TAMPA — A tow truck driver claiming self-defense against a murder charge said Tuesday that if he hadn't fired at the driver of a car accelerating toward him, he would be dead.
"I was scared to death," Donald Montanez, 48, said during a court hearing on a motion to dismiss his second-degree murder charge. "If I didn't fire, I would have gotten killed."
Prosecutors reject his story.
Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner has suggested that Montanez was trigger happy in the early morning hours of Jan. 8, 2006, when he fired once into a car, fatally wounding Glen Rich.
A man whose rental car had been towed that night along with Rich's said Tuesday that Montanez pointed a .40-caliber pistol in his face before and after he fired the weapon at Rich.
"I told him he needed to get his gun out of my face," said Ronald LaRose, a convicted felon serving more than 12 years in federal prison on drug charges.
Defense attorney Jeffrey G. Brown attempted to discredit LaRose, asking him to review a written statement he gave investigators immediately after the shooting.
Nowhere in the statement did LaRose say that Montanez had twice pointed a gun in his face, Brown said.
The testimony is being heard by Hillsborough Circuit Judge Robert Foster, who is considering a motion to dismiss the charges. Defense attorneys contend Montanez should be spared prosecution in Rich's death under Florida's "stand your ground" law, which allows people to meet force with force when they feel threatened.
Rich, 30, his two brothers and a friend had spent the hours before the shooting at an after-hours bottle club on Hillsborough Avenue called the Sugar Shack. They left the club about 4:30 a.m. and saw that Rich's car was missing.
Montanez testified that he spoke with the men and verified that one of his employees had towed their vehicle for parking illegally at a nearby business. Montanez described Rich as the calmest person in the group and said he gave him his business card with instructions on how to retrieve his vehicle.
"Glen Rich was keeping his demeanor at the time," Montanez said. "It was the other individuals who were with him who kept egging him on."
Montanez said he even offered to do Rich a favor by releasing the vehicle to him even though it was registered to his wife. Rich didn't want his wife to know he had gone to the Sugar Shack, Montanez said.
An hour later, things escalated.
Rich and his brothers had discovered a nearby staging area where Montanez's towing crew temporarily stored cars for transportation to an impound lot.
By the time Montanez arrived to assist his employees, Rich had already called 911, demanding that a police officer help him get his car back.
Rich and his brothers scuffled with the tow truck drivers, witnesses said, before Rich jumped behind the wheel of his vehicle and sped directly toward Montanez and an employee.
"It was crazy out there. It all happened so fast," Montanez said. "Basically, what I saw was Glen Rich's headlights and the car coming right at me. He was crazy. He wanted to get out of there."
Montanez said that he and the employee jumped to safety in the hectic seconds of the commotion. As he moved out of the way, Montanez fired his .40-caliber pistol once.
"I thought I had fired in the dirt or something," he said.
Several hours later, he learned that his bullet struck Rich in the chest. Rich died at a hospital.
Prosecutors say Montanez's crew illegally towed Rich's vehicle, which was parked in the public right of way. Prosecutors also said that the staging area used by Montanez was on private property. The lot's owner testified that he had no agreement with Montanez for him to use it.
The tow truck drivers, Pruner said, had no authority to keep anyone from retrieving vehicles they had placed there.
Prosecutors also questioned the path of the bullet. It went into the vehicle through the passenger window, suggesting that Montanez was no longer in danger when he fired.
Testimony on the motion to dismiss continues today.
Kevin Graham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.