A man found outside a South County bar last fall did not die from a fatal punch, a defense attorney argued Thursday. Yet a judge suggested that the man who leveled the punch could have been charged with murder.
Ignacio Palomar, 36, of Oceano, faces a charge of voluntary manslaughter, plus several enhancements related to prior felonies. Prosecutors say Palomar punched Gregory Arthur Rustigian, 38, from behind on Oct. 2, causing a head injury that eventually led to his Nov. 7 death.
Palomar has pleaded not guilty.
According to the prosecution, Rustigian had been at Ralph and Duane’s Bar in Arroyo Grande on Oct. 2. During Palomar’s preliminary hearing in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Thursday, Arroyo Grande police Detective Dan Langstaff testified that Palomar was at the bar with two female cousins that night.
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One of those cousins, Rosa Lopez, allegedly told Langstaff that Rustigian had been drinking heavily and harassing her. Surveillance video from the bar showed Rustigian and Lopez together, Langstaff said.
“It looked to me like Mr. Rustigian was invading Miss Lopez’s space,” the detective testified. At some point, he said, Lopez gestured for him to stay back.
Lopez’s sister, Victoria Hernandez, told Rustigian’s friend that they needed to leave or Rustigian would be hurt. Meanwhile, Palomar allegedly told a bouncer he was going to “kick that guy’s ass tonight,” referring to Rustigian, Langstaff testified.
Palomar allegedly waited for the two men to leave. Roughly 30 feet from the door, Palomar punched Rustigian in the head causing him to fall to the ground, according to the prosecution.
Surveillance video showed Palomar following the two men out of the bar and returning shortly after, Langstaff said.
On Oct. 30, after barricading himself inside a Fresno residence, according to a prosecution motion, Palomar was arrested by a SWAT team armed with a K-9 dog.
After the punch, Rustigian was eventually airlifted to Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno, where a doctor told the family he would never be the same, according to a prosecution document. He would never talk again, the doctor said, and he would need a breathing apparatus the rest of his life. Rustigian had previously told his family he would not want to live as “a vegetable,” according to the document.
The family decided to remove Rustigian from life support, Langstaff testified.
Rustigian died Nov. 7, his obituary said.
While ruling there was enough evidence to pursue the voluntary manslaughter charge Thursday, Superior Court Judge John Trice said Palomar could have been charged with second-degree murder because the punch was intentional and Palomar knew it could be dangerous, possibly leading to death.
But Trace Milan, Palomar’s attorney, said the death cannot be connected to the punch.
“Punching someone once doesn’t seem to be inherently dangerous to someone’s life,” he told The Tribune after the hearing. “It’s obviously a tragedy. But we feel it’s being overcharged because of the sympathy for the victim rather than the severity of the defendant’s actions.”
Milan said alcohol could have contributed to Rustigian’s fall, which led to his head striking concrete.
“We know people who are intoxicated fall down and hurt themselves regularly,” he said in court.
Rustigian’s ailments including brain swelling and septic shock, Langstaff said.
Milan said the septic shock could have occurred as a result of a hospital complication. But eventually, he said, Rustigian died because he was removed from life support.
“It appeared he would live,” Milan told the court. “It was the family’s decision to take him off life support that ended his life.”
Palomar is a documented gang member with prior convictions for threatening witnesses, cruelty to a child, assault with a deadly weapon, battery and possession of a controlled substance.
He will appear in court again April 30.