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Judge Raises Questions About Culpability in Fatal Motorcycle Crash

Francisco Rodriguez, 23, and Jonathan Leon, 24 are charged with manslaughter in Foothill Road crash that killed another rider

In the second day of a preliminary hearing, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge George Eskin raised some key questions about the District Attorney’s Office’s case against two suspects in a motorcycle accident that led to the death of a third biker.

Francisco Rodriguez, 23, and Jonathan Leon, 24, are charged with manslaughter for the death of a third man who authorities say was riding with them on Foothill Road the afternoon of March 2.

Raul Ibarra, 24, crashed into a SUV driving the opposite direction and died from his injuries.

Authorities say subsequent investigation revealed that Rodriguez and Jonathan Leon were riding motorcycles along with Ibarra at the time of the crash.

Rodriguez and Leon have been charged with felony vehicular manslaughter, participating in a vehicle speed contest causing injury to Ibarra and reckless driving causing great bodily injury. Rodriguez has also been charged with leaving the scene of an accident.

According to testimony, Rodriguez was ahead of the other two riders, who were both injured in the collision with the vehicle.

Ibarra hit the vehicle and Leon’s front wheel locked up, sending him into a 120-foot skid along the roadway, according to testimony in the preliminary hearing, which will determine whether the case goes to trial.

Eskin asked prosecutor Sanford Horowitz if the speed contest is the “lynchpin” of the case.

“My concern is, what is it, other than engaging in a speed contest, that Mr. Rodriguez did to cause Ibarra to run into Mr. (James) Gallagher’s car?” Eskin asked.

Horowitz said the speed contest meant that Ibarra was speeding to catch up to Rodriguez, who was ahead of the other two drivers.

Eskin also asked about Rodriguez’s responsibility to stop at an accident that occurred behind him, the criminal liability based on Ibarra’s operation of a vehicle, and requested that Horowitz write him a brief about related cases.

“I’m wrestling with this,” Eskin said.

Santa Barbara police Officer Jaycee Hunter testified Tuesday that Ibarra had been driving at least 60 mph when he collided with Gallagher’s vehicle on Foothill Road.

Ibarra crashed into Gallagher’s SUV, and was thrown down an embankment near the Santa Barbara Tennis Club. He was taken to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and died from his injuries.

Hunter works on accident reconstruction and trains motorcycle officers for the Santa Barbara police. He is the investigating officer for prosecutor Horowitz’ case, and started his testimony Tuesday morning.

From his investigation, Hunter came to the conclusion that Leon was driving eastbound when his front tire locked up, sending him into a skid that eventually made the bike and rider “fly down” the embankment.

Leon appeared in court with his left arm in a sling and right arm in a cast, and reportedly was sent to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital after the accident with serious injuries.

Hunter calculated Leon’s minimum speed at 60 mph.

Horowitz is alleging that all three men were engaged in a speed contest — racing each other — at the time of the collision.

Hunter said there are formal speed contests with finish lines and crowds, and less formal ones with the participants just trying to beat each other.

Hunter described interviews with witnesses as well.

J.P. Domjan was at the stop sign on Foothill Road where it intersects the southern portion of Mission Canyon Road and saw three motorcycles approach from behind, Hunter said. Domjan told Hunter that the bikes were in a tight group, and instead of stopping, they crossed into the other lane to get around him.

Like other witnesses — in statements and on the stand — Domjan referred to the type of motorcycles as “racing bikes.”

Both defense attorneys— Ron Bamieh for Rodriguez and public defender Christine Voss for Leon — have consistently objected to the term, since the motorcycles driven by the defendants are street-legal.

Lorie White, who was watering plants at her home on the 2400 block of Foothill Road, said she heard loud engines and, as they passed, the pitch and volume of noise increased to what she told Hunter sounded “supersonic.”

After the noise increased, she told Hunter, she heard a “crash sound” and saw a white vehicle in a ditch at the side of the road about a block away.

Hunter also interviewed Charlotte Valentine, manager of the Tennis Club. Valentine saw three bikes pass by on Foothill Road from her place at the club’s front desk, Hunter said.

Soon after they passed out of her view, she saw a motorcycle and rider flying through the trees from the roadway to the embankment below, Hunter testified.

Because of conflicting attorney schedules, the preliminary hearing was continued to Wednesday morning.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli 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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