MAHTOMEDI — The probationary firefighter charged with second-degree murder was officially terminated from the department at the Feb. 17 City Council meeting.
Bailey Garcia, 19, was hired as a firefighter November 2014 and, like all new hires, was subject to a one-year probation period. The fire chief recommended dismissal due to the seriousness of the charges filed against Garcia and his inability to perform any firefighting duties while in jail.
The Mahtomedi High School grad and Pine Springs resident is accused of causing the Jan. 24 death of bar owner David Frigaard in a drive-by shooting. After nearby residents saw his crashed vehicle, went to help and found a rifle on the passenger seat, Garcia allegedly admitted he had been drinking and shot at a passing truck. The victim’s truck was spotted by a sheriff sergeant leaving that crash scene. It had crashed into a tree near Mahtomedi Avenue and Wildwood Beach Road. Frigaard was dead at the scene from a gunshot wound.
The incident raised some policy questions with the Mahtomedi mayor; such as who should have access to the fire station and whether mental health screenings should be conducted prior to hiring city employees.
When KSTP-TV interviewed him following the shooting, Mayor Jud Marshall wondered why a probationary firefighter would have a key. Garcia used his key to get a wire cutter at the station to cut off the rifle’s trigger lock.
“How come he had a key?” Marshall asked. “He’s only been with us two months. I was surprised he had a key.”
Fire Chief Terry Fischer said the on-air comment upset him. “We are a paid on-call department. Our firefighters must have access to the building. It’s hard to respond to a call if you can’t get your gear. That would not have stopped Garcia from getting in.”
Policy changes regarding background checks were discussed with the city’s department heads last week, the chief added.
“We’re having conversations about personality tests but it’s not something that will happen overnight. There’s a lot to it,” he noted. “What is the standard on who we hire? How much will it cost?”
Fischer refrained from using the term psychological or mental health evaluations, preferring to call them personality checks.
The department does do criminal background checks through the Washington County Sheriff’s Department.
Even with additional testing, there’s no guarantee it would have changed anything, the fire chief said.
“An incident like this, who would have known?” he asked. “Garcia was an asset to the department. I was hoping firefighting would be a good thing for him. He was excited about joining, it’s what he wanted to do.”
After the shooting last month, Garcia’s defense attorney publicly stated his client has a long history of depression and had been hospitalized twice for depression and suicidal tendencies. His counsel, Ryan Pacyga, said Garcia has been under psychiatric care for several years.
HIPAA law prevents employers from asking questions about health issues, so there’s no way the city would have known about Garcia’s use of prescribed medication and struggles with depression.
Besides, Fischer said, “it would be hard to find people who are not on some kind of meds.”
Fischer, who is a paramedic, said more than half of the people he’s treated over the age of 14 “are on happy pills or some kind of pill. Everybody is depressed. People can’t handle life today without a pill. I see a lot of that.”
Fischer has contacted Oakdale, Stillwater and Lake Elmo departments about their use of personality tests and the companies that provide them. “We’ll see what their standards are and how much it costs. We’re hearing $300 to $500 per person.”
Mayor Marshall worries the city could get “blindsided” again if something doesn’t change policywise. “I think we need a more in-depth search when we hire someone new,” he observed. “Maybe we need someone from the outside who can question the policy. I have questioned it and I don’t get the response I wanted. That doesn’t mean I’m done with it, though.”
Meanwhile, Garcia remains incarcerated on $2 million bail. His initial court date is 9 a.m. March 20 before Judge Ellen Maas. If convicted, sentencing guidelines call for 261 to 367 months in prison.