Like the raw and lawless frontier territories of Oklahoma or the Far West in the nineteenth century, boxing has often functioned as an open city, of sorts, for those with checkered pasts looking to start over. As a sanctuary for sinners and scoundrels (in various stages of reform or relapse, naturally) boxing asks few questions of its doubtful outsiders hoping to get in. But Roberto Medina, a hard-charging lightweight fighting out of St. Petersburg, Florida, in the mid-1980s, could never escape himself. No, not even the transformative world of boxing—where self-actualization and reinvention are more than just catchpenny terms—could keep his past at bay. When his career as a journeyman hit its peak—a nationally-televised loss to Olympic gold medalist Meldrick Taylor—it also left him at rock bottom. Again. That was when a small squad of detectives handcuffed him in his dressing room after the fight and the newswires revealed the truth about Medina: his real name was John E. Garcia and he was an escaped convict from Denver, Colorado, with a prolix rap sheet (charges ranging from B&E to battery to criminal conspiracy to forgery) to go along with a cracking left hook.
As a teenager, Garcia found himself homeless when his mother threw him out of the house. He ran the streets of Denver in the early 1970s, when the city was part of the High Impact Anti-Crime Program launched by the Nixon administration. By 1976, Garcia had been sentenced to a lengthy stint in Canon City prison, from which he escaped less than a year later, sawing through the bars of his window, like something out of a Robert Bresson or Jules Dassin film. In no time, Garcia was caught, and his subsequent getaway was far less dramatic.
On June 25, 1982, with only six months left to go on his sentence, Garcia simply strolled out of incarceration and into a chaotic approximation of civilian life. “It was an honor camp where I was,” Garcia told the Tampa Tribune. “They’d pick us up and take us downtown to work. I worked driving a truck, watering down the streets. I had given them seven years and I wanted to leave. So I left. I didn’t hurt anyone breaking out or anything. I just walked away.” He also walked right back into misconduct, caught in Arizona for auto theft. Once more Garcia escaped, somehow slipping out of Garfield County Jail, near Aspen, in October 1982. This time, he made sure no one would catch him.
He began his life as a fugitive in California (where he adopted the alias “Roberto Medina”) before hitchhiking thousands of miles to Pinellas County, Florida. There, Garcia worked in a motel and supplemented his income with carpentry on the side. During various prison terms throughout Colorado, Garcia had dabbled in boxing, learning the rudiments in cells instead of gyms. “When I was in the joint,” he told Robert Seltzer, “I didn’t want to be known as no sissy. There was a guy there named ‘Westside Willie,’ and he encouraged me to start boxing.”
Eventually, he made his way to the St. Pete Boxing Club, where his work ethic and indefatigability impressed the locals. They also noted his reserved personality. After a brief amateur career (which he would later embellish for publicity purposes), Garcia turned pro on March 15, 1984, scoring a second-round KO at Curtis Hixon Hall in Tampa. He earned $200 for his debut. On the small-time Tampa circuit—-the Hyatt Regency, the Egypt Shrine Temple, the Oasis Ballroom—Medina fought often and built a 12-1-1 record en route to national infamy. When ABC needed filler after two of its fights featuring Olympians ended early, it turned to a six-round swing bout between Meldrick Taylor and Garcia.
Already police in Denver had received an anonymous tip (possibly from a spurned lover) that Garcia would be performing at The Scope in Norfolk, Virginia, duking it out with a gold medalist on a Saturday afternoon. In Virginia, detectives received photos of Garcia, along with descriptions of three unique tattoos—including one of a rose—that would act as unmistakable markers. While officers milled in the crowd, Garcia disrobed in his corner, and the beginning of the end was near. “When we saw that, we knew we had the right guy,” Norwalk Police Lt. Curtis Todd said. “Before that, the identification was kind of iffy.” While contemporary news accounts focused mostly on the rose tattoo, it was likely the ink Garcia sported on his back that sealed it for authorities: the depiction of a man and a woman shtupping, missionary-style, in all the crudely glorious stylization of cell block art.
Over six rounds with Taylor—who would go on to win titles in two divisions—Garcia took a shellacking without even hinting at retreat. Battered, bruised, but euphoric, Garcia left the ring to a standing ovation—and to a pair of waiting handcuffs.
Later, when asked about the wisdom of exposing himself to so many potential whistle-blowers, Garcia said: “Sometimes you take a gamble, and I guess I loved boxing so much I was willing to take that gamble. So here I am. I’m sorry I disappointed some people, but I’m not sorry I went to Norfolk for that fight. We put on a helluva show for the fans.”
Despite his past as a habitual offender, Garcia insisted that he had “self-rehabilitated” over the years, and that he had become, yes, another person in St. Petersburg. “I was a citizen there,” Garcia told the Daily Sentinel. “The law was looking for John Garcia to turn up in jail or in a police report. Well, I got rid of John Garcia. I was Roberto Medina. I was living a respectable life.”
Extradited to Colorado, Garcia saw his respectable life instantly obliterated with the sound of a gavel. Judge Thomas Ossola added two more years to his original sentence, and Garcia said goodbye, once again, to freedom. When he was released a year later, after petitions from his friends in Florida, Garcia, who had his name legally changed to Roberto Medina, returned to St. Petersburg and embarked on a comeback. He found that notoriety did not necessarily translate into profit. For $300 he gloved up for the first time in over a year, outpointing someone whose name might have been plucked from an Evelyn Waugh novel—Persephone Van Reenen—in a six-round bout at the Snaps Lounge in Leesburg, and listening to the drunken chants of “Jailbird! Jailbird!” from a spotty crowd.
What followed next was more typical of boxing than the John E. Garcia/Roberto Medina story had been thus far. Although a thrilling ESPN shootout loss to perennial fringe contender Terrence Alli in January 1987 drew raves for its entertainment value, a TKO to Angel Hernandez in Puerto Rico less than two months later meant Garcia had already reached his limits. With the losses came more appearances in court dockets and Garcia spent most of the next four years in and out of prison.
Garcia returned to the ring in 1991 and in his first marquee fight he was stopped by Frankie Mitchell at The Blue Horizon. (At the time, Mitchell was probably best known for being homeless while simultaneously a ranked contender.) In his last fight, Garcia suffered a broken jaw at the hands of veteran junior welterweight Darryl Tyson.
Now, Garcia had reached the end of his remaking. It was boxing that had steered Garcia onto the straight road: “I started going down the gutter with all the rest of the trash. Then I learned how to box. It taught me to control anger and it taught me a lot about people. It was a chance.” Was it boxing that made him detour? He became addicted to drugs. He was arrested for burglary in 1993. A few years later, he fled the Gulf Coast in his Chevy Beretta, the police in hot pursuit. He had robbed several banks in Pinellas County and had returned to his feverish days as a fugitive. They caught up with him in Denver, Colorado, where he had been John E. Garcia a lifetime earlier—B&E, battery, criminal conspiracy, forgery—and where he was now John E. Garcia once again.
Roberto Medina was long gone by then. In his place was the man he used to be.
Saturday, December 18th, 2010
Strangely enough, detectives most likely spoke with the killer face to face while doing more than 100 interviews with people in the neighborhood, never knowing they had their man the entire time.
Turns out, investigators say, the killer lived across the street.
His name, detectives say, was Roberto Medina.
In a strange and unbelievable twist, Medina was also a well-known professional boxer in the 80s.
No one had any way of knowing that he had a dark side. Detectives believe he was a serial killer.
WTSP, Tampa, Florida