Alberto Garcia injected himself into the capital murder investigation of 5-year-old Ja’Naya Thompson’s killing, police testified at his sentencing trial on Monday.
Garcia pleaded guilty Thursday to sexually assaulting Ja’Naya and hanging her by using socks, which led to her death by strangulation on July 16, 2014.
Circuit Judge Lisa Dodson on Monday heard the beginning of testimony and evidence she will use to decide whether to give Garcia the death penalty or life without parole. The sentencing phase is expected to run through Wednesday or possibly Thursday.
Garcia had pleaded not guilty in October.
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Gulfport Police Cmdr. Ken Brown testified he was a bit surprised when Garcia showed up in the breezeway of a neighboring building as police were taking Julian “Casper” Gray into custody for questioning in Ja’Naya’s disappearance and death. Garcia wanted to know what was going on, he said.
“I did find it odd, but not unusual,” Brown said. “I’ve seen it before.”
Brown said he told the lead investigator to have a detective bring Garcia in for questioning.
Gray also was charged with capital murder, but a Harrison County grand jury found insufficient evidence to indict him.
A search team with a tracking dog found Ja’Naya partially nude and hanging by two socks at an unoccupied mobile home on Whitney Drive, just north of The Palms.
An in-law of Gray — who was Garcia’s roommate — testified Garcia had come to her apartment to tell her the child was missing. She said he looked “wet, glistening, like he’d just showered ... but he had body odor,” Ruth King said.
She said Garcia walked with her about 30 minutes as they and others participated in a massive search.
He admitted burglary
Garcia returned to King’s apartment after Ja’Naya’s body was discovered, and said he had burglarized the same trailer a few nights earlier, King said.
“He said they will find his fingerprints and he would probably be accused.”
After Garcia left, King said she went outside and “waved police down” to tell them about the conversation.
Prosecutors aired an audio recording of Garcia’s conversation as Detective Clayton Fulks drove him to the police department. Garcia talked about his job and video games and said he’d been in the trailer before Ja’Naya was killed.
“I ransacked the apartment (trailer),” Garcia’s voice said. “I was pretty much dumpster diving.” Garcia could be heard saying he found comic books and a Black Ops curtain. “My fingerprints are all over the place.”
Alberto Garcia had binoculars in his bedroom, which overlooked the playground where Ja’Naya Thompson played, according to testimony.
Assistant District Attorney Crosby Parker said the binoculars were hidden near the Xbox used to download information on child sex and child bindings.
Garcia’s crimes were “heinous and atrocious,” said Parker, who questioned witnesses along with DA Joel Smith.
The judge heard the 911 tape of Ja’Naya’s mother calling to report her missing. A dispatcher’s calm voice asked her questions about the girl’s clothing and description. The mother answered the questions as she was searching, and stopped answering several times as she shouted out, “Ja’Naya!” Then the mother’s voice broke into weeping.
‘A sweet little girl’
Neighbor Margaret Dongowski testified that Ja’Naya often played with her granddaughter, who was about the same age.
“She was precocious, a sweet little girl, and she loved animals,” Dongowski said. “She was always very polite.”
Dongowski said she had a direct view to Garcia’s bedroom window, and she would see him looking out the window.
“I thought he was watching the kids,” she said.
Gulfport Police Crime Scene Technician Jessica Kendziovek gave a bleak description of the trailer where Ja’Naya spent the last minutes of her life.
“It looked like a bunch of vagrants” had been going in and out and clothes were strewn about, she said.
“There was roaches everywhere. No electricity. No water. It had a horrible stench like people had been using it as a bathroom. ”
The crime-scene pictures she took were shown only to the judge, attorneys and Garcia, who leaned over in his chair to get a better view.
Public defender Angela Blackwell asked that pictures of Ja’Naya in death and her wounds “be sealed and never made public.”
Dodson agreed to seal some of the photos, saying they could only be viewed if there is an appeal or by her order.
An FBI evidence recovery unit assisted police at the crime scene. DNA tests that linked evidence to Garcia were tested at the FBI Lab in Quantico, Virginia, Parker said.
Public defenders declined to give an opening statement Monday.
Ja’Naya’s parents, who left the courtroom visibly upset during Garcia’s guilty plea last week, were not in the courtroom Monday. They were waiting in a private room at the courthouse, an officer of the court said.
Testimony resumes Tuesday. Prosecutors have asked for the death penalty.
Typically, only a jury can sentence a capital murder defendant to death. Garcia waived his right to a jury for the sentencing phase at his plea hearing Thursday.
Public defenders likely will use psychiatric examinations to plead for Garcia’s life.