Anchorage police have charged a man with second-degree murder for the January killing of 21-year-old T.R.E.L. Zawko.
The Midtown homicide went unsolved for more than three months, until Friday, when police arrested Zawko's next-door neighbor, 22-year-old Victor Enrique Garcia. The Anchorage Police Department, whose detectives previously refused to discuss many details of the homicide, announced Garcia's arrest in a written statement late Friday.
"It was obvious he was the suspect from day one," said Slawomir Markiewicz, head of the department's Homicide Unit. "But we have to gather evidence, interview witnesses and process DNA evidence, which provided key elements for the charge."
According to a charging document filed in court against Garcia, Zawko's roommates found him dead in their garage about 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 18, bleeding from his head and face. Investigators found a bloody, bent aluminum baseball bat in the snow just outside the garage, the charges say.
The roommates lived in one unit of a duplex in the 1300 block of Crescent Drive, police said. At about 2 p.m., officers talked to Samuel Tiger, a neighbor in the duplex's other unit and Garcia's brother, the charges say. It's unclear from the charging document why they asked Tiger about Garcia, but the charges say Garcia was not home and Tiger said he did not know where Garcia had gone.
Another person in the area called police dispatchers about 3 p.m. to report that a man with a cut on his neck had walked out of a wooded area about half a mile south of the duplex, the charges say. Both the police statement and the charges describe the cut as "self-inflicted," although they do not explain how police knew that to be the case. Markiewicz, reached late Friday, declined to say how police knew Garcia had cut himself.
According to the charges, Garcia told a witness, "You need to call 911, they need to come arrest me."
Officers talked to Garcia, and medics took him to a hospital for treatment, Markiewicz said. Garcia was released from the hospital and police interviewed him several times, the detective said. Sometime later, another detective received a search warrant that allowed him to collect DNA evidence from Garcia, Markiewicz said.
"That was a key component," he said.
Garcia's actions and words that day and the fact that he was Zawko's neighbor in the duplex made him a suspect right away, Markiewicz said. Plus, herringbone patterns in footprints leading away from the garage matched the shoes Garcia was wearing at the time and two witnesses saw him in the neighborhood after the killing, the charges say.
In an interview with police, Garcia said he had been in a "dark place" that day and mentioned a baseball bat, the charges say. Police had not told anyone about the bat.
Detectives were not able to charge Garcia until technicians tested blood samples from the bat and found that the DNA they contained matched DNA profiles for both Garcia and Zawko, Markiewicz said. Garcia remained free and still living at the duplex, the detective said.
Unfortunately, Markiewicz said, testing for DNA takes time.
"We certainly worked on obtaining evidence that gave us enough to get the arrest warrant today," Markiewicz said Friday. "We arrested him as soon as we had an arrest warrant. We certainly don't arrest people and put them in custody until we have enough evidence to charge them."
Officers handcuffed Garcia without a struggle when he arrived home at the duplex about 3 p.m. Friday, Markiewicz said. When asked if there had been concern for the safety of Zawko's roommates or other neighbors before the arrest, Markiewicz said police made several trips to the duplex, mostly to talk to the roommates and neighbors.
"Of course, we have to work to have the evidence we need and the right suspect," Markiewicz said. "It's like poker. Do we want to show our cards? Or are we going to lose the game?"
As for what motive Garcia had in beating Zawko to death, Markiewicz declined to comment.
"That's something that we will be presenting in court in due time," he said.
Zawko's father, Sean Zawko, said Friday he worried for his family's safety in the three months that the case remained unsolved, even though he had confidence the detectives would catch his son's killer.
"I think APD was doing their job," Sean Zawko said. "They had to make this stick."
The father said he has not slept well in the past three months, jumping out of bed to look out the window if there was a sudden noise in the night. Maybe the same person who killed T.R.E.L. wanted to hurt the rest of the family, he said.
"I was pretty sure nobody was coming to get me, but I wasn't there to protect him, so maybe I was making up for that," Sean Zawko said. "But I don't feel good about this kid being arrested. It's not going to help me at all. I'm going to still not have my son."
"I don't have any closure. None whatsoever," he said. "Maybe I'm not ready for it. I don't have anything good to say about it right now."
Reach Casey Grove at email@example.com or 257-4589.