Two Cabrillo High School wrestling coaches — along with the sport’s techniques and philosophy — are on trial for the alleged assault of a student by three of his fellow teammates last year.
Former head coach Chad Johnson and former assistant coach Matthew Giles were charged with three misdemeanors stemming from a Dec. 9, 2013, incident involving three team captains and a wrestler. The coaches were charged with battery on a minor and contributing to the delinquency of minors.
The three team captains — referred in court by the first names of Nico, Kodey and Jose — testified Monday in a Santa Barbara County Superior Court in Santa Maria during the jury trial before Judge James Rigali.
At the end of the day, Deputy District Attorney Paul Greco rested his case, and Rigali tentatively ruled in favor of the defense attorneys’ motion to drop some charges. But the judge instructed both sides to return to court at 9 a.m. Tuesday for a final ruling.
A sophomore student claimed that three team captains assaulted him at the direction of the coaches. Before the criminal charges were filed March 7, Fabian Realpe and his mother, Hilda Rico, earlier filed a civil lawsuit against the men plus a third coach, Chuy Medrano, and the Lompoc Unified School District.
The three captains, each taking the stand at different times Monday, testified that they came up with the idea of the unsanctioned wrestling match involving Fabian after discussion among themselves.
A few days before the incident, Fabian was involved in an off-campus fight, reportedly while defending his girlfriend. He also had missed practices and had poor grades, prompting Johnson, the head wrestling coach, to tell the captains to “deal with it.”
Johnson had high standards for his wrestlers, Nico testified under questioning from Johnson’s defense attorney Michael Scott.
“He wanted us to exceed the minimum expectations,” Nico told the jury.
After practice on Dec. 9, 2013, the captains talked to Fabian about how his actions reflected poorly on the team.
“We just told him that what he did made the team look bad,” Kodey said.
The three decided to conduct an “ironman” — consecutive wrestling matches with Fabian participating in each one. Before the coaches left, Giles poked his head through the doorway and said, "Don’t leave any marks on his face.”
“He said it in more of a joking manner,” Nico said under questioning from Giles’ defense attorney, Adrian Galvan. “I took it was as kind of weird, though.”
The team members typically hold ironman matches several times a week.
“The ironman on Dec. 9, would you describe it as a wrestling match or a beat down?” Johnson’s defense attorney asked Nico.
“I would describe it as a wrestling match,” Nico said.
The ironman match stopped because Fabian had a bloody nose while wrestling Nico, after already taking on the other two captains. Fabian alleged one captain slammed his face into the mat up to 30 times.
“Did you put Fabian’s face into the mat?” Greco asked.
“Yes, I did put his face into the mat,” Nico said.
But he later said under questioning by Scott that putting an opponent’s face into the mat is a legal wrestling move that Nico has done, and had done to him, several times. The victim also claimed he was punched, but Nico denied seeing another team captain punch Fabian.
“I would have been angry at Kodey because that’s not what we do in wrestling,” Nico said.
Bloody noses, broken bones and bruises are commonplace in wrestling, the three captains said individually.
Nico told of one bloody nose at the beginning of a tournament. He continued wrestling after stemming the flow of blood.
“It’s hard but you have to deal with it,” he said.
After the ironman, Fabian shook hands with the opponents, although the team captains admitted that is common practice in wrestling.
But the team captains said Fabian didn’t seem upset.
“He just smiled at me when I saw him in the restroom,” Jose testified.
Cabrillo administrators disciplined the three team captains and ordered them to write letters of apology. Temporarily suspended from the wrestling team during the season, they were allowed to return before the season ended.
Greco read part of the Nico’s apology letter to Fabian.
“The actions I took were in no way befitting of a wrestling captain,” Greco read from Nico’s letter of apology, before asking, “Do you believe that?”
“Yes, sir,” Nico responded.
With one team captain heading into the Army and another going into his senior year with a high grade point average plus a class schedule with four Advancement Placement courses, Giles’ attorney argued that none of the captains is a delinquent.
But Greco questioned why these “model students” are suddenly in trouble if they weren’t encouraged by the adults to take the actions.
In pushing for dismissal of three counts, Scott said there wasn’t any evidence that Johnson directed the ironman to occur. He argued that the charge of battery requires being physically involved or aiding and abetting.
“There’s no evidence my client told them to do the ironman,” Scott said.