Man sentenced to 18 years in girlfriend's shooting death

Father of Jaylene Cruz, 17, after hearing: 'We'll never heal from this'

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A 19-year-old was sentenced Thursday to 18 years in prison in the October 2015 shooting death of his 17-year-old girlfriend, whose parents described her as "determined" and "gone too soon."

Elgardo Garcia Jr. pleaded guilty last month to manslaughter and other charges.

His prison sentence will be followed by probation.

According to police, Jaylene Cruz was shot while she and Garcia were playing with a gun, which was stolen, and smoking marijuana, and Garcia accidentally fired the weapon.

Several family members on both sides gave emotional testimony during the sentencing hearing. There was so much tension in the courtroom that Garcia's mother was asked to leave at one point.

Jaylene's father, Pedro Cruz, said those tensions were understandable. He and Jaylene's mother, Tanya Gonzales, both told the judge why their daughter deserved justice. 

"She'll never get the opportunity to be rehabilitated. Her life will never be brought back. My daughter received the harshest penalty of death, and I will never get to meet her children," Cruz said. "I want the defendant to know that touching my daughter's cold body for the first time and having to accept the reality that she is gone handed me an eternal life sentence."

Cruz said his daughter will never get to right her wrongs or ask for forgiveness.

“There isn’t a rewind button in life," Cruz said. "I will never get that breath back ever again."

Gonzales also took the stand, saying their family did not deserve to lose the teenage girl. 

"Can you imagine the pain of having to choose flowers and arrange for people attending your daughter's funeral instead of her wedding? Can you imagine the distress of having to choose the dress she will wear in her coffin instead of the dress that she will wear on her wedding day?" Gonzales said. "Can you image choosing the land where she will be buried instead of helping her choose the land she will choose her first home? The nightmare of never knowing who she will become will haunt me for the rest of my days."

The most solidifying evidence presented at the hearing was the moments before the fatal shooting that were caught on Snapchat in images that Garcia’s defense attorney said showed Jaylene pointed the gun at Garcia first.

"I'm hurt for them. I'm hurt for him. I'm hurt for her. I go visit her. I go to her grave and I just sit there and cry because I don't understand how these accidents happened," said Riella Wright, Garcia's sister who testified during the sentencing hearing. "It's just making better choices in life, and I just want my brother to grow up from this." 

After Garcia's sister, his father Elgardo Garcia Sr. took the stand, expressing sorrow.

"What we have here is two young kids thinking they have the world in their hands when they don't, and a horrible accident happened," Garcia Sr. said.

After Judge Waddell Wallace handed down the sentence of 18 years, Jaylene's parents let out a sigh of relief outside. 

"I forgive his actions," Cruz said.

Though both parents said no amount of justice will bring their daughter back.

"I am satisfied by the years, but no amount of time that he spends in jail will bring my beautiful daughter back," Gonzales said. 

Garcia, who could have faced 22 years in prison, has 30 days to appeal his sentence.

"We'll never heal from this," Cruz said.

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