The 2001/02 season was the year of Getafe’s promotion back into Spain’s professional leagues, the last campaign in which they were as low as the Segunda B, Spain’s third tier. It was also the year of the locker that was never used.
One week before the team’s first match of the campaign, tragedy struck. Shortly after 3:00am in the early morning of Sunday 26 August 2001, Sebastian Gómez Garrido, known to all as Sebas, was shot dead 11 days before his 26th birthday by an off-duty policeman on a beach in his home province of Castellón.
The next evening, more than 3,000 people attended a vigil at the Iglesia de San Jaime in Vila-real. Some had known the centre-back since childhood and they rubbed shoulders and shared tears with teammates who had only met the charismatic player a few weeks previously at the beginning of pre-season. Yet Sebas left an impression on everyone and the grief hung in the air as real as the east coast humidity. “I couldn’t believe it and I still think this is all just a bad dream,” said Juanma Pérez, Sebas’ teammate and flatmate.
It wasn’t just a bad dream, though. Sebas really was dead and his locker was going to remain empty for the rest of that season, his boots unmuddied and his shirt too pristine as they hung there as a tribute. Flowers were regularly placed at his locker too. It was a nice touch, but flowers should never need to enter a football club’s dressing room.
It all started after Getafe finished an excellent pre-season in Segovia. Following relegation from the Segunda to the Segunda B in 2001, the Azulones were determined to secure a bounce-back promotion under new coach Felines. The summer workouts went well and Sebas impressed, having just returned from a loan at Gandía the season before.
Getafe’s technical secretary, Enrique Jurado, liked Sebas’ confident aerial play and 1.94m frame, an essential requirement in a centre-back for the badminton-esque ball’s-in-the-air football of Spain’s third tier. Jurado even claimed that Sebas was captain material and that he had the potential to make it all the way to Spain’s top division.
Content with the pre-season work, Felines granted the entire squad a few days off with a week and a half to go until the start of the new season. Each player went home to spend some time with family and friends, which in the case of Sebas meant travelling east to Vila-real in Castellón. It meant catching up with old friends by the region’s beautiful beaches and soaking up the late August sun before the long and hard season that lay ahead.
Meanwhile, a police officer named Pablo had a similar idea. Like Sebas, he was based in Madrid and made the trip towards the Mediterranean for some summer downtime with his wife in Benicàssim, a short drive from Vila-real. The officer was 43 years old, had two children and had been in the police force since 1978, even receiving 30 official commendations over his more than two decades serving the public.
In 2000, he’d studied forensic sciences and even earned a certificate as the police officer of the month around that time. According to his colleagues, it was rare that he would pull out his gun.
Sadly for Sebas and his family, rare doesn’t mean never. As the last Saturday of that 2001 August turned into Sunday, Sebas and Pablo’s paths crossed and Sebas’ path in life ended on the beach of Gurugú.
The beaches of this part of Spain are lined with beach huts, called chiringuitos, and both Sebas and Pablo spent that Saturday evening enjoying the chiringuito atmosphere. Sebas, as a tall footballer in his mid-20s, stood out and started talking with some girls around the same age. For a single guy of that age, this was the most normal thing in the world.
After some hours, he and one of the girls went for a solo walk and left their friends behind as they strolled along the shore. The beach hut was still very much in sight, less than 100 metres away, as they stopped by the waves. If this was a movie, this would be the time for Jennifer Warnes to start singing.
It was at this point that Pablo appeared. Finding the toilets at the chiringuito too busy and too dirty, he decided to walk down to the shore to pee. As he did so, a fateful argument broke out between the police officer and the footballer.
Sebas never was able to give his version of events, but the story pieced together by the lawyers was that the player spotted Pablo standing by the shore with his hand down by his private parts, too close to the young couple for comfort. It’s at this point that the Getafe player is believed to have asked “what are you looking at, voyeur?”
Up until now, most versions line up. Then, there are slightly differing accounts. Pablo and his lawyers maintained that Sebas attacked the officer and wrestled him to the ground. Sebas’ friends and family insisted that he was not the type to react in that way.
In the view of the family’s lawyer, Jaime Sanz de Bremond: “I think if he got angry then it was because there was a man alongside them doing something he shouldn’t have been doing. If you’re with a woman at the shore and then you’re suddenly joined by a man with his penis out then, well, maybe Sebas got the wrong idea. Each person can make up their own mind about this. It’s certainly strange that this man went to urinate right where there was a couple on a large beach where he had all the space he could have wanted to their left or their right.”
What happened next turned this scuffle into tragedy, as the off-duty officer grabbed his revolver. “I hadn’t carried it all summer but, one week before this, two individuals tried to mug me in the area where that bar was,” the officer later explained. “I am a policeman and the laws for police and security forces say that I am an authority to intervene 24 hours a day and that if a police officer doesn’t carry their firearm then they could be vulnerable.”
Next came the shots. According to Pablo, he first fired three warning shots into the ground. Then, three bullets were fired into Sebas’ vital organs, with damage also reported on his wrist, suggesting he’d tried to cover the first or second wound with his hand. Here, the versions don’t match up as the girl Sebas was with claimed she only heard three total shots. Moreover, a search of the crime scene with metal detectors failed to find the three bullets supposedly fired into the sand.
What happened next with Sebas was inevitable. He died. On the beach. On a night when he had been enjoying some time off with friends with his whole life ahead of him.
What happened next with Pablo was suspicious. The officer fled the scene, got in a car, drove to the port and threw his revolver into the sea. According to Sebas’ family lawyer, the pistol would have hit the water before the footballer had even been declared dead, just a little further along the shore.
“I did that in the heat of the moment, after having brought the revolver with me that night,” the officer later said against the accusation of trying to destroy the evidence. He later directed the authorities to the area where he had thrown the weapon and, after two days of work from the police divers, they recovered the gun.
It was Pablo who turned himself in to the local authorities that day, although not before returning to his residence and changing clothes. His wife washed the bloody clothes her husband had been wearing with stain remover. She did so “unintentionally”, they later claimed.
After the mourning and the funeral, attention turned to the courts. The process took almost two years yet Pablo was eventually sentenced to four years in prison in May of 2003, with 120,000 euros in damages to be paid to the family. The prosecution had sought ten years and the defence two years, but the judge settled on four years. Citing aggressive behaviour from Sebas, the police officer’s lack of previous incidents and the police officer’s confession and regret, this reduced the sentence by two degrees.
Even then, the story wasn’t over. The defence appealed all the way to Spain’s supreme court, but the verdict was upheld. Then, when talk of a pardon was later brought up, Sebas’ brother-in-law Oscar Rubert collected approximately 18,000 signatures against this proposal and turned this petition in to a court in Vila-real. “Our family just want him to do the time for what he did and to spend the time left on his sentence in jail,” Rubert said.
Even though the police officer served his time long ago and even though we’re now coming up to the 20-year anniversary of this tragedy, the possibility of such a scenario happening again is real. In the aftermath of Sebas’ murder, Spanish TV show Las Claves del Crimen (The Keys to the Crime) studied the case. In among the show’s Addams Family-esque deep and dramatic piano notes, the panel discussed whether police officers should be allowed to carry arms when off duty, when on holiday and when out drinking. The consensus was that this isn’t right.
However, the 35-year-old law that permits this, the Ley Orgánica 2/1986, still exists. Police officers in Spain may still choose to carry a firearm while off duty if they wish to do so, given their responsibility to intervene when witnessing a crime even if they’re not on the clock.
In some parts of Spain, the local laws have been adjusted to change this and carrying a firearm is not prohibited for police officers once they finish their shift. However, that’s not the case across the country. A police officer can still carry a weapon on a night out, on a holiday, on potentially the last night of somebody’s life.
“Sebas was a big guy, but it was his heart that was the biggest,” the player’s family said of the footballer. Sadly, we never got to see that imposing centre-back form part of Getafe’s journey to the top.
By Euan McTear @emctear