'Fortunate' Hillsborough deputy now home recovering

TOWN 'N COUNTRY — Something saved Miguel Galarza's life on Tuesday, after a routine police call escalated into gunshots.

"I've been shot!" the Hillsborough deputy yelled into his radio shortly after 11 p.m.

Not simply shot, but in the neck. Knocked off his feet in a stranger's apartment. He felt the wound but couldn't initially feel his limbs, he later told his superiors. But he climbed to his feet.

Seven hours later, Galarza, 35, was released from St. Joseph's Hospital into his family's care.

"He was very fortunate," said Dr. Donald Straub, the surgeon who treated Galarza.

A slight change in the angle of the bullet could have inflicted a more serious injury, he said.

In the face of such luck, Sheriff David Gee bought Galarza lottery tickets Wednesday.

"We could definitely be having a different conversation if God hadn't been looking out for this guy," Gee said.

The Sheriff's Office is still investigating the Tuesday night shooting to determine exactly what happened.

It started with a 911 call from a land line at 11 p.m. For about seven minutes, the sound on the other end was nothing but a man's garbled voice. It sounded like Spanish, but no one could make out the words.

A few minutes into the call, an operator dispatched Galarza to its origin: 8329 Country Square Court in Town 'N Country.

First there, Galarza rounded the side of the apartment and saw a man in the doorway. The man slammed the door shut. "We don't need you here!" he yelled.

Galarza thought he might have stumbled into a domestic matter, Gee said. He heard a woman's voice moaning from inside.

Galarza, who has been with the Sheriff's Office since 2007, radioed to dispatch that he needed back-up "10-18" — code for "as soon as possible."

"He's got the door slammed on me," he explained over his radio.

Galarza soon gained entry and ordered the suspect, Miguel Angel Serrano, 28, to the floor.

As Galarza prepared to handcuff the man, Serrano rose back up for a fight. They banged into walls and each other, sheriff's spokesman J.D. Callaway said.

At some point, Galarza would later report, Serrano pulled a gun from inside his pants.

But as the struggle between the two men continued, Serrano reached for Galarza's weapon, Maj. Harold Winsett said.

"He was in a fight for his life and this guy was trying to overpower him and take his gun from him and kill him," Winsett said.

A round was fired from the deputy's gun, Callaway said.

But it's unclear whether the deputy's wound came from his own weapon or from Serrano's weapon. Ballistics testing was expected to sort that out.

Serrano fled the scene.

Straub, Galarza's surgeon, said the bullet entered the left side of the back of Galarza's neck, took a horizontal path, then exited through the right side of the back of his neck. The bullet penetrated tissue and some muscle, but was never more than an inch-and-a-half to two inches deep.

Dozens of deputies, Florida Highway Patrol troopers and Tampa police officers descended on the apartment complex. They stopped every car in the area searching for the shooter.

At midnight, they stopped a Mazda at Wilsky Boulevard and Drycreek Drive. Serrano was in the back under a pile of clothes.

The driver told deputies Serrano offered money for a ride.

Deputies seized a loaded firearm from the car and found marijuana in Serrano's pocket.

Winsett said the gun is being processed for signs it was fired during the struggle with Galarza.

Back at the apartment, two victims told deputies what happened before Galarza arrived.

Serrano knocked on the door and pointed a gun in one of their faces, according to an arrest report. He ordered the pair to the ground, covered their faces and bound their hands with wire. He stole a ring, bracelet and wallet, the report said.

The Sheriff's Office did not release the victims' names. "They claim to not know him," Gee said, "We don't know if that's true."

About 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, after a night of questioning, deputies charged Serrano, of 406 Kirby St., Apt. 1, with home invasion robbery, possession of marijuana, contempt of court, and the attempted first-degree murder of Deputy Galarza.

State records show Serrano had been arrested three times before on charges that included cocaine possession and domestic battery.

Galarza, a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, did not require surgery. There was little bleeding, as the heat of the bullet cauterized blood vessels, Straub said.

The deputy was awake and alert when he arrived at St. Joseph's. And Straub said that despite the temporary numbness Galarza described, there were no neurological injuries.

It was probably just the shock of getting shot that made him lose feeling for a moment.

Galarza's two wounds, about 6 to 8 inches apart, were dressed and he was able to leave the hospital after about two hours.

"His prognosis," Straub said, "is excellent."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Robbyn Mitchell and Andy Boyle contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

'Fortunate' Hillsborough deputy now home recovering 10/14/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 15, 2009 1:29pm]

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