By Nathaniel Percy
The Orange County Register
ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — A year ago, on Saturday, May 21, Joe Garcia dropped his two sons off at an elementary school and steered his Chevrolet Tahoe north on Highway 55. With his ATV hooked up to the back from his SUV, the trails of Santiago Oaks Regional Park in Orange awaited.
On this day off from the Seal Beach Police Department, the sergeant headed for the Katella Avenue exit, but as he passed Chapman Avenue that morning, traffic slowed.
Garcia saw why: on her shoulder, a woman was next to a silver car, hysterical, holding a child wrapped in a blanket.
Garcia stopped. He grabbed some gloves from the SUV and got out. He laid the boy down on the blanket and started giving 6-year-old Aiden Leos CPR. He saw the gunshot wound to the boy’s back, the result, according to law enforcement, of a man’s road rage.
For 40 seconds, Garcia tried to save Aiden.
“Dads you can do it mate,” he told Aiden, using a nickname he has for his boys.
Then a California Highway Patrol officer showed up, followed by paramedics. The off-duty cop followed the ambulance for several miles to Orange County Children’s Hospital. Upon entering, an Orange officer told Garcia that Aiden was dead.
This week on Friday, for his attempt to help save the boy, the American Red Cross of Orange County presented him with the First Responder Hero Award at The Grove in Anaheim; winners of seven other awards were also recognized at the 2022 OC Heroes Awards.
“It’s difficult,” Garcia said beforehand. “I feel like if Aiden was there to give me the award, it would be a lot more rewarding.
“I don’t think everything I did was heroic, I think any policeman in that situation would do what I did, that’s just me.”
Aiden’s mother, Joanna Cloonan, was also driving her son to school when she was cut off by a white Volkswagen station wagon in the carpool lane, authorities say. She would later tell a couple who stopped to help that she knocked over the occupants, the husband said.
The station wagon slid behind her car after she changed lanes. The passenger is accused of firing a shot, which pierced the trunk and hit the kindergarten, in a booster seat in the back.
“Once I saw Aiden, I immediately thought he was my boy,” Garcia said. “He looks like my boy, he’s about the same age and, coincidentally, (has) about the same name.”
Garcia’s youngest son, Hayden, was 5 that day. After hearing that Aiden had not survived, the cop was overwhelmed.
“I stopped and broke down, because I kept saying in my head that this mother is now without her son,” Garcia said. “I look back and I know it’s not the right thought, but I felt like I let it down. I took it very badly.
He immediately sought advice from The Counseling Team International, which provides the town of Seal Beach with mental health counseling. He had worked with the company before and continues to do so – Aiden’s death was hard on him.
For the shooting investigation, CHP officers interviewed Garcia. But otherwise, he was unaware, just following the news. More than two weeks later, a man and woman believed to be the driver and passenger of the other car were found and arrested in Costa Mesa.
Videos of Garcia holding Aiden surfaced and were sent to him, making the situation more difficult for the veteran officer.
He is a strong advocate for those who need help finding her, Lt. Nick Nicholas said.
“All officers deal with trauma,” Nicholas said. “Joe is a magnet for that, and I don’t understand why. When something super tragic happens, Joe gets involved.
“On the other hand…Joe has been so open to getting help and talking to a professional, and I think historically in law enforcement, mental health hasn’t always been such a big deal. problem,” Nicholas said.
On another scheduled day off, October 12, 2011, Garcia worked overtime.
Scott Dekraai, a 42-year-old former tugboat crew member, had just shot and killed his ex-wife and seven other people in a Seal Beach saloon. Half a mile away, at Central Avenue and 12th Street, Garcia arrested the man responsible for Orange County’s worst massacre and handcuffed him.
“Today, some officers are reluctant to seek professional help when exposed to trauma, and he’s so willing to talk about his experiences,” the lieutenant said.
About two weeks after Aiden’s death, Garcia went to help firefighters with a call for medical help at a Chevron gas station on Seal Beach and Westminster boulevards.
A firefighter who knew Aiden and his mother hugged Garcia and thanked him. She had stayed with the firefighter since the shooting.
“I almost melted,” Garcia recalled. “He gave me the address where he lived.”
That day, Garcia went to the firefighters’ home.
“There was a lot of cuddling and a lot of crying,” he said. “There was a lot of me apologizing and she was telling me to stop apologizing. We needed that closure.
Cloonan, in an interview recorded for the American Red Cross ceremony, said Garcia had helped her tremendously.
“He was so delicate with his words, so kind and so sensitive,” she said. “He also taught me how to deal with the trauma and how to move on.
“I will never forget the kindness he showed me, my son and my family,” she said.
The two talk periodically. Cloonan recently met his family and the two families are planning to meet for dinner.
“We became friends,” Garcia said. “She invited me to events. … She supports me and I support her. Sometimes we need someone to talk to.
Gift of Life Hero Award: Heidi Miller, Laguna Beach, has helped over 40 people find organ donors; 30 received transplants. In 2017, Miller donated a kidney to a recipient who would otherwise have months to live. She has been donating bone marrow since 1991 and blood since college.
Animal Welfare Hero Award: Ally Carrier, Garden Grove, founded Ally’s Animal Relief Network. Carrier rescues abused or very sick animals in Southern California and Tijuana and ensures they receive care. And she networks to find them homes.
Disaster Services Heroes: Operation Independence, Santa Ana, a collaboration including the county, Orange County Fire Authority and other agencies. It has delivered millions of COVID-19 vaccines to residents.
Good Samaritan Hero Award: Mackenzie Penrose, Mariel Casilan and Lily Aguilar. During a November freshman class taught by Penrose, a student fell to the floor, unresponsive. Penrose, with support from fellow staff members Casilan and Aguilar, performed CPR. They were told that the child would not have survived without their actions.
Armed Forces Service Hero Award: Step Up, Santa Ana; the non-profit organization supports people with serious mental health issues. The organization has also helped veterans receive housing at Heroes Landing in Santa Ana.
Hero of Youth Award: Hannah Karanick, Anaheim, saw a college student get teased for not having access to hygiene items, so she started Hannah’s Helpful Hands, which provides basic necessities to students in need.
Corporate Hero Award: Pacific Life Foundation, Newport Beach, is a partner of the American Red Cross and has provided support through financial grants, employee giving campaigns, blood drives and volunteer work. The company donated $250,000 to the American Red Cross in January.
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