The two men accused of vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving on motorcycles will stand trial in the death of their friend, who crashed into an oncoming vehicle, Superior Court Judge George Eskin ruled Wednesday afternoon.
Eskin said everything would have been different if Raul Ibarra, 24, had gone for a motorcycle ride alone March 2, miscalculated a tight turn on Foothill Road, and crashed into an SUV coming the other direction.
“But he didn’t go alone — he went with his two friends,” Eskin said.
Francisco Rodriguez, 23, and Jonathan Leon, 24, have been charged with felony vehicular manslaughter, participating in a speed contest causing injury, and reckless driving with great bodily injury, and are being held in custody at the Santa Barbara County Jail.
Despite vehement arguments by both defense attorneys — Ron Bamieh for Rodriguez and Deputy Public Defender Christine Voss for Leon — Eskin determined there was enough evidence presented at this week’s preliminary hearing to hold the men to the charges and go to trial.
He said there’s enough evidence to determine they were involved in a speed contest — or race — at the time of the collision, which is at the center of the prosecution’s case.
He did add that he was “troubled” the two men were still being held in jail even though they were lifelong residents of Santa Barbara and have no criminal records, and a bail hearing will be held later this week.
The case is being prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Sanford Horowitz. Arraignment is scheduled for April 4.
According to testimony, the three friends were riding along Foothill Road, with Rodriguez in front of the other two. On a blind curve, Ibarra crossed over the double-yellow line dividing the lanes and crashed into an oncoming SUV on the 2300 block.
The vehicle’s driver, James Gallagher of Montecito, testified Monday that he saw the motorcycle right before it hit. Gallagher got his car to the side of the road, told his family to call 9-1-1, and went to look for the rider.
Ibarra had gone down a steep embankment off the road after the impact. Nearby was Leon, who had locked up his front wheel and skidded off the road on his left side.
Later that day, Ibarra died of his injuries and police arrested Rodriguez at his home.
Rodriguez told police – investigating Officer Jaycee Hunter testified – that he had come back after realizing his friends were no longer behind him, then left the scene after talking to Leon, because he was concerned about not having a motorcycle license or insurance on the motorcycle.
Rodriguez initially ran when he saw police, which he later told Hunter was a stupid reaction. He also repeatedly denied being involved in a race, according to testimony.
On Rodriguez’ interview, Bamieh probed Hunter: “You told him he killed his friend, didn’t you?”
Hunter replied: “I may have.”
Hunter also interviewed Leon, who was still in the hospital at that time. Leon said he had locked up his front tire after seeing the collision, which caused him to slide and eventually launch off the road and down the embankment.
In his final argument to Eskin, Horowitz said that the men were grossly negligent in their speeding, reckless driving and failure to obey rules of the road.
Some witnesses reported seeing the riders speeding, and one man told police that all three motorcycles failed to stop at an intersection, instead driving into the opposite lane to pass his stopped car.
Driving around the witness at the stop sign alone constitutes three vehicle code violations, Horowitz said.
The motorcycles are “built for speed,” and many witnesses saw the bikes travelling close together in the area just before the collision, he said.
In a speed contest, it’s foreseeable that Ibarra and Leon would be trying to overtake each other and catch up to Rodriguez, who appeared to be ahead of the other two, he argued, adding that it makes both men liable for Ibarra’s driving conduct and death.
Rodriguez was “fleeing” the scene because he had a guilty conscience and didn’t want to get in trouble over his lack of license, he alleged.
“There’s no reason to leave the scene when your good friend, your childhood friend, is dead or dying.”
Here, Eskin interrupted to ask how Rodriguez would know about or be responsible for an accident that occurred behind him, by all accounts.
Horowitz replied that the answer was the knowledge of a speed contest, an inherently dangerous activity.
Bamieh called the prosecution’s theories in this case “ridiculous,” and condemned them for bringing up charges before the collision investigation is completed.
The accident occurred just over two weeks ago, and Hunter hasn’t finished his reports or calculated what speeds Ibarra or the oncoming vehicle were traveling, among other things.
He also pointed out that his own investigator – private investigator Mark Volpei – found five video cameras along the stretch of Foothill Road in question, and wondered why the prosecution or police hadn’t looked for any or tried to get footage.
Every witness – but one – reports the riders in a single-file line, which wouldn’t indicate any kind of racing, he argued. The prosecution is trying to hold Rodriguez responsible for an accident he didn’t hear or see, and allege that his driving made him liable for Ibarra’s collision, Bamieh argued.
“This case should stop now,” Bamieh told Eskin. “This is ridiculous.”
The collision only occurred a two weeks ago and authorities should “wait before putting people in custody for the death of their friend,” he said. “You’re changing lives and worlds without being done with your investigation.”
Voss concurred, and said the case is a “tragic, tragic accident that there are no winners in.”
She echoed Bamieh’s comments about the quick arrests. Leon was arrested and taken to jail hours after being discharged from the hospital, when the investigation wasn’t—and still isn’t—finished.
She didn’t want to blame the victim, but pointed out that the primary factor in Ibarra’s accident was his own driving, according to testimony.
“There’s no good reason for us being here,” she said.
Eskin determined there was enough evidence to continue with charges related to a speed contest, and said such behavior is dangerous to everyone: themselves, other motorists and pedestrians.
“Someone’s going to get killed,” Eskin said. “Someone’s going to get injured.”
“It is a tragedy. It is a tragedy. And I am troubled by the fact that we have two young men who lost a dear friend from a mutual decision, whether it was spoken or not, of a speed contest on Foothill,” he said. “I really hope the parties can work out a resolution.”
Voss has filed motions to downgrade the felony charges to misdemeanors, but Eskin declined to discuss the matter Wednesday. He did mention that her points were well-argued.
She still could make those arguments in the future, she said outside the courtroom. It makes a difference of potentially facing state prison versus county jail for Leon, she said.
It could have immigration impacts for him, too; Even though he has legal documentation, he is not a citizen and for some reason has an Immigration and Naturalization Services hold on him so he can’t make bail, she noted.
After the hearing concluded, Bamieh was asking Rodriguez’ friends to come to the bail hearing on Friday. Unlike Voss, Bamieh hasn’t tried to get the felony charges downgraded to misdemeanors.
He believes in “all or nothing” and wants the charges thrown out completely, he said.
“I was hoping the judge would end it today.”