Off-duty cop honored for trying to save boy, 6, in freeway shooting

Sgt. Joe Garcia says the kindergartner reminded him of his own son

By Nathaniel Percy
The Orange County Register

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif.— A year ago Saturday, May 21, Joe Garcia dropped off his two sons at an elementary school and steered his Chevrolet Tahoe north on the 55 Freeway. With his mountain bike racked on the back of his SUV, the trails of Santiago Oaks Regional Park in Orange waited.

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 the traffic slowed down.

Police Sgt. Joe Garcia is being honored with the First Responder Hero Award at the OC Heroes Awards for helping the mother of Aiden Leos, 6, during and after the shooting of her son on the 55 Freeway.
Police Sgt. Joe Garcia is being honored with the First Responder Hero Award at the OC Heroes Awards for helping the mother of Aiden Leos, 6, during and after the shooting of her son on the 55 Freeway. (Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Garcia saw why: On the shoulder a woman was next to a silver car, hysterical, holding a child wrapped in a blanket.

Garcia pulled over. He grabbed gloves from the SUV and got out. He laid the boy down on the blanket and began giving CPR to 6-year-old Aiden Leos. He saw the gunshot wound in the boy’s back, the result, law enforcement authorities would say, of a man’s road rage.

For 40 seconds, Garcia tried to save Aiden.

“Papas, you can do it buddy,” he said to 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 Children’s Hospital of Orange County. Upon entering, an Orange officer told Garcia that Aiden had died.

This week, on Friday, for his attempt to help save the boy, the American Red Cross of Orange County honored him with the First Responder Hero Award at the Grove in Anaheim; winners of seven other awards were recognized, too, during the 2022 OC Heroes Awards.

“It’s hard,” Garcia said beforehand. “I feel like if Aiden was here handing me the award, that would be much more rewarding."

“I don’t think anything I did was heroic, I think any police officer in that situation would do what I did, it just happened to be me.”

Aiden’s mother, Joanna Cloonan, had been driving her son to school, too, when she was cut off by a white Volkswagen station wagon in the carpool lane, the authorities would say. She would later tell a couple who stopped to help that she had flipped off the occupants, the husband said.

The station wagon slipped behind her car after she changed lanes. The passenger is accused of firing a gunshot, which pierced the trunk and hit the kindergartener, in a booster seat in the back.

“Once I saw Aiden, I immediately thought it 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 Aiden didn’t make it, the cop became overwhelmed.

“I pulled over and broke down, because I just kept saying in my head this mom is now without her son,” Garcia said. “I look back and I know it’s not the right thought, but I felt like I failed her. I took it really hard.”

He immediately sought counseling from The Counseling Team International, which provides the city of Seal Beach with mental health counseling. He had worked with the firm before and continues to do so — Aiden’s death was difficult for him.

For the investigation into the shooting, CHP officers interviewed Garcia. But otherwise he was out of the loop, just keeping up with news reports. More than two weeks later, a man and woman suspected of being the driver and the passenger in the other car, were tracked down and arrested in Costa Mesa.

Videos of Garcia holding Aiden surfaced and were sent to him, making the situation harder for the veteran officer.

He is a strong advocate for those needing help to seek it, Lt. Nick Nicholas said.

“All officers deal with trauma,” Nicholas said. “Joe is a magnet for it, and I can’t figure out why. When something super tragic happens, Joe is involved.

“On the flip side … Joe has been so open about getting help and talking to a professional, and I think historically in law enforcement, mental health wasn’t always such a big deal,” Nicholas said.

On another scheduled day off, on Oct. 12, 2011, Garcia was working overtime.

Scott Dekraai, a 42-year-old one-time tugboat crewman, had just shot to death his ex-wife and seven others at a Seal Beach salon. A half-mile away, at Central Avenue and 12th Street, Garcia pulled over the man responsible for Orange County’s worst mass killing and handcuffed him.

“Today, some officers are hesitant 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 died, Garcia went to assist firefighters with a medical-aid call at a Chevron gas station at Seal Beach and Westminster boulevards.

A firefighter who knew Aiden and his mom gave Garcia a hug and thanked him. She had been staying with the firefighter since the shooting.

“I just about melted,” Garcia recalled. “He gave me the address where he lived.”

That day, Garcia drove to the firefighter’s home.

“There was a lot of hugging and a lot of crying,” he said. “There was a lot of me apologizing and her telling me to stop apologizing. We needed that closure.”

Cloonan, in an interview recorded for the American Red Cross ceremony, said Garcia has helped her tremendously.

“He was so delicate with his words, just so kind and so sensitive,” she said. “He also gave me direction on how to process the trauma and how to move forward.

“I won’t ever forget the kindness that he’s shown me and my son, and my family,” she said.

The two talk periodically. Cloonan recently met his family and the two families plan to meet up for dinner.

“We’ve become friends,” Garcia said. “She’s 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, helped match more than 40 individuals to organ donors; 30 have received transplants. In 2017, Miller donated a kidney to a recipient who otherwise had months to live. She’s donated bone marrow since 1991 and blood since college.

Animal Welfare Hero Award: Ally Carrier, Garden Grove, founded Ally’s Animal Assistance Network. Carrier rescues abused or very sick animals from Southern California and Tijuana and ensures they receive care. And she networks to find homes for them.

Disaster Services Hero: Operation Independence, Santa Ana, a collaboration including the county, the 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, first-grade class taught by Penrose, a student fell to the ground, unresponsive. Penrose, with the the support of fellow staff members Casilan and Aguilar, performed CPR. They were told the child would not have survived if not for their actions.

Service to the Armed Forces Hero Award: Step Up, Santa Ana; the nonprofit supports people with serious mental-health issues. The organization also has helped veterans receive housing at Heroes Landing in Santa Ana.

Youth Hero Award: Hannah Karanick, Anaheim, witnessed a student getting teased because he did not have access to hygiene items, so she started Hannah’s Helpful Hands, which provides basic necessities for 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 corporation gave a $250,000 gift to the American Red Cross in January.

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