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Pathologist Testifies Marilyn Pharis Died from Blood Clots Blamed on Hospital Stay Due to Attack

Forensic doctor takes witness stand in trial of 2 men charged with murder in violent 2015 attack

Dr. Manuel Montez, staff forensic pathologist for the Santa Barbara County, testifies Tuesday about the autopsy he performed on Marilyn Pharis after she died following a violent attack. Two men are on trial for murder in connection with her death. Click to view larger
Dr. Manuel Montez, staff forensic pathologist for the Santa Barbara County, testifies Tuesday about the autopsy he performed on Marilyn Pharis after she died following a violent attack. Two men are on trial for murder in connection with her death. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Marilyn Pharis was the victim of a violent attack that sent her to the hospital where a blood clot took her life, a forensic pathologist testified Tuesday in the trial of two men charged with the woman’s death last year. 

Dr. Manuel Montez, forensic pathologist for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, testified Tuesday in the Superior Court trial of Victor Aureliano Martinez (aka Victor Aureliano Martinez Ramirez), 30, and Jose Villagomez, 21.

The men are charged with first-degree murder and several special circumstances stemming from the assault on the 64-year-old Pharis in her North Dejoy Street home in Santa Maria on July, 24, 2015.

She died eight days later at the hospital.

During the autopsy, Montez said he noted injuries that appeared to show Pharis had been strangled and smothered during the attack, with bruises of varying colors across her body. 

But blood clots that formed in her leg and broke off to travel to her lungs caused her death, Montez said. 

“In my opinion, the reason she was hospitalized, the reason she had that hospitalization stay with those treatment modalities and died, is because she’s in there because of an assault,” Montez said under questioning from Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen.

Because she was assaulted, Montez said, the manner of death was deemed to be homicide. 

In the days before she died, Pharis complained her leg was hot and swollen, symptoms of blood clots that Montez said formed because she had been immobile since being hospitalized for the attack and suffering complications from her known cardiac condition, an irregular heartbeat.

“The physiological and psychological stress of the trauma is going to have an effect on her heart,” he said, adding a violent attack can exacerbate a cardiac condition.

Doctors treating Pharis in the hospital contemplated putting her on blood thinners, but did not initially do so because of the assault and concerns about her damaged airway.

“Just because the assault is over doesn’t mean the injuries have stopped,” Montez said. “At any point post assault, she could develop edema, or swelling of the airway, and then have an emergency medical issue because she can’t breathe so it has to be monitored.”

Patterns spotted in the bruises on her body suggested some contusions were caused by fingers pressed against the skin, Montez said. 

Bruises around her mouth led Montez to believe her attacker applied some type of force in an attempted suffocation, he said, before talking about a photo of a cut inside her lip.

“Although this injury itself is very subtle, it’s very important,” Montez said, adding that it shows the force applied to her mouth.

Additionally, the hyoid bone, a horseshoe-shaped bone in her neck, had been broken in the attack, Montez said, adding that the damage came from  “significantly violent forces” applied to the victim’s body.

The broken bone plus eye injuries are classic signs of strangulation, Montez added.

Graphic pictures showing Pharis with bruises on her face, neck and chest were shown in court as the doctor testified.

But defense attorneys tried to attribute the cause of death to medical mismanagement by physicians, noting an ear, nose and throat specialist’s report that Pharis did not have swelling in her neck. 

Attorney Michael Scott, who represents Villagomez, asked whether it would have been safe to administer blood thinning medication after a CT scan failed to show internal bleeding.

“I can’t answer the question because I’m not treating her,” Montez said. “But going to how it was reported in the medical records, although there was no internal trauma, thereby she did not need elective surgery, they were worried about her bleeding and compromising her airway with what was damaged in the neck.”

Scott also asked the doctor if he knew whether the blood clots existed before July 24, 2015.

“The only way we know that is by history, history and physical exam,” Montez said, adding that Pharis did not report leg pain or swelling upon admission.

Attorney Lori Pedego, who represents Martinez, asked if Montez reviewed reports on the sexual-assault tests taken from the victims and her client, including those where Pharis reportedly denied a rape occurred.

“I don’t recall her denying it. I believe she just didn’t remember or wasn’t sure,” Montez said. 

He later said she did not have any injuries on her body that could be linked to a rape.

One special circumstance faced by the men alleges a rape occurred during the attack.

Under questioning from Pedego, Montez also testified that Pharis’ body did not reflect any specific injuries from a hammer, although the vast number of bruises she suffered meant he could not rule out a hammer was involved.

On Tuesday afternoon, Cpl. Michael Huffman talked about interviews with Martinez, who connected Villagomez to the incident. Villagomez later was taken into custody when he was linked to a bike Martinez has described. 

The preliminary hearing, during which Judge John McGregor will rule whether enough evidence exists for the men to stand trial, started Monday and will resume at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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