SCOTTSDALE — For more than 45 minutes in custody, nothing Yessenia Garcia said or did mattered.
While detained, scared, and crying, Scottsdale police officers repeatedly called her a liar and overlooked clear video evidence of her innocence before handcuffing Garcia for a hit-and-run she didn’t commit.
But Garcia said the reality didn’t fully set in until she heard the “click” and felt the metal on her wrists.
“Exactly when he told me to put my hands behind my back, and that’s when everything went black,” she said. “I just kind of heard [the officer]. It was kind of like an echo. I was kind of in shock, and I just kind of dropped down.”
It happened the night of May 24, 2020 in Scottsdale’s Old Town district.
Making the arrest worse, Garcia was forced to strip at the police station, had her blood forcibly drawn, and her mugshot was splashed across the internet the following day.
Garcia’s tearful and shocked booking photo is still on several news outlet’s websites.
More than a year later, she’s decided to tell her story publicly.
Garcia filed a lawsuit earlier this year but has decided to voluntarily dismiss the complaint. Many attorneys tell her overcoming qualified immunity will be too difficult in the case to make it financially viable.
So why did she sit down with ABC15 to share her story?
“To clear my name,” Garcia said during an interview. “[To let people know:] don’t believe everything, um, you have no idea what the person in that mugshot really just went through.”
Following ABC15’s questions for this report, Scottsdale Police Chief Jeff Walther opened an internal affairs investigation into what happened.
TWO CRIMES, ONE SUSPECT
Garcia and her then-boyfriend met up to have a drink with some friends.
Around 8:45 p.m., the two parked her car on East Shoeman Lane. The street is just off of Scottsdale Road, which is the downtown’s main drag.
Garcia and friends then want to two nearby bars, HiFi and Casa Amigos, where they would stay for the next two-and-a-half hours.
Her car was parked near a corporate office building with a surveillance camera that panned continuously back and forth.
At 10:02 p.m., the camera captures a random man jump on her hood twice and then stomp on the passenger side of her windshield.
Garcia and her boyfriend returned to the car around 11:15 p.m. and discovered the smashed windshield, according to video and records.
They then flagged down nearby bicycle officers to report what happened.
What Garcia and her boyfriend didn’t know was that a half-hour earlier the same officers had responded to a hit-and-run pedestrian crash near 7300 E. 6th Avenue.
The two locations are just 0.3 miles apart. So when officers saw the damage to Garcia's car, case closed.
Here’s the first thing an officer says to her.
OFFICER: Listen up. We already know what’s going on.
OFFICER: This could be serious thing if you lie about it.
OFFICER: You need to be honest.
The officer reads Garcia her Miranda rights. A supervisor, Sgt. Ben Steel, then walks over.
STEEL: Your car was just involved in a hit-and-run collision where a pedestrian was hit. [Garcia is seen making a shocked face] And don’t make faces like you don’t know what I’m talking about.
GARCIA: I swear to God. I don’t know.
STEEL: Listen to me, leaving the scene of an injury accident is a felony.
STEEL: This isn’t my first day. I know you were driving. I know you’re worried about it because you were drinking.
GARCIA: You can ask the HiFi security guard.
STEEL: Then how does your car have damage on it?
GARCIA: I have no idea.
STEEL: Listen to me, if you keep saying you didn’t, we’re going to do DNA tests.
GARCIA: Yes absolutely yes.
STEEL: And it’s going to show you were in the driver’s seat.
Body camera videos shows Garcia’s boyfriend also got the same treatment.
Officers repeatedly refused to check out the couple’s story, review receipts from the bars, or pull surveillance video from them.
STEEL: I’m not going to listen to you because you’re lying to me.
BOYFRIEND: I came to [this smashed car], that’s why I went and got an officer over there on the bike.
STEEL: The problem is as you left, you got in a collision, you panicked and came back over here.
BOYFRIEND: No we did not. No we did not. You’re not pinning it on us.
STEEL: You’re not listening to me.
BOYFRIEND: Let me show you the transactions.
STEEL: I don’t need to see the transactions.
BOYFRIEND: Why because it validates my truth?
STEEL: No because there’s evidence you can’t dispute. Someone’s body hit the windshield. No. I’m not going to argue with you man.
ALLEGATIONS OF MADE-UP EVIDENCE
Sgt. Steel and other officers claimed they saw glass on on Garcia’s black shirt and used that claim as part of the probable cause for her arrest.
Garcia said that’s completely false.
“No, not at all,” she said.
At the scene, Garcia’s boyfriend also pushed back on the allegation, shaking his head as Sgt. Steel doubled down on the claim.
STEEL: She has glass on her clothing. Like an explosion of glass.
STEEL: I already know she was driving. I’m not stupid. We have witnesses and we have cameras.
Officers did review surveillance video from a building overlooking Garcia’s parking spot.
ABC15 obtained a copy of the video.
It shows the random man stomping on Garcia’s windshield and causing visible damage then be seen on the camera. The footage also shows her car never moves from the time of the stomp to Garcia arriving to find the damage more than a hour later.
With the camera’s pan, Garcia’s car is never out of view for more than 40 seconds.
However, in his police report, Officer Nicolas Fay wrote, “video review was inconclusive to show if the vehicle had left and come back or remained there the entire time based on the constant pan of the camera.”
Body camera video shows Fay asking a security guard to pull up specific moments of video to compare to the time of the hit-and-run.
“The call came in at 10:48, so if we could go back to like 10:40,” Fay instructs the guard.
The body camera video obtained by ABC15 cuts out before it shows what Fay is shown by the guard.
According to time-stamps on the body camera video, it appears that Fay was watching the footage with the guard before Garcia is handcuffed and transported back to the station.
She was arrested on two counts of DUI and failure to stop at the scene of an accident causing injury or death.
Garcia understands why she was an initial suspect given the damage to her car and the nearby hit-and-run.
What she doesn’t understand is why officers were unwilling to take time to weigh the exculpatory evidence that was already available to them.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Garcia said. “I had cooperated. I had done everything that they asked me to do. The fact they wouldn’t just check the cameras.”
Following her arrest, Garcia was brought to a Scottsdale police station.
Because police at the scene claimed there was glass on her shirt, she had to strip off her clothes in front of two female officers.
“That was pretty embarrassing and humiliating,” Garcia said. “That was the first thing. And then they walked me out and sat me in a chair with straps [to take my blood].”
Police got a warrant to draw Garcia’s blood for the alleged DUIs.
When she asked to see the warrant before placing the needle inside her arm, Officer Ben Roberson refused.
“After we’re done. I don’t have time to waste with you reading documents. I’ve served you. That’s all I need to do,” Roberson told Garcia with a handful of detention officers surrounded her chair. “If you don’t put your arm out, you’re going to be strapped down, we don’t want that. Put your arm out, so we don’t have to tie you down like an animal.”
She was compliant throughout the process, body camera videos shows.
Garcia was released shortly later.
Several days following her arrest, she hired defense attorney Ryan Tait.
Tait tracked down his own copy of the surveillance video and sent police a time-stamped guide. He said Sgt. Steel emailed him back and said the department would no longer pursue the charges.
But by that time, the damage was already done.
Local and national media had reported on Garcia’s arrest and prominently displayed the mugshot of her crying. One article ran in the New York Daily News.
Despite what happened, Garcia said in a strange way she feels “lucky.” If she had not parked in a spot in view of a surveillance camera, she wonders if she would still be facing charges or already be convicted.
“My heart goes out to all the people who aren’t as able to be as lucky as I am,” Garcia said. “That’s a hard thought.”
ABC15 reached out to a Scottsdale police spokesperson with questions about the incident, specifically regarding the surveillance video and alleged glass officers claimed was on Garcia’s shirt.
In a round of initial responses, the department said the case against Garcia wasn’t pursued because the hit-and-run victim declined prosecution and not because she was actually innocent.
After ABC15 sent a clip of surveillance video showing the man stomp on Garcia’s windshield, the department sent the following statement:
“Thank you for bringing that portion of the video to our attention. Obviously this underscores the fact that the case was never filed. The officers made probable cause decisions based on the totality of the evidence they had at the time of the investigation. This video does bring up questions that need to be answered. This incident occurred 14 months ago, however, our new Chief Jeff Walther takes these matters very seriously and has asked for a formal internal affairs investigation to fully review the incident.”
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.