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Cuban immigrant ends his life of broken dreams

Alice Garcia-Lara, 66, says her husband Roberto, 46, probably couldn’t take any more pain.

Photo courtesy of Alice Garcia-Lara

Alice Garcia-Lara, 66, says her husband Roberto, 46, probably couldn’t take any more pain.

ST. PETERSBURG — A decade ago, Roberto Garcia-Lara came to the United States thinking he had left the worst behind him.

The Cuban doctor dreamed of practicing medicine, but he suffered setback after setback. The language barrier. A car accident. Unemployment. Searing pain.

His wife, Alice, the couple's only breadwinner, came home from work Sunday with sore feet. Garcia-Lara, 46, rubbed cream on them and made her a cup of tea.

Alice Garcia-Lara didn't realize how his burdens weighed on him. Now, she can only speculate.

"He was probably a person who just couldn't take any more pain or reversals in life," she said.

She took a shower. When she got out, he was pointing a gun to his head.

• • •

In 1999, Garcia-Lara came to the United States after winning the emigration lottery. He and his family were among the lucky few who could leave the communist country.

Garcia-Lara was a successful doctor in Cuba. For a time, he oversaw medical operations in the military. But he wanted to practice without the government looking over his shoulder. He wanted to earn a living. In Cuba, he brought home the equivalent of $11 a month.

His first wife left for Miami while the bureaucracy delayed his departure for a year. When he finally arrived, she was with another man.

Garcia-Lara became a certified nursing assistant and met Alice at a nursing home in Brandon.

He impressed her with his gentlemanly manners. He opened doors, saying, "Let me get that, my lady."

Garcia-Lara was an intellectual, fluent in the classics, forever watching the History Channel.

They romanced over Spanish-English dictionaries, jotting down words on legal pads to understand each other.

"We did a lot of writing the first year," Alice Garcia-Lara said.

He moved into her house in 2000. When his divorce was finalized, he painted a banner and wrapped it around the garage. Written in red and accented with hearts, it said: "WILL YOU MARRY ME NOW?"

They cast lines over the Skyway Fishing Pier. She cooked beef roasts and he gobbled them up. Meat was scarce in Cuba.

Garcia-Lara spent his Saturdays in the garden, hacking weeds with a machete along the lake behind their house.

They had a black cat named Merlin, a gray cat named Arthur, and their favorite, a basset hound named Guinevere.

In 2004, Garcia-Lara suffered a compression fracture in his spine and was bedridden for a year.

The injury restricted him from working as a CNA, which requires a lot of lifting. Instead, he worked part-time as a bagger at Winn Dixie.

He was finally feeling better in 2005 when he drove across the Howard Frankland Bridge to a prep class for the Medical Licensing Examination. An uninsured driver rear-ended his car.

Garcia-Lara suffered pain in his lower spine and neck. A pinched nerve made him feel like his left eye and ear were going to explode.

For a while, he was on heavy painkillers. But a doctor told him he couldn't practice medicine if he relied on them. And they were expensive, especially on their limited income and no health insurance. He quit, but the pain was excruciating.

He could no longer fish. He could no longer work in the yard. His brother died days before he took the first part of the Medical Licensing Exam, and he failed.

"Bits and pieces of what he enjoyed were just taken away from him," Alice Garcia-Lara said.

She thinks he was up all Friday night. At breakfast, he didn't finish his eggs. She saw that he had brought out a bottle of Lyrica, a pain medicine.

"I think he felt he was a burden. I didn't even think that," Alice Garcia-Lara said Monday, interrupted by weeping. "You think so many things trying to figure out why."

• • •

On Sunday night, Garcia-Lara fired what his wife believes was a warning shot into the bedroom. It set off their ADT alarm system, which they bought along with the gun after she was robbed a few years ago.

Alice Garcia-Lara was standing in the kitchen when the phone rang. ADT was on the line. She told them her husband had a gun. They told her to go outside. She took the basset hound.

"Once he fired that bullet, I knew it was nothing I could talk him out of," she said. "I had never seen him like that."

Soon police arrived, alerted by the security system. She remembers someone whispering, "Alice, come this way." The police took her away from the house.

She didn't hear the shots.

• • •

Police say Roberto Garcia-Lara emerged from the house with a machete and the gun. He leveled it at the officers.

Sgt. Karl Lounge, 41, fired several times, fatally wounding Garcia-Lara, said police spokesman Bill Doniel.

Garcia-Lara was taken to Bayfront Medical Center, where he died early Monday.

Lounge, who has been with the Police Department since 1990, was placed on administrative leave with pay while the Police Department and State Attorney's Office investigate. That is standard procedure in an officer-involved shooting.

Domestic calls involving guns are "probably one of the more dangerous calls that an officer can respond to," Doniel said. "You never know what you're going to face when you get there."

Alice Garcia-Lara said she doesn't blame the police.

"They did what they had to do."

Stephanie Garry can be reached at sgarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2374.

Police shootings

St. Petersburg police officers have fired guns in the line of duty eight times this year. Five involved shootings of animals that posed a threat to police. This is the third police shooting of a person.

On April 30, a robbery suspect shot an undercover detective. The officer fired back, wounding Velislav Matzov, 19 at the time.

On June 7, St. Petersburg Police Officer Terrence Nemeth shot and killed 17-year-old Javon Dawson at a graduation party.

Cuban immigrant ends his life of broken dreams 11/17/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 24, 2008 8:41pm]

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