Defendent Gil Pena sits inside a Santa Maria courtroom alongside his attorney Robert Sanger
Defendent Gil Pena sits inside a Santa Maria courtroom alongside his attorney Robert Sanger. Pena has been charged with two counts of murder for a fatal crash in February on Highway 135 at Union Valley Parkway. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

An Orcutt man accused of driving a commercial truck while drowsy must stand trial for two murder charges stemming from a double-fatal crash on Highway 135 in February, a Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge decided at the end of a preliminary hearing this week.

Gil Patrick Pena, 57, was ordered to stand trial for the crash that killed two men early Feb. 7 when his Sysco truck plowed into vehicles that were stopped for a red light on Highway 135 at Union Valley Parkway. 

Rickie Jay Motley, 60, of Orcutt, and his passenger, Jesse Donald Gluyas, 24, of Solvang, were killed in the crash. 

Several other vehicles also were involved in crash, but those drivers received minor injuries. 

Law enforcement officers contend Pena was driving while drowsy, and that he had medication in his system the morning of the crash.

A preliminary hearing for the case started Friday, continued Monday and concluded Tuesday morning when Judge Patricia Kelly determined that the evidence proved implied malice to justify Pena facing second-degree murder charges.

She said this included warnings on the prescription medicine bottles about the drowsy side effects, and prior unsafe driving incidents. 

During the hearing, the judge watched several video clips showing Pena on the morning of the crash, including a camera capturing him appearing to fall asleep while driving. 

A second camera on board the truck captured the deadly collision, prompting tears from the victims’ relatives in the audience.

Other video footage showed Pena driving erratically before the crash, and a recording from a business revealed Pena’s truck running a red light at Foster Road.

Investigators also determined that Pena’s delivery route called for a first stop at Merrill Gardens in the northeast section of the city. However, the truck driver was traveling the opposite direction at the time of the crash.

Tests revealed Pena had a blood alcohol content of 0.018, a level not reportable by some laboratories, according to testimony in the preliminary hearing. 

He also had valium, gabapentin and trazodone in his system, all of which list drowsiness among side effects.

“What we see in the video is Mr. Pena is impaired. … He can barely keep his eyes open,” Deputy District Attorney Stephanie Schoenburg said. 

She also presented evidence that Pena had been reprimanded at work for drowsy driving, and that he knew the dangers of getting behind the wheel in that condition.

“His actions resulted in what the defense refers to as an accident,” Schoenburg said. “The truth was it was inevitable. “

Defense attorney Robert Sanger argued against the murder charges, questioning whether the evidence supported implied malice. 

Most driving under the influence cases leading to murder charges include a high blood alcohol level and prior DUI conviction, factors that are missing from this case, Sanger said.

Pena went to work on Feb. 7 despite being sick and not working the day before. 

“He was trying to be a loyal employee,” Sanger said.

The defense attorney noted tests revealed the medications were at therapeutic levels.

“If he was popping pills he would not be at the low end of therapeutic levels,” Sanger said. 

Sanger also disputed allegations arising from Pena’s stop at the 7-Eleven store, where the man can be seen taking pills while drinking from a can with a silver bottom, which law enforcement officers believe to be beer.  

“There’s absolutely no evidence he was drinking beer when he was taking pills,” Sanger said. 

He contended manslaughter charges would be more appropriate in this case, adding that Pena has expressed remorse.

The preliminary hearing included testimony from several Sysco employees, and the judge later warned the company’s attorney to protect all records related to Pena and the crash.

“I’m concerned what I’m hearing about compliance,” the judge told Sysco’s attorney, who sat in the audience for the hearing.

Pena remains in custody at the Santa Barbara County Jail and was ordered to return to court Dec. 31.

Pena and Sysco are named as defendants in two civil lawsuits filed by the families of the men killed in the crash. 

Motley’s family filed a civil lawsuit against Sysco and Pena in April with that case set to return to Judge Tim Staffel’s courtroom Feb. 25. 

In September, Gluyas’ family also filed a civil lawsuit naming Sysco and Pena as defendants. A case management conference for the second lawsuit is planned for Feb. 18 before Staffel.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.