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Witness: Teen smiled before shooting man

POSTED: October 21, 2007 5:07 a.m.
Just before he fired his gun, Charlie De La Rosa’s killer smiled, a witness to the murder said Tuesday.

Israel Garcia, 23, dredged up the terrible memory of his co-worker, roommate and friend being gunned down in an attempted armed robbery as he testified Tuesday in the trial of a Gainesville teenager charged with the murder.

Chaz Stringer was 15 when police brought him in for questioning and, according to prosecutors, he ended up confessing to the crime, a holdup gone wrong at Garcia’s Restaurant on Athens Street.

Stringer’s lawyer said his client made a false confession to cover for the real killer.

Garcia, the only eyewitness to the shooting, testified through an interpreter that the robber came in the restaurant on the night of June 8, 2006, wearing a sheer, black "doo-rag" pulled over his face. Still, Garcia said he could make out the young man’s features under the disguise.

"I could see him perfectly," he said.

Garcia said when the robber pointed the gun and demanded money, De La Rosa thought it was a joke. He smiled and said, "Oh, you want the money?" and pushed the gun aside, his friend testified.

"You think this is a game?" the robber replied, before stepping back and firing a shot, according to testimony.

Garcia said he recognized the teen from his smile.

"The person with the gun had a smile?" defense attorney Brian Steel asked the witness.

"Yes, because he smiled before he shot," Garcia said through an interpreter.

In the courtroom, Garcia pointed out Stringer as the gunman.

Steel sought to pick apart the witness’ testimony by noting that the written statement Garcia gave police the night of the shooting failed to include many of the details to which he testified Tuesday in court.

Garcia did not write that he had seen the suspect before, or that he recognized his smile, or that he wore black tennis shoes, the same shoes Stringer wore when he was brought in by police.

Garcia said of the statement, "I remember very well that night I did not want to (write the statement) because I didn’t feel good."

De La Rosa, 29, a longtime employee of the tiny take-out restaurant, died within minutes of being shot.

"He took his hand toward his chest, he was saying, ‘help me,’" Garcia said. "He stepped around, he kneeled and then he died."

The robber ran out after firing the gun without taking any money.

While Garcia pointed out Stringer in court as the killer, the defendant’s confession to police is expected to be the linchpin of the prosecution’s case. Jurors today are likely to hear an audio recording of the interview conducted by Gainesville police Investigator Kevin Gaddis.

After describing in her opening statement how the crime unfolded, Assistant District Attorney Juliet Aldridge said Stringer’s statement will corroborate the details.

"You’re going to hear the same details ... from the defendant himself," Aldridge said. "You’re going to hear his confession to Investigator Gaddis. Where he not only says, ‘I did it,’ but gives the details."

Defense attorney Steel told the jury in his opening statement that Stringer lied to police to protect an older acquaintance named J.J. Watson. Steel said Watson planned and committed the robbery.

When Stringer was brought in by police for questioning and told he had an outstanding warrant for violating his juvenile probation, he decided to lie, Steel said.

"Chaz Stringer, who has been in juvenile court, decides he will take up for J.J. Watson," Steel told the jury. "Chaz Stringer then lies to Investigator Gaddis, and states a false confession. He’s making this up. He’s covering for someone."

Stringer knew the details of the crime because Watson told him what happened, Steel said.

Stringer, now 17, has been free on bond. He faces a mandatory life sentence if convicted of murder.

Aldridge told Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin she expects the state to wrap up its case today.



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