Although Alvaro Medrano apparently gathered a posse to rough up a trio of prison guards, a judge ruled Friday that the guards can still be charged with causing Medrano’s death outside a San Miguel bar.
In a vigorously contested preliminary hearing, defense attorneys for Travis Woolf, 36, and Sergio Aranda, 35, sought to have charges of voluntary manslaughter dismissed.
“Clearly, this is a self-defense case,” argued Denton Wilson, Aranda’s attorney.
But while evidence may suggest the victim pushed for a fight, Deputy District Attorney Dave Pomeroy said the guards willingly took the bait, then delivered fatal blows to the 54-year-old Medrano.
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“There is absolutely no evidence that they thought this was necessary to prevent themselves from getting injured,” Pomeroy argued.
Superior Court Judge John Trice not only suggested there was enough evidence to pursue a trial, he also suggested more assault charges could have been filed against the defendants.
Before the hearing began, more than 50 Medrano supporters arrived at the courthouse, many wearing shirts declaring “Justice for Alvaro.” The two defendants also had several supporters.
Much of the key testimony came from Danielle Boatwright, who was bartending at the Elkhorn on Sept. 7. On that day, the two defendants, along with a third prison guard not charged, were at the bar watching football and listening to country music on the jukebox.
While Boatwright did not recognize the men — guards at Salinas Valley State Prison — she did recognize Medrano, who was at the bar with son-in-law Dakotah Lovelace. According to testimony, Lovelace was “mad-dogging” the guards, giving them dirty looks. Some words were also exchanged, but the tension appeared to pass, especially when Woolf and Aranda bought Medrano beers.
Ten minutes after Boatwright announced a last call, Medrano and Lovelace left while the prison guards remained to finish their drinks.
Outside the bar, phone records show, Medrano called a friend, one of three men who arrived in a car.
While Medrano’s friends later referred to Woolf as “el Grande” — the big one — they called Medrano “don,” a term used for a respected member of the community.
Woolf’s attorney, Ilan Funke-Bilu, said that because of that status Medrano’s friends quickly came when summoned.
When Medrano and the others re-entered the bar, Boatwright said she looked at Medrano and said, “What are you doing? Please go home” and threatened to call police. “I said, ‘I want to go home to my kids. If I call the police, I can’t go home to my kids.’”
Medrano and the others did leave the building, but not before Medrano offered parting words to the guards: “We’ll be waiting for you.”
Boatwright said she urged the guards to stay inside the bar.
“I was definitely scared of the group that was outside,” she said.
At some point, she said, the guards followed. She remembers them trying to calm the crowd, which she estimated to be around six or seven men with Medrano. Surveillance videos showed five men.
Eventually, fighting began. Medrano’s friends said the guards were the initial aggressors. Woolf, who is 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, punched and headbutted multiple men, they said, most of whom were under 5-foot-8.
Medrano was 5-foot-6 and roughly 185 pounds.
A portion of the fight was captured on surveillance videos. In the videos, Medrano is seen approaching Woolf, who backs up slightly in a fighting stance. Woolf punches Medrano in the face, knocking Medrano down. Medrano gets up, stumbling, and walks toward Woolf again. As the two circle, Woolf punches Medrano again, sending him to the ground. As Medrano lay unconscious, Aranda walks by and kicks him.
Then, pursued by the guards, the men run from the scene.
“They all disperse like rats on a sinking ship while their leader, their don, is dying,” Funke-Bilu said, noting that the guards returned to check on Medrano.
Wilson noted that Medrano’s friends didn’t speak to police for five days.
When sheriff’s Deputy James Silverstein arrived on the scene, he said Woolf put his hands behind his back and said, “Arrest me.” When Silverstein asked why, he said, Woolf responded, “Because I hit him.”
Deputies didn’t arrest Woolf and Aranda that night but took them into custody 11 days later.
Medrano, who had a 0.29 blood-alcohol level, died of blunt force trauma before an ambulance could deliver him to a hospital.
Even if Medrano came to fight, Pomeroy said, the guards could have stayed inside the bar. The younger and bigger Woolf, he said, seized on an opportunity to fight.
“He just felt he was entitled to smack Mr. Medrano as hard as he could.”
According to a bio released by Medrano’s supporters, he came to America at age 12 “by himself with nothing,” eventually becoming a citizen and raising five children. He worked as a manager with La Vista Vineyards in Paso Robles.
In a statement released by Medrano supporters, Alvaro Medrano Jr. said the video made clear that the guards beat his defenseless father to death.
“We hoped for quicker arrests and now expect aggressive prosecution and maximum sentencing for those responsible,” he said.