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Trial Begins for Two Men Charged in Motorcycle Death

Jurors heard opening arguments Wednesday afternoon in the case against two Santa Barbara men accused of vehicular manslaughter in the death of their friend during a March 2 motorcycle ride.

Raul Ibarra, 24, died after colliding with a sports utility vehicle on Foothill Road while riding a motorcycle with friends Francisco Rodriguez, 23, and Jonathon Alvarez Leon, 24.

Rodriguez and Alvarez are charged with felony vehicular manslaughter, participating in a speed contest causing injury, and reckless driving with great bodily injury related to Ibarra’s death.

Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Jean Dandona reminded the 14 jurors — there are two alternates — that opening statements are not considered evidence, but outline the evidence that will be presented during the trial.

Prosecutor Sanford Horowitz said there would be a lot of evidence about what happened over a span of six to 10 seconds. He’ll be calling witnesses who were driving on the road, at residences near the road and at the Santa Barbara Tennis Club at the time just before and during the collision.

Footage from a security camera at 2360 Foothill Road shows the bikes drive by, and Santa Barbara police Officer Jaycee Hunter calculated the speeds at 74 mph for Rodriguez, who was in front, 69 mph for Ibarra and 67 mph for Alvarez, Horowitz said. 

It was just after this stretch of road where the collision occurred, on a blind curve near the tennis club.

Horowitz is trying to prove that the three men were racing — participating in a speed contest, trying to pull ahead of and pass each other — while the defense attorneys say the men were riding in a single-file line, but they were driving fast.

Rodriguez was riding in front, Ibarra in the middle and Alvarez behind. As the latter two approached a blind curve, Ibarra crossed over the double-yellow line into the opposite lane and collided with an oncoming vehicle.

Horowitz said evidence will show that Ibarra crossed over the line as some drivers do to get through a curve faster, by driving a straight line through the apex of a curve and accelerating out of it.

“When you’re at the apex you hit the throttle and boom, baby, you’re gone,” he said.

Ibarra and his bike were propelled into the air and he landed at the bottom of an embankment, “wrapped around a tree,” Horowitz said.

Alvarez hit the brakes, locked up his front wheel, and went into a slide along the road and over the side of the embankment.

The driver of the SUV, James Gallagher, was able to stop the car on the side of the road, checked that his wife and daughter were all right, and followed the trail of debris to find the motorcycle driver.

Other witnesses to the crash called 911, and several people from the tennis club ran up to Ibarra to render aid before emergency personnel got there, including a physician who placed a belt on Ibarra’s left leg as a tourniquet, Horowitz said.

Alvarez was up on the road when Rodriguez allegedly came back, talked to him briefly, and then left again.

Ibarra and Alvarez were both taken to the hospital, where Ibarra died of trauma from the crash later that afternoon.

Alvarez and Rodriguez were later interviewed and arrested by police, who also accuse Rodriguez of fleeing the scene of an accident.

Deputy public defender Christine Voss, representing Alvarez, said the case is about a tragic accident for three men who are like brothers.

“They are lifelong friends, and they have a commonality; they like motorcycles,” she said. “And they had a pattern. When they went out riding, Alex Rodriguez was first, Raul Ibarra second, Jon Alvarez third.”

None of them had very much experience, though Rodriguez had the most and rode first, she said. The security camera footage shows them riding in a single-file line, just as they always had, she added.

“These are not people who have been on bikes for 20 years; they were kids who like to go fast, and they did.”

On March 2, the three friends hadn’t even planned for a ride, she said.

They don’t own motorcycle gear, but always wear leather jackets and extra pairs of jeans when they went out together — and they weren’t this Saturday, when they cruised out to Goleta to visit a friend and returned by back roads, she said.

“These young men’s lives were permanently changed that day; you’re not going to hear any evidence of racing, you’re not going to hear any evidence of a speed contest. You’re going to hear about three young men driving really fast.” 

Rodriguez’s attorney, Ron Bamieh, said the investigators were biased in the case from the beginning, with a perspective that the case was about young men racing bikes on the back roads.

He called the case “ridiculous” and said a fourth friend, Ibarra’s cousin, will be testifying in the case about how the friends rode together: always single file.

When the collision happened, Rodriguez was ahead of the other two and pulled over to wait when he didn’t see them behind him, Bamieh said.

When Rodriguez backtracked, Alvarez told Rodriguez that Ibarra was badly hurt and that he should leave, since Rodriguez doesn’t have a motorcycle endorsement on his driver’s license.

If they were racing, it would make no sense that Rodriguez stopped to wait for his friends, Bamieh said.

In addition to vehicular manslaughter, Rodriguez is charged with felony hit-and-run for an accident he didn’t even see, Bamieh added.

After opening statements, Horowitz called to the stand his first witness, JP Domjan, a man who was driving on Foothill Road on the day of the accident.

Domjan was slowing down to stop at the three-way intersection at Foothill Road and Mission Canyon Road when he was passed by three or four motorcycles that blew through the area without stopping, he testified.

Domjan was startled when he saw them cross over into the next lane to pass him, and put on his brakes hard, almost getting rear-ended by the vehicle behind him, he said.

During cross examination, he had difficulty being specific about the time of day this happened, how fast the bikes were going and how many motorcycles he had seen — three or four.

Many people — in cars, trucks, and motorcycles — speed in the area and blow through those stop signs, he said.

He saw the accident scene later that day, and when he heard that motorcycles were involved, he mentioned his scare from earlier that day to police officers.

“I still don’t know if it’s the group you’re looking for, it’s just a group of bikes,” he testified.

The trial is scheduled to continue at 9 a.m. Friday.

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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