Awaiting his fate Friday, Anthony Garcia assumed the same position he’s taken since he was convicted two years ago of the serial killings of four innocents.
Slumped in a wheelchair. Neck cranked to one side. Eyes squeezed shut. Head occasionally bobbing — either for effect or because of the effects of sleep.
This time, he missed one hell of a show on his way to death row.
Had the sleepy serial killer opened his eyelids, he could have seen all the devastation he caused.
Just over his right shoulder were the victims’ family members, waiting to hear whether Garcia received life or death for the revenge-fueled March 2008 murders of Thomas Hunter, 11, and Shirlee Sherman, 57, and the May 2013 murders of Dr. Roger Brumback and wife Mary, both 65.
Jeff Sherman was the first to speak, remembering his mother , Shirlee, a grandmother of six who took a knife to the neck because she happened to be cleaning a house when Garcia pounced, seeking revenge for his 2001 firing from Creighton University Medical Center.
“All the innocent victims that were taken — for what?” he said. “For a job. Who does that? I’m left with constant images from courtroom monitors of my mom, laying there, with an 8-inch butcher’s knife sticking out of her neck.”
Tom’s mother, Dr. Claire Hunter, walked to the front of the courtroom, 10 feet from Garcia.
“The impact is just unbelievable,” she told the judges. “It’s like throwing a stone into a pond and the ripples continue and continue and continue.
“A young child of 11¾ years should never have to lose his life in a fit of anger.”
Nor should a couple on the verge of retirement. Dr. Roger and Mary Brumback were busy painting and packing their home near 114th and Pacific Streets when Garcia pounced, shooting his former boss and brawling with Mary Brumback until he killed her. The Brumbacks’ children chose not to attend Friday’s sentencing, opting to remember their parents for the quality of their life, rather than the cruelty of their death.
Then, just as Judge Gary Randall wound up to announce the panel’s life or death proclamation, the judge struggled for breath. Spectators started to question whether he was crying. His speech became labored.
After two minutes of gasping out the words, Randall looked up at attorneys.
“I’m sorry,” Randall said. “There’s something wrong. It’s not nerves. It’s pain.”
The judge — experiencing back pain from an infection — retired to his chambers. Deputies briefly considered clearing spectators so they could take Randall through the courtroom and to a back elevator, away from camera lenses. They quickly abandoned that — and paramedics rolled the judge on a stretcher through the rotunda and to the Nebraska Medical Center, where he was listed in good condition Friday night.
After a half-hour recess, Judge Rick Schreiner finished what Randall had started. The three judges — including Russell Bowie of Omaha — sent Garcia to a gurney of his own, or at least to death row.
His official state prison photo, taken upon his arrival Friday at Tecumseh State Prison, shows him in the wheelchair, eyes still closed.
Before Garcia was hauled away, father Frederick and mother Estelle — who proudly put their son through medical school — stared intently at their son. Brother Fernando, next to his parents, briefly moved up a row as he tried to get his brother’s attention. It didn’t work; deputies ordered him back a row.
“This case,” one court official said, shaking his head. “Can it get any stranger?”
It was just another day of business as unusual.
For the first time Friday, Garcia’s family seemed to collectively accept his guilt.
Said father Frederick: “He was just totally sick if he committed this crime the way they said. He was mentally ill if it happened. He’s not that kind of kid. To know my son went through medical school, struggled but got through it and then this happened. I’m shocked.”
Fernando Garcia said the family expected that Garcia would get the death penalty.
“To the families of the victims, we’re sorry about what took place,” he said. “We hurt. We feel their hurt. It’s hard for us to imagine my brother doing something like that.
“We hope somehow they find some kind of closure.”
Not possible, victims’ family members say.
Each family has fondly remembered the victims:
- Dr. Roger Brumback, a grandpa and doctor who devoted his life to health care, particularly focusing on children and the elderly.
- His wife, Mary Brumback, an active volunteer, grandma and former lawyer who penned letters to her daughter once a week and had just attended her first grandchild’s baptism.
- Thomas Hunter, a witty, intelligent and shaggy-haired sixth-grader who had just hopped off the bus and descended to the basement to drink a Dr Pepper and play on his Xbox.
- And Shirlee Sherman, a hardworking mother, sister and doting grandmother with six grandkids.
Sherman’s younger brother by a year, Brad Waite, rejected the idea of closure. “That’ll never happen,” he said. “When you have a loved one taken from you in such a vicious and inhumane manner ... it’ll never happen.”
“We’ll get a sigh of relief upon his death,” he said. “The sooner the better.”
The victims’ families know it won’t come soon — what with Garcia having just reached death row and with the state having exhausted its supply of lethal injection drugs.
As Claire Hunter walked out of the courthouse, sons Rob and Jeff by her side, the Omaha doctor thoughtfully spoke of her youngest son. “A wonderful lively child.” Eight years younger than his next oldest brother, he was a thorn in Jeff’s side, the two playfully teasing and tormenting each other.
The waif of an 11-year-old would be 22 right now. The science and math whiz likely would be on his way to college graduation, maybe even medical school.
“It’s hard to picture what he would be like,” his mother said with a grin. “He should be remembered as a talented, playful boy. He was a joy in everybody’s life and he didn’t deserve what happened to him by any means.”
Nor did any of the other victims. Claire Hunter spoke of the Brumbacks, including Roger, her husband’s colleague and the chair of the pathology department. Brumback — who had just arrived at Creighton when Garcia was fired in 2001 — would have had little to no memory of Garcia when he ambushed the Brumbacks on Mother’s Day 2013.
In fact, Dr. Bill Hunter barely remembered Garcia — other than him leaving the room without saying a word after Hunter and Brumback fired him.
Ten years after his son’s death, Bill Hunter has stayed away from any Garcia hearings, post trial. At trial, he testified hauntingly of finding his son and Sherman as the sounds of a video game Tom had been playing filled the house.
For a while, Claire Hunter said, Bill Hunter blamed himself — wishing he would have been home with his son at 3:30 that day, though that wasn’t ever the doctor’s routine.
Claire, who was at a work conference out of state that day, told her husband that he would have been killed, too, had he been home.
Since then, they have tried to power through, just as the Shermans and Waites and Brumbacks have.
The Hunters remain in the very house where their son was found in the dining room and Sherman was found in the back entryway.
“I think some people would say ‘Get out of there and have nothing to do with it,’ ” Claire said. “But I view it as a portal. I view it as a connection with Tom, with Shirlee. It’s a place where I know that we had a happy existence as a family.”
Happiness can be found, Claire Hunter said. Son Rob just had the Hunters’ first grandchild. Son Jeff and wife Angela are expecting a child. So Tom would be an uncle right now. Meanwhile, Shirlee Sherman and the Brumbacks would be doting grandparents.
“Is it fair and just that an 11-year, 9-month-old child comes home from school to run into a guy like this? No. But this is the way of the world.”
A decade later, Claire Hunter, a cardiologist, says the grief “is not finite.” “It never totally goes away,” she said. “To me, what happened to the Brumbacks and to Shirlee and Tom should never be forgotten. But as I’ve said to others, everybody has a story. Everybody has struggles of different kinds — it may be expected, it may be unexpected.
“You just take one day at a time and you try to do good. It’s all you can do.”