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Monday, January 21 , 2019, 12:14 pm | Fair and Breezy 61º


Jurors Hear from First Witnesses in Old Town Orcutt Murder Trial

Orcutt man Jonathan Highley is charged with fatally shooting Anthony San Juan behind Elmer's bar last year

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Defense attorney Mark Owens stands next to his client, Jonathan Highley, who has been charged with the fatal shooting of Anthony “Tony” San Juan in a parking lot behind Elmer’s bar in Old Town Orcutt in March 2017.  (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

An Orcutt man charged with the killing of a St. Joseph High School graduate and father of two in March 2017 sucker punched two people inside Elmer’s bar and fought another person outside before the fatal shooting “in cold blood," the prosecuting attorney said during her opening statement in Santa Maria court Tuesday.

Santa Barbara County Superior Court jurors heard the prosecution’s opening statement in the trial of Jonathan Highley, 36, who has been charged in connection with the shooting of Anthony "Tony" San Juan, 43, in Old Town Orcutt parking lot.

They also heard from two witness — bar patrons who recalled interactions with Highley, including a woman who said the defendant pointed the gun at her.

Defense attorney Mark Owens reserved his opening statement, deciding to wait until after prosecution presents evidence. 

In her opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Anne Nudson spelled out the series of incidents, none involving San Juan, leading up the fatal shooting.

“Ladies and gentlemen, at the end of all the evidence I am confident that you’ll find that there’s no justification, there’s no excuses, and there’s no defenses for the murder that Mr. Highley committed that night and for the assault with the firearm he committed…” Nudson said. 

After delivering what Nudson called sucker punches to two other men, Highley was booted from the bar, tried to re-enter, and then ended up in another fight in the parking lot where he was knocked down. 

Highley ran inside his nearby home, grabbed a gun and returned to the parking lot behind Elmer’s bar, Nudson said in court.

“What’s interesting about this, and what you’ll hear over the course of this trial, is that the victim, Mr. San Juan, was not involved in any altercation at all that night, was not involved with defendant at all,” Nudson said.

People who had been with Highley recall running when they saw the defendant armed with a gun, and one remembers the “shocked look” on San Juan’s face. 

As he also fled, San Juan fell and hit his head on a railing between the alley and parking lot.

“At some point he was crawling along the gravel of the parking lot and the grass under the railing. You’ll see the gravel in his hands and his knees and the grass stains on his toes,” Nudson said. 

“Ladies and gentleman, the evidence will show that as Mr. San Juan was trying to get away in that parking lot the defendant comes up behind him and, in cold blood, shoots him one time in his head,” she said. 

A neighbor who heard the hubbub outside began recording with her smartphone, although the video was too dark.

“But what’s important is what you can hear, and what you can hear is Mr. Highley say, ‘I shot a (expletive) in the head. What the (expletive) am I going to do?’” Nudson said. 

The trial’s first witness, Kurt Mahelona of Santa Maria, testified about the defendant’s behavior, including seeing him drinking beer from a pitcher and the altercations leading to Highley’s eviction from the bar. As the bouncer escorted Highley out the back door, an unidentified customer shouted at the man.

“When that guy said, ‘Get out of here you fat (expletive),’ he just snapped,” Mahelona said of Highley.

The brief fight outside the bar, with Mahelona’s brother-in-law, knocked Highley to the ground and sent him heading for his residence.

Later, a female bar patron smoking outside heard a boom and turned to see the defendant standing over a motionless San Juan, according to court testimony.

The woman, the trial’s second witness, ran to San Juan to help, but received no response to her question asking if he was OK, and she then realized he had died.  

She chased Highley, who walked calmly to his house, the woman, crying at times, testified Tuesday afternoon.

“He stopped and turned around and pointed (the gun) at me,” said the woman, who was referred to only by her first name in court.

In fear for her life, she told Highley she was a mom.

“He just said you’re lucky, and shut the door,” the woman said. She identified Highley, the defendant sitting in the courtroom, as the man involved in the incidents she described. 

The woman is expected to continue testifying when the trial resumes Thursday in Judge Gustavo Lavayen's courtroom. 

Hours after the March 4, 2017, shooting, Highley was arrested with his wife, Mayra Perez, while they were attempting to flee, according to authorities.

The mother of four pleaded no contest to being an accessory after the fact. She has since been released from county jail but landed in custody of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

San Juan, who graduated from California State University, Fresno, worked in the ag industry as a chemical marketing manager with Crop Production Services on the Central Coast. A GoFundMe page started after the shooting raised more than $100,000 for the man's wife and two children. 

The trial is expected to last through November. 

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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