Calif. CO earns state's highest honor after standing ground against highway gunman

"Sgt. Villarreal went above and beyond the call of duty and put himself at great risk of harm," said CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison


By Wes Venteicher
The Sacramento Bee
        
SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gavin Newsom awarded the state's highest honor on Thursday to a correctional officer who helped arrest a man who had been shooting randomly at vehicles west of Fresno four years ago.

From late November to mid-December 2017, a 43-year-old man later identified as Jorge Javier Gracia was driving around Kerman shooting into approaching vehicles. Gracia was found guilty in October 2018 of six felonies in 2018 related to the shootings, The Fresno Bee reported.

Sgt. Hector Villarreal was driving through the city of 13,000 with his family while off-duty on Jan. 8, 2018, when he saw a passing driver stick a handgun outside a vehicle. The driver was targeting him, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said in a press conference.

Correctional Sergeant Hector Villareal and CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison.
Correctional Sergeant Hector Villareal and CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison. (CDCR)

Villareal, in a video reenactment posted to Youtube by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said he pulled into a Fastrip gas station. The driver followed him.

"At that point, I was like, man, this guy wants to do something. His intentions aren't good at all," Villareal said in the video. "I tell my brothers, call the cops."

In the video, Villarreal said he pulled out a handgun and attempted to keep the shooter's attention on himself and away from his family. He called 911.

When police arrived, Villarreal ordered the driver to get out of the vehicle and onto the ground, he said in the video. Another officer cuffed the driver.

A handgun in the vehicle was matched to five of the shootings, Mims said in the press conference.

"Sgt. Villarreal went above and beyond the call of duty and put himself at great risk of harm that day, while also understanding the best hope for a peaceful resolution was to ensure the gunman focused his attention on him," California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Kathleen Allison said in a news release.

Newsom awarded Villarreal with a gold medal during Thursday's state employee medal of valor ceremony. Villarreal also received a medal of valor from the corrections department in 2019.

He joined the department in 2014 and currently works at Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, according to a news release.

No one was injured in the shootings by Gracia, most of which took place on Highway 145, but victims were traumatized by the experience, a prosecutor in the trial said, according to The Fresno Bee.

Gracia was sentenced to 354 years in prison. He is being held at California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility with parole eligibility in 2043, according to the corrections department.
  
(c)2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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