A Los Osos man accused of causing the deaths of two people while driving under the influence of a synthetic drug called “spice” pleaded not guilty Monday to four felonies.
During his first appearance in San Luis Obispo Superior Court, Tanner Noah Mengore, 22, pleaded not guilty to two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, driving under the influence of a drug causing injury, and child abuse.
According to the CHP, on Oct. 25, Mengore had smoked spice, a mix of herbs and spices typically sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, before driving a carload of passengers that included three siblings and their nephew.
Around 4 p.m., the SUV that Mengore was driving at a high rate of speed veered out of control on Highway 1, near Cayucos, hit an embankment and went airborne before rolling several times.
Three of the four passengers were thrown from the vehicle. Mason Simmonds-Gibson, 22 months old, and Simon Brito, 17, were killed. Wendi Brito, a 19-year-old who was babysitting the toddler, and Michael Brito, 23, suffered major injuries. Mengore, the only person wearing a seatbelt in the vehicle, suffered minor injuries.
According to the CHP, Mengore admitted to smoking spice before driving. But Mengore’s attorney, Ilan Funke-Bilu, said he has seen no evidence that would lead a jury to convict his client.
“I don’t believe for one moment that he’s guilty of the crimes charged,” Funke-Bilu said.
The two deaths, Funke-Bilu added, will impact Mengore the rest of his life.
“My client is extraordinarily saddened,” he said. “He knew the decedents, and he knew them virtually as family. These people were very close to him.”
Mengore has no criminal history, he added.
“He’s just a rock-solid young man who contributes to our society,” Funke-Bilu said.
Mengore, who posted bail, is due back in court for a pretrial hearing Dec. 9.
While spice products remain legal throughout the country — the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency has only banned 20 out of 300 chemical substances used in synthetic drugs — lawmakers in various states have attempted to address the issue.
In Louisiana last month, state officials announced the ban of one synthetic marijuana compound that was associated with more than 125 people seeking treatment that month in the Baton Rouge area.
In New York City, the department of health announced this year that synthetic marijuana-related emergency room visits were up 200 percent in the first half of 2014, prompting Sen. Charles Schumer to request that the DEA ban the chemical substances used to make the drugs.