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Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009| Six bullets weren’t enough to kill Noe Garcia Chavez. For the seventh, the gunmen yanked his sleek black hair, placed a pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

The gunmen had lured Garcia from his San Marcos home to a deserted area of Tijuana, a place called el fin del mundo — the end of the world. Police often discover dumped bodies there; Garcia was meant to suffer a similar fate. Bleeding in the darkness and drifting out of consciousness, Garcia honked his truck’s horn and flashed its lights until paramedics found him four hours later.

Garcia had been shot twice in the neck, twice in the head and three times in the upper back. Doctors removed a few bullets from his body but most had miraculously escaped without hitting major arteries or organs.

As Garcia recovered in a hospital bed, drugged and anxious, doctors were already talking to his family outside. Garcia couldn’t speak at the time, but he could identify the shooters.

Their farewell message echoed in his memory. This is for your wife, asshole.

Garcia loved his wife and could not immediately grasp the phrase’s meaning. In time, detectives would find that Garcia’s wife had been involved in a romantic affair with one of the gunmen and the plot to kill her husband. The true motive for the shooting is still a mystery, but investigators believe the wife wanted to end the marriage and collect on her husband’s life insurance and San Marcos home.

The twisted tale of Garcia and his wife emerges from interviews with key players in the case and hundreds of pages of court documents. People generally describe Garcia as the trusting husband who became entangled with an overpowering wife. He miraculously survived the shooting but now deals with medical problems, a ruined career and a troubled daughter. His former wife will be spending the next nine years in prison and will likely be deported to Mexico upon release.

Their relationship immediately changed after the shooting as Garcia became suspicious of his wife’s involvement. In their first meeting at the hospital, she tried to caress his feet but he kicked her away. They both seemed frightened by each other, or locked in an uncomfortable situation, and then Garcia started to point at his wife with force. He couldn’t speak but the message was clear. She left the room. Medical staff had to sedate Garcia because he was so worked up about the meeting.

“Her concern was always asking the doctors whether Noe would be able to talk again and when he would be able to talk again,” said Garcia’s brother, Fabian Garcia, during court testimony in 2008. “She asked why we were bringing the police in, and what I told her is that we wanted to get to the basis of the investigation because everything seemed to be not normal.”

It took only 24 hours for Garcia’s marriage — the relationship he believed would be a lifelong commitment of love — to come crashing down. “I felt anger but I was kind of sad, because I loved her and how could she do this?” Garcia said.

‘She Had a Very Strong Personality’

Garcia first met Magali Manilla Cabrera at an English class in 1997 and immediately fell in love. He was a professional tile setter by trade and she held various sales and cleaning jobs. Both from Mexico, Garcia held U.S. citizenship by that point and Cabrera wanted to apply for a green card.

“I feel she probably looked for me because I could get her papers,” Garcia said in an interview.

The pair married, settled at Garcia’s house in San Marcos and nine years ago, they celebrated a daughter, Isabel. Garcia was living the American Dream with more family nearby, but his wife became unsatisfied with life. She started asking for more money from Garcia and selling jewelry late at night.

Garcia generally characterizes Cabrera as an “ambitious” woman, but others said she was manipulative and deceitful. “She was described as being a very domineering person,” said Cabrera’s lead investigator, Detective Benny Cruz of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department. “She had a very strong personality.”

That strong personality had powerful consequences for Garcia, who seems genuinely cheerful and trusting of people. Close friends said his goodwill may be partly due to an ignorance of how cruel or cunning some people can be.

In the months before the shooting, Cabrera started asking the family’s financial adviser about Garcia’s life insurance policy, refinancing their home and how she could get on the home’s title. The insurance and assets would have totaled more than half a million dollars at that time.

“At first I didn’t think it was (unusual) because it would be a logical question, you know, in the event if I need it, how would I go about it,” testified Patricia Villanueva, the family’s real estate agent and financial adviser. “It was other conversations that came up about the house that started to make me wonder.”

Villanueva believed Cabrera was preparing her family’s assets for a divorce or eloping. Cabrera had previously expressed her displeasure with the marriage to Villanueva and confessed to a romantic affair. Cabrera’s cousin, Guadalupe Manilla Cabrera, also testified in court that Cabrera had been involved in an affair with a man called “Nelson” about a year before the shooting.

‘Have a Nice Trip’

On the night of Dec. 18, 2004, a man called Antonio contacted Garcia and said he needed a favor. Antonio said his mother had died and he needed a ride to the airport in Tijuana. Garcia trusted Antonio because he was a friend of Cabrera and had attended their Christmas party the previous two years.

Garcia picked up Antonio at the nearby Blockbuster and the man named Nelson was with him. Garcia didn’t know Nelson, but Antonio said the guy was his cousin who also needed a ride to the airport. Garcia drove with the two men to his San Marcos home so he could pick up some cash before the trip. He told Cabrera he was headed to Tijuana with Antonio and Nelson.

“Yeah, have a nice trip,” Cabrera said, according to Garcia’s testimony.

Once in Mexico, Antonio and Nelson directed Garcia in a confusing route until he was lost and in the middle of the desert. They came to the end of a dirt road and Garcia was directed to place the truck in park. He shifted the gears and the shooting began.

Antonio fired the first three shots from the front passenger seat of Garcia’s truck. Two bullets struck Garcia in the right side of his neck and exited the left side. The third bullet entered below his right eye and exited behind his left ear. Antonio handed the gun to Nelson, who was sitting behind them. Nelson shoved Garcia forward and shot him three times in the upper right back, according to Garcia’s testimony. They missed vital organs. Nelson placed the pistol in Garcia’s mouth for the seventh and final shot. That bullet somehow ricocheted off Garcia’s teeth and exited his body through his upper lip.

“You’re a miraculous man, Mr. Garcia,” Cabrera’s attorney said in court hearings.

Antonio and Nelson walked away from the truck after the shooting and have not been found since. They are two of the San Diego Sheriff Department’s most wanted men and are still under investigation. Antonio’s legal name is Jose Antonio Lopez. Nelson’s legal name is Gerado Gomez Matadamas. They both have connections to Oceanside and San Marcos, the northern region of the county and Mexico.

It is still unclear today whether Nelson was romantically involved with Cabrera at the time of the shooting. Phone records show the pair continued to correspond until the day of the shooting, but Cabrera always maintained that the affair was over. Although Cabrera never testified in court, her defense attorney argued that the shooters may have acted out of revenge toward Cabrera, frustrated with the affair’s ending. That theory remains a possible motive, but in any case, prosecutors argued that Cabrera was aware of their ill intentions.

The Slow Investigation of Cabrera

As the shooters evaded police, investigators turned to how Cabrera was involved in the incident. She had taken out $9,000 in cash before the shooting to allegedly purchase Christmas presents and a $1,400 television. Investigators believed she may have used some of the money to pay the gunmen for murdering her husband.

After the incident, she told family members a series of facts that didn’t line up with evidence or Garcia’s story. Cabrera said she had called Garcia all night when his cell phone records showed otherwise. Cabrera said she didn’t know Garcia was going to Tijuana even though he stopped by the house and talked to her before the trip.

Cabrera’s case bounced between different jurisdictions for more than a week while agencies debated whether it was an investigation for Mexican or American police. Family and friends were outraged by the delay, but the San Diego Sheriff’s Department decided to take the case.

“And finally it came to us, and we said the buck stops here. It’s our resident and the crime started here,” said Cruz, the detective. “We lost a lot of time there.”

For months, the investigation seemed to be stalled and the family worried that an arrest would never come.

Then Cabrera contacted Garcia and said they needed to talk about their daughter and money. Cruz placed a wireless recording device on Garcia and pushed him to have Cabrera come clean about the shooting. She eventually confessed to knowing about a plot to kidnap her husband but said she did not know the men were going to shoot him. It was enough for the arrest.

The investigation of Cabrera ended up taking three and a half years before she was arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit kidnap for ransom and attempted murder. In that time, Cabrera moved on to other men and had a second child, Garcia and Villanueva said.

Cabrera eventually pleaded guilty to the charge of attempted murder on Aug. 1, 2008. She faced up to life in prison with the original charges, but was sentenced to nine years and eight months. Garcia said it wasn’t enough. The case’s lead prosecutor said a guilty plea helped seal a conviction.

“By pleading guilty, she was able to accept responsibility and that could help her in the sentencing,” said deputy district attorney Frank Jackson. “What really stands out in my mind was the long and concentrated effort by the Sheriff’s Department to make sure that this case did not fall through the cracks.”

The Aftermath of Surviving

Shortly after the shooting, Garcia filed for divorce and successfully limited Cabrera’s custodial privileges. From prison, Cabrera sued Garcia for half of his assets out of the divorce. She lost the lawsuit, Garcia said, but defending the case placed more financial pressure on the family.

The shooting destroyed Garcia’s hearing in his left ear and his ability to balance objects. He frequently gets headaches and tries to power through them by rubbing the front of his cheeks, grimacing in pain. These medical consequences of the shooting have ruined Garcia’s professional career as a contractor, because he can no longer move heavy objects and has trouble with simple tasks that require a steady hand. A fading memory doesn’t make things any easier.

Now without a job, Garcia is supporting a family on unemployment benefits. His eligibility for those funds will run out in eight weeks and he is waiting to hear back on disability benefits. Even that amount of steady income won’t be enough to continue payments on his home.

Garcia’s daughter is also having trouble with the aftermath. He said she has successfully finished counseling, but he doesn’t know how to answer all of her questions about mom. She was a good student before the shooting, but now struggles with school.

“That’s a lot of burden for a 9-year-old,” Garcia said.

Regardless of his circumstances, Garcia expresses himself as a kind and humble person today. He wants nothing to do with Cabrera, but continues to correspond with her about their daughter. He’s OK with selling the house — although he wishes the market was better — because it reminds him of worse times. He wants to move on, even romantically.

“I just lost a lot of trust in women, and I couldn’t trust anybody,” he said. “That’s why I’ve taken so long to look for another relationship. I felt deceived.”

Garcia said he found a woman recently but she is currently living in Mexico. He wants to help her get a work visa so she can live closer to San Marcos.

Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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