in documenting the case for Garcia's dismissal. Then in Brumback's office, Hunter read Garcia the dismissal letter and asked him to sign an acknowledgment he'd received it. Both Hunter and Brumback also spoke during a hearing on Garcia's appeal, which a university panel denied.

Now, seven years later, the three Creighton officials discussed both of the dismissed residents. But Hunter says they did not dwell on Garcia, whom they didn't find suspicious. He had left without an angry word toward anyone.

There was much more discussion that day over another resident who had more recently left the program disgruntled. The native of Russia had had conflicts with another faculty member and a resident, and some saw him as intimidating. Before leaving the program, he had filed a legal action against the university.

As with Garcia, Hunter had difficulty seeing the Russian as a suspect. He would have no reason to hold a grudge against Hunter, who had helped him land on his feet in another job after he left Creighton.

But the discussion of the Russian heated up even more that day when, as it happened, police detectives arrived during the meeting of the three administrators with the first sketch of the potential suspect. Some thought the image looked much like the Russian.

About a week later, four police detectives came to the Hunter home and again pressed both doctors for names of possible suspects. They discussed the three people the Hunters had earlier named. They also discussed the Russian, whom Hunter could tell detectives were becoming interested in. They came at Hunter with many questions about him. And they continued to press for other possible Creighton suspects.

“I had a hard time thinking it could be anyone from Creighton,'' Hunter said. “But the police kept pressing.''

One thing that remains unclear in looking back at the 2008 investigation is whether Garcia's name was completely unknown to police. Police officials last week declined to make detectives available to discuss whether Garcia's name came up then, saying the officers were too busy wrapping up their investigation of Garcia.

Hunter believes both Brumback and the senior administrator were interviewed by police, and said it's possible they mentioned him. But based on Hunter's own discussion with the two about Garcia, he said it's not likely they would have promoted him as a likely suspect.

Police spokeswoman Lt. Darci Tierney did not rule out that Garcia's name could have been mentioned by someone at Creighton. But if anyone did, they certainly did not portray him as a strong suspect. If they had, police — as they had with myriad other tips in the wide-ranging investigation — would have jumped on it, she said.

“I don't think you'll find anyone who says 'I told the police it was him,' '' Tierney said.

If police had tracked Garcia's name, it doesn't appear it would have taken a lot of digging to raise his profile as a suspect. For example, tracking his vehicle registration would have shown he drove a silver Honda CRV, the same color and make of the vehicle witnesses saw driven by the man who went to the Hunter home the day of the slayings. Garcia also has olive skin, as did the suspect.

It also seems possible a deeper investigation into the pathology department might have revealed Garcia as a suspect. While it's unclear how many interviews detectives conducted within the department, The World-Herald talked to at least one faculty member who was in the department at the time who was familiar with Garcia. Dr. Richard Baltaro was a close associate of Brumback and had joined the department just after Garcia was fired, becoming familiar with all the stories.

Baltaro said he might have mentioned Garcia if questioned by police, but he figured police were already covering all the bases. He also acknowledged Garcia wasn't No. 1 on anyone's list at Creighton. That was the Russian.

And indeed, the police ultimately would spend countless hours investigating that suspect, tracking him to Pittsburgh, where he worked at the time of the 2008 killings, and then interviewing him in 2009 in Canada.

But as with every other suspect, police could not connect him to the killings.

The case went cold. It soon became one of the primary crimes worked by a new cold case unit Hayes formed in the Police Department, one intended to keep just such cases alive.

Earlier this year, Hunter said cold-case detectives were still working the case. They re-interviewed many of Thomas' friends. They continued to probe his online connections. They seemed to William Hunter bound and determined to solve the crime.

Everything changed on May 14 when the Brumbacks were found dead in their west Omaha home. That night, in an interview with police, Hunter for the first time mentioned Garcia and the other man booted out of Creighton with him. Officers had been pressing Hunter for names of people with ties to both he and Brumback.

But by then, 12 years later, his memory of Garcia was so remote he initially gave the name as “Anthony Gonzalez.'' He soon after provided police both the right name and a picture of Garcia.

Even then, Hunter's suspicion of Garcia was not high. He still found it hard to fathom any of his residents or students he'd worked with was capable of killing four people in cold blood.

Once the police task force formed by Chief Todd Schmaderer had Garcia's name, it still took thousands of hours of police work to tie Garcia to the crimes. In two months, the pile of paperwork in the case would exceed that from the initial Hunter investigation.

By early June, the task force had interviewed all the residents and faculty in the department and pulled all department records going back more than a decade.

Then in mid-June, the task force called Hunter downtown for a three-hour interview. They went through all the paperwork related to Garcia's dismissal and the subsequent letters Hunter had sent in response to professional inquiries about him.

Then on Monday, about an hour before Schmaderer's big press conference, a detective called Hunter and said they'd made an arrest: Anthony Garcia.

Hunter was shocked — not that it could have been Garcia, but that after five years the nightmarish pursuit was finally at an end. The officer told Hunter the case against Garcia was a strong one. In hindsight, Hunter could see he was wrong in not viewing Garcia as a credible threat.

Despite the task force's success, there will remain critics who feel police should have been able to catch up to the killer sooner. But Hunter feels strongly that it's unfair to fault police.

He said he suspects investigating a crime is much like trying to diagnose a health problem. In medicine, symptoms can be confusing and conflicting. Therapies can be tried and fail to offer a cure.

Then a new symptom emerges or a lab test comes back, and suddenly everything is clear. All the doctors sit around and slap their foreheads and say it was so obvious. Why didn't we see this sooner? There's even a medical term for it: “retro­spectoscope.''

“I think that happened here,'' Hunter said. “Unfortunately, it took two additional deaths to make the connection.''

Contact the writer: Henry J. Cordes

henry.cordes@owh.com    |   402-444-1130    |  

Henry's a general assignment reporter, so he could end up writing just about anything, though he usually focuses on public policy matters affecting the state, region or nation.

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