Palmetto cold case solved after drive-by shooter murdered the wrong man, police say

A Parrish man pleaded no contest to charges stemming from a 2014 Palmetto cold case murder, according to Manatee County court records.

Before Ricardo Garcia, 31, could face a scheduled murder trial for killing an innocent man at a Palmetto intersection in a drive-by shooting, he pleaded no contest to lesser charges of manslaughter with a weapon, court records show.

Manslaughter with a weapon is a first-degree felony and is punishable by up to 30 years in prison, according to Florida Statutes.

The plea comes more than 10 years after detectives said Garcia shot and killed 26-year-old Javare Thomas, of Sarasota, near the intersection of Haben Boulevard and U.S. 41 while intending to shoot someone else in retaliation for a fight at The Hall nightclub in 2014.

When Garcia got into his pickup truck to follow the man who beat him up, police say he shot and killed Thomas, thinking it was the same person.

It wasn’t, investigators say.

Palmetto cold case resolved in court

The case went cold for over seven years before the Palmetto Police Department announced Garcia as a suspect and arrested him for first-degree murder in April 2021.

In the early hours of March 22, 2014, police say Garcia got into a fistfight with another patron inside the bathroom at The Hall, a popular Palmetto nightclub.

Security escorted a bloodied Garcia outside and saw him get into the driver’s seat of a black pickup truck with the name “Garcia” on the cab window before leaving the club, according to an arrest report.

At that time, a member of the Palmetto Police Department who was on security detail at the club said he saw a silver Cadillac start to pull into The Hall’s parking lot before swerving back onto U.S. 301, almost hitting another vehicle.

The occupants of the Cadillac seemed focused on Garcia, the officer said.

Parrish man shot innocent victim, police say

Police say Garcia was trying to follow who he thought was the man that he fought with in the bathroom when the Cadillac and another vehicle turned left onto Haben Boulevard at the same time.

That other vehicle was a 2002 Mercury Marquis with Thomas in the front passenger seat, according to an arrest report.

Police said the Cadillac and Marquis were “similar in appearance.”

As the Mercury pulled up to the intersection at Haben Boulevard and U.S. 41, two witnesses who were inside the car told police they saw a black pickup truck pull up alongside them.

That’s when Garcia fired several shots into the Mercury, striking Thomas in the head, police say.

The driver of the Mercury took Thomas to Manatee Memorial Hospital for treatment, but Thomas later died from his injuries.

“As a mother, this will never go away. Ever,” Tonya Thomas, the victim’s mother, said in 2019. “My family suffered very much. Not only my family, the community, his friends. Javare is well-known as a loving person and we will keep our hearts as a family as a whole to uplift his standards.”

While it is unclear what development led to the eventual arrest of Garcia, police say a tip from an anonymous source in 2019 said that Garcia thought he was following the man who beat him up at the club when he “emptied the entire clip” of a handgun into the wrong vehicle

Did shooter’s family attempt cover-up?

Despite the case going unsolved for years, Garcia popped up on police’s radar for Thomas’ death shortly after the shooting when witnesses’ description of the black truck matched a 2009 Chevy pick-up Bradenton police pulled over in November 2013.

The vehicle is registered to Garcia’s father, but Garcia drove the truck on the night of the November police encounter, according to an arrest report.

When detectives returned to The Hall a few days after the shooting to show the security guard a picture of Garcia, he identified him as the man he escorted to the black pickup truck the night of the fight.

Detectives say they spoke to Garcia’s father and asked him where the truck was, but he told them the vehicle was at a friend’s house in the Wauchula area. But police say he declined to give an exact address and said the truck had been at the friend’s house for the past month.

When police spoke with Garcia that same day, they said he denied being at The Hall and requested an attorney.

When investigators were able to search the truck a few days later at a maintenance facility in Hardee County, they found the driver’s side mirror removed.

Police say the truck matched the description of the one given by witnesses minus the “Garcia” sticker on the rear window.

When asked about the sticker, Garcia’s father told police he removed it several weeks ago in preparation for selling the truck, according to an arrest report.

Surveillance footage at the repair shop shows the truck arrived less than two days after the shooting, police said.

Detectives said a 2017 interview suggested that the Garcia family attempted to cover up the shooting by replacing the mirror, which had been damaged in the shooting.

The witness told police that family members wore gloves while replacing the mirror and spray painted it to get it to match the color of the black pickup truck.

Parts of Garcia’s mirror were found at the scene, according to an arrest report.

Anonymous tip pointed police to shooter

Detectives said the witness, much like the anonymous tip that would later come in 2019, also told them that Garcia shot the wrong person that night.

Palmetto Police announced in April 2021 that they were ready to charge Garcia for Thomas’ murder and that Manatee County Sheriff’s Office deputies and U.S. Marshals were assisting in the search for him.

A few weeks later, Garcia turned himself in to authorities.

Court records show a sentencing hearing for Garcia will be scheduled at a later date.