Man linked to deadly gunfight on Tucson Amtrak train pleads guilty to drug, weapons crimes
Devonte Mathis was carrying marijuana when his partner fired at police, killing DEA Agent Michael Garbo & wounding 2 others
One of the men involved in a 2021 drug smuggling attempt that turned into a bloody firefight at the Amtrak station in Downtown Tucson pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiracy and carrying a firearm during a drug trafficking crime.
During the hearing in front of U.S. District Magistrate Judge Maria S. Aguilera, 24-year-old Devonte Okeith Mathis acknowledged he was carrying about 7 lbs. of marijuana and knew his partner, 26-year-old Darrion J. Taylor, was armed with two pistols — a .45-caliber Glock 21 and a .45 Para Hi-Cap P14— as they traveled through Tucson.
On Oct. 4, 2021, Mathis and Taylor were on an east-bound passenger train from Los Angeles when members of anti-drug task force boarded to search for narcotics, acting on a tip. As officials searched the train and interviewed passengers on the platform, Taylor got back on an Amtrak car. Three DEA agents sought to find Taylor and as they boarded he fired on them, shooting and killing DEA Agent Michael G. Garbo, a group supervisor and 16-year agency veteran.
Taylor wounded two other agents, identified in court documents only as J.C. and D.H.
Tucson police officers arrived and Taylor exchanged gunfire with them and barricaded himself in the train's bathroom. He was later found dead by Tucson's SWAT team after suffering multiple gunshot wounds to his "trunk and extremities," according to an autopsy by Pima County officials.
While Mathis was not armed and did not fire on law enforcement officials, under federal law he can be convicted because he was involved in a conspiracy and it was "reasonably foreseeable" the weapons could be used to hurt or kill someone during a criminal scheme.
A search warrant submitted after the incident linked Mathis to the marijuana, along with 50 packages of "Gooberz" marijuana edibles and other products. However, the court only referred to about 3.124 kilograms of marijuana carried by Mathis.
During the hearing Aguilera read Mathis' plea agreement and asked Mathis several questions, including one that caused him to balk.
"Did you know [Taylor] had a gun to keep the marijuana safe? Or to keep you safe?" Aguilera asked. Mathis balked, and Aguilera asked, "Why did he have the handguns?"
"I would say he had his own personal reasons," Mathis said. He spoke to attorney Stephanie Meade, and Aguilera re-framed her question, asking if Taylor was carrying two handguns because he believed someone would "try to rob them," or arrest them while Mathis was carrying the marijuana.
Mathis agreed, pleading guilty two felonies—conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana and using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.
He faces up to 10 years in prison according to the plea agreement submitted to the court, and will be sentenced on May 24. As part of the hearing, Mathis also agreed to forfeit the two weapons Taylor was carrying on the train along with three magazines.
"Yesterday was an important step in securing justice on behalf of a federal law enforcement agent," said U.S. Attorney for Arizona Gary Restaino. "We await the sentencing in this matter. In the meantime, we celebrate Michael Garbo's life of service, we mourn with his family and his colleagues at the Drug Enforcement Administration, and we remember his end of watch."
"We at the DEA are heartbroken by today's events and ask that you keep the families of the agents and task force officer in your thoughts and prayers," said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram after the shooting.
Garbo was a group supervisor and joined the DEA in 2005, and "served honorably for more than 16 years as a special agent and group supervisor combating criminal drug traffickers from the Nogales corridor to Kabul, Afghanistan," Milgram said in a statement.
A funeral for the fallen agent was held in Tucson on Oct. 8, 2021.
Tucson Mayor Regina Romero called the incident an "absolutely shocking act of violence" and ordered flags at all city facilities at half-staff to "honor the courageous actions of the deceased and the injured."
"My deepest sympathies go out to our federal partners at the Drug Enforcement Administration, who work side by side with our TPD officers on a daily basis to keep our community safe," Romero said at the time. "I want to thank the Tucson Police Department, including our SWAT team, who immediately responded and secured the scene."
"Garbo’s operational expertise, mentorship, and leadership were legendary in the Tucson community," Milgram said. "With unparalleled talent and courage, he carried out duties ranging from tactical instruction to serving as a member of the Phoenix Field Division Special Response Team. Across DEA, Group Supervisor Garbo was universally loved and respected for his leadership, and for his unrelenting passion to protect the safety of the American people. Above all else, he was a devoted and loving father and husband. DEA mourns the loss of our beloved colleague."
DEA, Tucson police had list of suspects before boarding train
The shooting took place around 20 minutes after Amtrak's east-bound Sunset Limited 2 arrived in Tucson around 7:40 a.m., then-Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus told reporters during a press conference after the shooting.
The train was traveling from Los Angeles to New Orleans and arrived carrying 137 passengers and 11 crew members, said an Amtrak spokesman. No one else reported injuries to passengers and crew onboard the train, and everyone had been evacuated, he said at the time.
Officers with the regional Counter Narcotics Alliance task force boarded the train that morning, and "made contact" with two passengers who were on the second level of a double-decker train car, Magnus said.
Magnus said officers with the anti-drug task force routinely board trains and buses to search for narcotics and several officers were conducting a "routine interdiction check.... checking for illegal guns, money, drugs" aboard the train.
However, court documents indicated the officers were following up on tips and specifically searching for the suspects on the train. According to court records, Garbo and the other officer boarded the train with a list of "several" people on the Sunset Limited, including Mathis and another man, initially identified only as D.T. in court records but now known to be Taylor.
Federal agents and Tucson police officers, including a DEA agent identified as J.C., "observed" Taylor and Mathis on the train, sitting in the same row, but on opposite sides of the aisle, police said in court records.
J.C. saw Mathis retrieve a blue colored backpack, a black drawstring bag, and a white plastic bag, and he moved these bags a few rows away and then returned to his seat, court records showed.
The official "approached" Mathis, and asked him if those were his bags, which Mathis denied. "J.C. stated that he knows disassociation with baggage to be a common trait of drug traffickers," according to court documents. Mathis denied the bags were his, and J.C. took the bags off the train, and found two packages of bulk marijuana.
The two DEA agents, including Garbo and another agent identified only as S.F., spoke to Taylor and had a drug dog sniff several bags on the station's platform.
At some point, Taylor got back onto the train. The agents boarded to find him, and as they approached him, he shot Garbo, killing him. He wounded J.C. the other special agent, "several times," according to court records. Each of the wounded officers "suffered multiple gunshot wounds," said DEA officials. One of the officers taken to the hospital was reportedly shot in the face, sources said.
Video captured incident
In video captured from a streaming camera at the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum, next to the train station, around 8 a.m., there can be heard two quick shots, just before a law enforcement officer with a leashed dog who had been standing nearby quickly approached the train, entering a passenger car.
While two people stood just outside the train waiting, someone yelled "get out of here, get out of here," and another gunshot could be heard.
The officer, dressed in plainclothes and wearing a police vest, retreated from the train with his dog in tow, and headed for cover. Someone leaned out of a the doorway of the train car that the officer had just left, and apparently fired several more shots from a handgun in the direction of the officer and his dog, including one that loudly ricocheted off metal.
The suspect, later identified as Taylor, fired his pistol and "barricaded himself in the bathroom" on the lower level of the train car, Magnus said at the time. After some time, "it was determined that the suspect in the bathroom was in fact deceased."
Garbo was "taken by TPD officers in the back of a patrol car" to Banner University Medical Center, while the injured TPD officer was taken to the hospital by EMS workers, Magnus said. After Garbo died, his body was transported from the scene by staff with the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office, accompanied by a motorcade of TPD officers, riding motorcycles with flashing lights.
Magnus tweeted later that the shooting was "horrific," and praised TPD officers "whose heroic actions undoubtedly saved many lives."
They "literally ran toward the danger," Magnus said.