Carlos Garcia lay bleeding on the street in front of his family’s mailbox.
“Yes, ma'am. I just had a man attack me in my front yard,” Nick Julian IV told a 911 operator on Sept. 19, 2015.
“He attacked me and I had to use force,” said Julian. “I was afraid for my life.”
“Well who used the gun?” the operator said.
“I did,” Julian said.
In the background, Garcia’s ex-wife screamed: “Why would you do this?”
“?'Cause he charged me and I was in fear of my life,” said Julian, then 26.
He said that he needed to call his lawyer. It was 2:05 a.m.
Before Garcia, a 37-year-old father of three, had even been declared dead, the man who shot him was already on the phone with the U.S. Concealed Carry Association.
The association offers a 24-hour hotline, an attorney on retainer, bail money and a wallet-sized card instructing members on what to say after a shooting – starting at just $13 a month.
It’s one of a handful of organizations that say they can help members strengthen their claim of self-defense from the moment they pull the trigger.
“This is basically preparing people: You’re going to kill someone and you need to know what to do,” said University of Miami law professor Mary Anne Franks.
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For centuries, the right to take a life to defend one’s own life has been recognized across different legal systems and traditions.
But Florida, like many states, had this caveat: Armed citizens must try to get out of harm’s way before defending themselves with deadly force.
“Stand your ground” changed all that. The 2005 law, backed by the National Rifle Association, says a citizen “has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground” if they believe they must defend themselves from serious injury or death.
To proponents, “stand your ground” affirms a gun owner’s right to self-defense. But critics believe that without the duty to retreat, the law promotes a “shoot-first” mentality.
A 2012 Tampa Bay Times investigation showed that the law has been applied unevenly and in unforeseen ways. People have escaped prosecution for taking a life while involved in criminal activities, for firing on unarmed persons, even when they started the confrontation that led to the shooting.
“Stand your ground” caught on. Similar laws spread to more than 30 other states.
Now it’s an industry. There are subscription services that offer to advise gun owners before they have to make a life-or-death decision and provide immediate legal and financial support afterward.
“If you need to take the time to THINK about these decisions, there’s a good chance you'll make a choice that will put you in jail .?.?. or worse,” Tim Schmidt, founder and CEO of the U.S. Concealed Carry Association, wrote on the organization’s website. “You need to have these decisions programmed into your brain BEFORE you leave your house with your gun!”
The organization’s “platinum plus” package costs $30 a month. It offers up to $1 million coverage for civil damages and $125,000 “upfront” for a criminal defense attorney.
Second Call Defense, a similar group affiliated with the NRA, has an “Ultimate” plan that offers unlimited money to cover a lawsuit and up to $50,000 in criminal defense protection – all for $39.95 per month.
Kevin Michalowski, executive editor of Concealed Carry magazine, said his group provides a valuable service: educating and preparing gun owners to legally defend themselves and to deal with the consequences afterward.
“We are not declaring people guilty or innocent,” he said. “That’s not our job. That’s for the legal system to do.”
The U.S. Concealed Carry Association compares itself to four rival services, including Second Call. The association offers training videos, a magazine, a database of self-defense articles; 24-hour, seven-day-a-week access to a “critical response team” and “legal triage” lawyer; a “network” of defense attorneys; insurance to cover bail and legal representation; psychological counseling; coverage for family members; and a “bulletproof” money-back guarantee.
U.S. Concealed Carry says it has more than 135,000 members. Second Call Defense declined to release its membership numbers, but co-founder Sean Maloney estimated around 500,000 people across the country belong to such organizations.
There are legal and financial repercussions to acting in self-defense, Michalowski said. He said he’s seen burglars sue the homeowners they tried to rob for shooting them and gun owners who, after defending themselves, could not afford an attorney or bail.
His group helps gun owners, he said, so “they don’t lose everything for doing the right thing.”
Stetson University law professor Charles Rose fears such groups could actually inflame armed confrontations: giving gun owners legal advice beforehand and financial reassurance afterward could make them “more comfortable” pulling out a firearm.
Rose was also troubled by the instructions those groups offer to give only basic information to 911 operators.
“Describe to them what you look like and what you’re wearing,” read a U.S. Concealed Carry booklet, “but apart from that, simply repeat that you were in fear for your life and that someone has been shot.”
The organization gives members a wallet-sized card to hand to officers after a shooting. It tells police the member will not consent to any searches or speak until they have talked to an attorney. And it says: “As a lawfully armed citizen, I ask for the same courtesy that you would show a fellow officer who was involved in a similar situation.”
Said Michalowski: “We give them information so they don’t jeopardize their legal defense.”
To Rose, that sounds like coaching gun owners to hamper the investigation.
“It’s a well-organized attack on the ability of law enforcement to properly investigate crimes where stand your ground is implicated,” Rose said, “because (the groups) are now creating circumstances and coaching people on what to say.”
It appears the topic of self-defense groups has not been widely explored by the legal community. Experts contacted by the Times had never heard of such groups.
While the American Bar Association has taken a stance against “stand your ground” laws, it hasn’t yet looked into the growing number of self-defense insurance groups doling out legal advice, said the chair of the Bar’s “stand your ground” task force, Leigh-Ann Buchanan.
Franks, the University of Miami law professor, has a deeper concern. This level of detailed instruction, she said, could be abused by someone looking for a guidebook to use deadly force.
“It gives such individuals a ‘script' in both a figurative and literal sense: the narrative of a noble man using his gun to impose respect and order and the precise words that man needs to use to avoid liability for his actions,” Franks said.
But Fordham University law professor Nicholas Johnson said that’s highly unlikely. There are so many variables in the legal system, he said, that there’s “no equation someone could get their hands on” that would guarantee they would not be charged or put on trial after taking a life.
“Thinking about putting together criminal activity with some bit of knowledge you got out of one of these sites seems like a fool’s enterprise,” he said.
Educating gun owners makes sense, Johnson said.
“What they’re doing is educating people on the precise boundaries that operate with regard to self-defense,” he said. “I see that as a good thing.
“The mistake you worry about .?.?. is people not having the sense of when it’s proper to use deadly force.”
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The first argument the night that Garcia died was not between him and Julian. It was between Garcia and his ex-wife, Yaileen Ayala.
Garcia pulled his blue Honda Crosstour onto his ex-wife’s front lawn on Dunhill Drive in Carrollwood sometime before 2 a.m. He and Ayala had been married for 15 years and had two kids. Garcia also had a child from a previous relationship.
September 2015 marked six months since their divorce. Garcia was not coping well, his ex-wife said.
Sept. 19 was a Saturday, his weekend with the kids. The plan was to celebrate his daughter Nayelis’ ninth birthday. But he was hours late. And he wanted the kids now. Ayala said he appeared to have been drinking. She told him to leave.
They argued through the closed front door. She could hear music from Garcia’s car stereo.
Garcia refused to go, so his ex-wife called 911. She said it wasn’t an emergency, but she wanted her ex-husband to leave. Operators received her call at 2:01 a.m.
While on the phone with 911, she heard Garcia yelling at someone else outside.
“Well, call the cops, then” she heard Garcia say.
Garcia and Julian had started their own argument.
Court records and deputies’ interviews with witnesses detail the moments leading up to Garcia’s death.
Nick Julian IV lived with his parents next door to Ayala. He said he first heard the loud music while watching car shows with his father. Julian’s girlfriend and her daughter were spending the night, and he didn’t want the music to wake them.
“I told him, I said don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it,” Julian’s father, Nick Julian III, 56, told Hillsborough sheriff’s detectives. “It’s, it'll go away in a minute .?.?. He goes, ‘No, it ain’t going away.’ “
The younger Julian went outside and argued with Garcia for about 10 minutes, the father told detectives, before he coaxed his son back inside. The music was turned down – then went back up 15 to 20 minutes later.
Nick Julian IV got upset, according to a deputy’s report, retrieved his .45-caliber Kimber Pro Carry II semi-automatic pistol and put it on the couch. Then he went back outside, but without his gun.
Garcia and Julian exchanged words again. Julian returned to his parents’ home, grabbed his gun, the sheriff’s report said, and went back outside one last time.
From his bedroom, Giancarlo Garcia, then 15, told detectives he heard his father arguing with the neighbor outside. The teen told investigators that he heard bits of the argument, such as his neighbor saying “well, step up then” and “let’s go.”
Julian’s father told deputies he saw some of what unfolded through a partly open door. The father said he saw his son run back to his screened-in porch with Garcia chasing behind. Julian’s father said he heard Garcia say “something along the line of a beat down,” the report said.
Then Julian’s father saw a flash and heard a loud crack.
Giancarlo later told detectives that, from his bedroom, he heard his father after the gunshot.
“He got me,” Garcia said.
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Nick Julian IV called 911 at 2:05 a.m.
“911, what is your emergency?” the operator said in the recording.
“Yes, ma'am. I just had a man attack me in my front yard,” Julian said.
“What’s the address of your emergency, sir?” the operator said.
Julian gave his address, then said: “He attacked me and I had to use force. I was afraid for my life.”
“And who is it that attacked you?” the operator said.
“It’s the guy that used to live next door and we walked outside to ask him to turn his blasting radio down because I have a child sleeping and he tried to attack me.”
“Do you need an ambulance?” the operator said.
“Yes ma'am. I need an ambulance,” Julian said.
Then, Julian appeared to address his father: “He came chasing after me, Dad. I didn’t know what to do .?.?. He was trying to kill me.”
The call was transferred to a sheriff’s dispatcher. Julian explained what happened again:
“.?.?. He came at me with something. I don’t know what it was because it was dark, but I started to go towards my door, once he got me towards my screen door, I just, I had no choice, I, I’m on my property .?.?.”
“Well who used the gun?” the operator said.
“I did,” Julian said.
The conversation continued.
“And you felt that you needed to shoot him to get away from him, sir?” the operator said.
“Yes, ma'am,” Julian answered. “I was trying to run towards my door but I couldn’t get my screen door open fast enough and, to save myself from getting beaten up against the door, I just turned, that’s all I could do.”
“And this was all because he was playing music too loud?” the operator said.
“No, ma'am,” Julian answered.
He later said: “I was completely scared for my life. I’ve never been in this kind of situation. I didn’t know what to do, other than try to protect .?.?.”
“So you went over there with a gun in your hand?” the operator said.
“No, ma'am,” Julian said.
“How did you have your gun on you, sir?” the operator said.
“He made threats,” Julian said. “And I always have a gun on me.”
Garcia’s ex-wife, Ayala, can be heard in the background: “Why, why?”
Julian told the operator he wanted to press charges against Garcia.
Later, Julian said: “I’ve got to get my attorney’s information, ma'am.”
He was also heard instructing someone: “Call my attorney .?.?.”
Deputies arrived at 2:17 a.m., according to their report. Julian’s father told them his son was on the phone with his attorney. More deputies arrived. Julian later asked a deputy if the man he shot was going to be okay.
The bullet tore through Garcia’s heart. Records show he was unarmed. All he had on him was his car keys. Save for what Julian’s father saw, there were no eyewitnesses to the shooting.
“I was just trying to get back inside my house and he was right on me,” Julian told the deputy, according to the report.
An hour later, sitting inside a sheriff’s cruiser, the report said, Julian asked for an update from his parents. They were on the phone with a lawyer from the U.S. Concealed Carry Association, the deputy wrote. It was now 3:20 a.m.
Hours after Garcia died, his ex-wife and children met with Hillsborough sheriff’s detectives. The meeting was recorded on video.
Ayala asked when Julian would be arrested.
The case would be decided by a board of prosecutors, a detective told her.
Two months later, on Nov. 16, Ayala learned Julian would not be charged.
“The evidence is insufficient to rebut Nick Julian IV’s claim that his use of deadly force against Mr. Garcia was an act of self-defense,” read a letter from the office of Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober.
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Three days after Garcia died, a sheriff’s detective requested Julian’s arrest history. They found one previous incident in 2012: This one also involved Julian brandishing a gun.
And it also started over a noise dispute with neighbors.
In spring 2012, Julian was living with his parents on Portsmouth Drive in Town ‘N Country, just 9 miles from the scene of the 2015 shooting. On May 14, according to sheriff’s records, he got into an argument with three neighbors.
Julian complained they had been loud the night before, according to a deputy’s report. Then it escalated.
The deputy’s report said Julian pulled out his .45-caliber Kimber Pro Carry II pistol – the serial number matched the gun deputies said killed Garcia – and pointed it at three men, including Luis Rodriguez.
Dressed all in black, Julian told them not to step on to his property, Rodriguez told the Times, or he would shoot.
In his statements to deputies, Rodriguez, 50, wrote that Julian “told me he will shoot” that he “know(s) the law.”
Another witness, John Torres, wrote the same phrases in his statement to deputies, adding Julian “came to the street and pointed a gun out of his pants at me.”
Julian was arrested on three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He was freed from the Hillsborough County jail the next day after posting $6,000 bail.
But Julian was never prosecuted for the 2012 incident. Rodriguez didn’t know that until the Times told him.
The case against Julian fell apart, said State Attorney’s Office spokesman Mark Cox. He said his office’s investigator only managed to speak to one of the three victims.
But that man, Jose Picart, was the most problematic of the victims. After Julian’s arrest, a deputy said Picart told them he couldn’t write, so he didn’t give a written statement.
Later, Cox said, when prosecutors tried to subpoena the three victims, it was Picart who accepted subpoenas for himself and Rodriguez, but refused the summons for Torres. Cox said Picart and Rodriguez never responded to the subpoenas. Left without any witnesses, the State Attorney’s Office dropped the charges against Julian.
But Rodriguez told the Times he didn’t know prosecutors tried to contact him.
“No one has ever called me,” he said.
Rodriguez said he thought Julian had at least received probation for what happened.
As for the decision not to prosecute Julian, Rodriguez said: “The state attorney is a fool.”
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The Times made several attempts to reach Julian, now 27. He did not return calls for comment, and he and his parents did not respond to written requests for comment.
“He doesn’t want to talk,” his mother, Marcelle Julian, said from her front door in June. “That’s over for him now.”
Ayala, 34, believed that Julian moved away after the shooting. But six months ago, she said, she started to see Julian’s pickup truck at his parents’ home again.
It’s there every day now. She assumes he moved back in, right next door to her.
July was Giancarlo’s 16th birthday. Ayala took her son to the driver’s license office to get his permit. They drove by Julian’s truck. Ayala said she thought to herself:
If only he knew today was my son’s 16th birthday and he doesn’t have his dad to practice driving with, to get his license with.
Ayala said Julian has never tried to contact her. He has never said he’s sorry, or expressed remorse to her family.
“Not even just a letter in the mailbox,” she said.
She can’t afford to move. Nor does she want to upset her children with another big change. Giancarlo is having trouble focusing on school. Her daughter, Nayelis, turns 10 on Wednesday, two days after the first anniversary of her father’s death on Sept. 19.
She told her mother she hopes nothing bad happens during her birthday again.
The kids miss their dad. And mom cannot explain why there was never a trial.
Outside Ayala’s mailbox – not far from where Julian parks his truck every day – sits a wooden cross with silk flowers. The memorial marks the spot where Garcia died.
“I still can’t believe it,” Ayala said. “I have to tell myself, your neighbor killed your kids’ father.”
Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Sara DiNatale at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8862. Follow @sara–dinatale.
Defensive Shooting Guidelines for the Responsibly Armed Citizen
“If I have given this to you, it has been necessary to take actions to defend innocent life. I am willing to sign a criminal complaint against the perpetrator(s). I will point out witnesses and evidence. As you may have experienced yourself, this is a stressful and traumatic experience for me. Therefore, I wish to make no further statements until I have contacted an attorney and composed myself. I also do not consent to any searches. I will cooperate fully once I have consulted with an attorney and calmed down. As a lawfully armed citizen, I ask for the same courtesy that you would show a fellow officer who was involved in a similar situation. Thank you for your understanding.”