TAMPA — Before Gary Omar Montanez Rivera left the Palace Lounge that night four years ago, he fired off a warning to the people he felt had wronged him.
Montanez said he had a gun, witnesses would later testify, and added ominously: “I’m going to remember all y’all’s faces. I’m gonna be back.”
Prosecutors say Montanez, 22 at the time, did return moments later to the South Tampa hookah lounge, this time in his car, and as he drove by sprayed bullets into a group of people standing in front of the club. Mike Franck, 34, was shot in the chest and died at the scene. Five others were wounded.
In a Tampa courtroom on Friday, Montanez faced some of the surviving gunshot victims and Franck’s loved ones and apologized for his actions that night. Then he learned his punishment for his crime: 55 years in state prison, with credit for the four years he’s been in jail since his arrest.
The sentence handed down by Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward ends a case that began early on April 1, 2017 at the Palace Lounge, a hookah bar on South Howard Avenue.
Prosecutors said Montanez was aggressively flirting with several women including D’Asia McCleary and Heaven Mayo. When the lounge closed and patrons moved outside, Montanez focused on Mayo, who became uncomfortable and approached a friend, a former bouncer at the club, for help. Another man overheard Mayo’s complaint and told Montanez to back off.
One witness testified she heard Montanez say, “Don’t try me like this, I’ve got a gun.” McCleary told investigators she heard Montanez say, “I’m going to remember all y’all’s faces, I’m gonna be back.”
Mayo and McCleary were among the victims injured in the shooting. Police said Franck, who lived in Tallahassee and was in town with friends, was not part of the initial dispute over Montanez’s flirting.
Montanez kept driving after the shooting. A Tampa police officer stopped him a short time later. There was a handgun in the center console and shell casings on the floorboard. Montanez admitted to opening fire at the club while driving by but claimed he shot in self-defense. Police said his version of the incident did not match any of the accounts from witnesses.
A grand jury indicted Montanez on a first degree murder charge and five more counts of attempted first degree murder. A jury found him guilty in November of second degree murder with a firearm and five counts of attempted second degree murder.
Prosecutors asked Ward to sentence Montanez to life in prison. So did Franck’s sister, friend and fiancée, who testified along with survivors of the shooting.
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His loved ones described Franck as kind and compassionate, a first-born son who’d made his family proud by graduating from Florida State University and becoming an engineer. He planned to marry his longtime girlfriend, Carrie Tillett-Saks, and move to Brooklyn with their dog Sol.
Montanez robbed them of those plans, Tillett-Saks told the judge.
“I hate that he took my happiness,” she said. “I hate that he took Mike from me, from his sister, from his mom. I hate that he took Mike’s future from Mike, and he took our future from us.”
Sybille Naude, Franck’s sister, said her mother cries on birthdays and holidays and any time she shares a memory of her son.
“There is no punishment that could equate to the void you left me and my family members,” Naude said.
Assistant Public Defender Carolyn Schlemmer presented two mental health professionals who testified that Montanez was bullied and abused as a child, had a history of depression and paranoia and suffered from anxiety and alcohol disorders. He could function well on medications but would sometimes stop taking them when he felt better, said Michele Quiroga, a clinical and forensic neuropsychologist.
“Then, little by little, he would go back into crisis,” Quiroga said.
Montanez’s parents asked for leniency, noting he has two children of his own. Then Montanez stood to talk.
Speaking Spanish through an interpreter, he said that he wasn’t taking his medication that night, gets paranoid when he drinks alcohol and wasn’t in control of himself at the time of the shooting. He said he got scared when people at the club approached him.
“I ask the family for forgiveness, honestly, from the bottom of my heart,” Montanez said. “The name of Mike Franck will always be in my heart in my mind, for the rest of my days.”
His statement drew a challenge from Assistant State Attorney Justin Diaz, who noted that Montanez made the decision to buy a gun from a pawn shop.
“And then you decided to have a gun in your car, and then you decided to have a gun loaded,” Diaz said. “How did you think it was going to end with mental problems and alcohol problems and a loaded gun?”
Schlemmer asked Ward to consider Montanez’s mental health issues, the fact he had no prior criminal history and that a jury found him guilty of a crime that was not premeditated.
“Mr. Montanez is not a cold blooded killer,” Schlemmer said. “The jury found his actions to be reckless disregard for human life but not deliberate.”
Ward decided there was no basis to hand down the lowest possible sentence of 51 years called for in sentencing guidelines. She made the decision, she said, “based on the wantonness of what happened out there and the total disregard, as the jury found, for those individuals who did nothing to incur the wrath or the anger or whatever he was feeling and experiencing.”
Ward structured the punishment for the various counts in a way that requires Montanez to serve at least 50 years before he’s eligible for release. By then, he’ll be in his 70s.