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Man Will Face Trial for Murder Charge in Fatal Orcutt Shooting Behind Elmer’s Bar

An Orcutt man will face trial on charges he fatally shot a father of two behind Elmer’s bar earlier this year, ​Santa Barbara County Superior Judge Gustavo Lavayen ruled Thursday at the end of the preliminary hearing in the case. 

Lavayen ruled that enough evidence exists for Jonathan Highley, 36, to stand trial on the charges or murder and assault with a deadly weapon.

During the hearing, the victim’s wife talked about facing the family's first holiday season without Anthony “Tony” San Juan, 43. 

Highley was arrested March 4 for allegedly shooting San Juan in the head, after being involved in multiple altercations inside and outside of Elmer's bar in Orcutt, authorities said. 

During the preliminary hearing’s first day on Dec. 8, four Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies testified about what witnesses said about the incidents leading up to the shooting.

As the preliminary hearing began, the prosecution and the defense stipulated that a single gunshot wound to the head killed San Juan, who was found dead in the parking lot behind the bar on the 100 block of East Clark Avenue. 

While deputies testified about various fights involving the defendant, San Juan was not involved in any of the three altercations, Detective Wayne Flick confirmed under questioning by Deputy District Attorney Anne Nudson. 

Orcutt man Jonathan Highley, seen here at a November court hearing, will be held to answer on charges of murder and assault with a deadly weapon in the shooting death of Tony San Juan. Click to view larger
Orcutt man Jonathan Highley, seen here at a November court hearing, will be held to answer on charges of murder and assault with a deadly weapon in the shooting death of Tony San Juan.  (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Over the objections of defense attorney Mark Owens but with the judge’s permission, San Juan’s widow made a victim impact statement in court, noting she knew it would not affect the outcome of the hearing.

“The devastating impacts of the loss of my husband are just beginning to unfold, and it is immensely more difficult during this season,” a crying Sara San Juan told the judge. “The senseless and incredibly selfish decision that Mr. Highley made on March 4 has left us heartbroken, more so than I can describe in words.”

Trying to celebrate Thanksgiving as a family brought a sense of loss and sadness they could not disguise, she said. 

Decorating for Christmas meant another reminder of loss, since their tree would not include gifts for him.

“My son didn’t know what to do with his father’s stocking when we came across it while unpacking,” she said. “We hung it anyhow, to remember him and celebrate what we have left of him, which are only memories.”

She recently asked their children what they most missed about their father and they answered in unison: “Fun,” she said.

“Their father did everything to ensure every day was happy, meaningful and positive for them,” San Juan added. “I can only wonder what Jonathan Highley’s children, especially his own biological son, will remember about their father when asked what they remember most.”

Several months ago, Highley’s wife, Mayra Perez, pleaded no contest to being an accessory to the crime, receiving a jail sentence plus probation.

Sara San Juan also delivered a statement at Perez’s sentencing hearing, but noted this is the first time Highley has heard in court about the shooting victim, “his passion for life, his family and his heart for others.”

As Tony San Juan’s family and friends continue to attend court hearings, his wife said she can’t help but wonder who Highley has for the holiday season.

“As I can only assume, he will also be thinking about my husband as he sits alone in his cell during this season of family, friends and, most notably, love,” she said.

“This experience has, and continues to, teach me so much about loss and sadness, but also about hope and the good in people,” Sara San Juan added. “Considering two very evil people came into our lives and shook our world beyond comprehension, we will spend our holidays together, celebrating what we have, and looking forward to a year of healing and rebuilding.”

Highley, who remains in Santa Barbara County Jail custody,  will return to court Jan. 10 to be arraigned on the charges of murder and assault with a deadly weapon plus special allegations including use of a firearm. 

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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