Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
The chaos was palpable.
Bullets sliced through the air and ricocheted as a shootout unfolded adjacent to a crowded coffee shop drive-thru lane in the Northeast Heights. Urgent calls for help and shouts of “officer down” went out over police radios as officers exchanged shots with a suspected armed robber.
Amid the pandemonium, officer Mario Verbeck was shot in the neck, just above his safety vest. Officer James Eichel Jr. sustained a bullet wound to one of his arms.
Jaquelin Hernandez-Zarate, a 20-year-old police service aide, and local tile setter Johnny Garcia, 46, sprung into action to help save the wounded officers.
For their quick action, Hernandez-Zarate and Garcia were honored at City Hall on Thursday.
Hernandez-Zarate applied a tourniquet to Eichel's arm, while Garcia helped Verbeck to safety – both giving assistance as gunfire sounded around them.
Mayor Tim Keller praised Hernandez-Zarate's ability to “remain calm during the chaotic moments” of a shootout. “I'm scared to think of what might have happened if she didn't do that, and I absolutely believe you saved his life,” Keller told Hernandez-Zarate. Eichel was released from a local hospital Thursday.
“For the rest of your career, you should be proud of the fact that when the time came, you stepped up to the challenge and you did what you needed to do,” APD Chief Harold Medina told the young PSA. Hernandez-Zarate has been a PSA for a year. PSAs generally assist officers at traffic accidents and help take reports from residents.
Hernandez-Zarate has had additional specialized tactical emergency combat training in the application of tourniquets and chest seals. She said she plans to eventually become a police officer.
“Being scared was the last thing that I could think about,” she said, adding that her only thought was “I had to stay with Eichel,” whom she called “my best friend in the department.”
Garcia, whose backyard wall butts up to what was the scene of the shootout, climbed over the tall wall to aid officer Verbeck.
Garcia picked up Verbeck's radio from the ground to communicate with APD dispatch, calling out “officer down, officer down,” asking for help for the injured officer, and providing updates to police as the action unfolded.
He then helped Verbeck get off the ground and walked him across a street to a safe area just as a second series of shots rang out and two other officers were hit.
Officer Sean Kenny's bulletproof vest saved him from serious injury; officer Harry Gunderson was struck in the eye by shrapnel. Both were treated and released from a local hospital. Verbeck remains hospitalized.
Keller said that Garcia was “just sitting at home, hears gunfire and decides to run into that situation and put his own life at risk.” Keller was listening to the police scanner and said he vividly recalls Garcia calling out for help.
“I remember hearing his voice, and I remember it because it was so unofficial, with none of those 10-codes,” which are the numbers assigned to different police activities and situations to abbreviate the time spent communicating to dispatch and other officers.
Garcia, he said, is “an awesome example of who we all want to be as civilians,” adding that “you rose to the occasion when our community needed you and one of our officers needed you.”
Medina thanked Garcia “for helping our officers and putting your life on the line,” and he noted that Garcia's family no doubt wondered why he did that. Answering that question, Medina said, “you did it because it's the humane and right thing to do.”
Garcia said he was simply “worried about the officer, so I had to check it out and didn't have time to think about it.”
The violence erupted after a teenager contacted police to say he was walking home after spending the night at his father's house when two men robbed him in a neighborhood off East Central. One of the men was armed with a handgun that he allegedly pointed at the teen's head. The suspects took his wallet, shoes, a backpack, a gold chain and a PlayStation game console, according to the teen.
The teen and a friend later drove around looking for the suspects. Upon seeing them, they contacted police, who caught up with them in an alley near a coffee shop, where the shootout occurred.
The suspect, James Ramirez of Los Angeles, who police said is a convicted felon who served time in prison for first-degree burglary, was shot and injured in the exchange. He was hospitalized and faces multiple charges.
Police are still looking for a second suspect.