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Testimony begins in case of fatal brawl at San Miguel bar

jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Two off-duty prison guards facing manslaughter charges in the 2014 death of a well-known North County vineyard manager were acting like “gangbangers” inside a San Miguel bar before a fatal brawl ensued outside, the alleged victim’s son-in-law testified Tuesday.

However, the son-in-law also admitted to initially lying to officers and the news media, exaggerating the extent of his own injuries so the incident wasn’t “swept under the rug” because it involved correctional officers.

Sergio Aranda, 36, of Salinas, and Travis Woolf, 37, of San Miguel, each face charges of manslaughter and assault for the Sept. 7, 2014, fight outside the Elkhorn Bar that killed Alvaro Medrano, 54, of San Miguel. Both were correctional officers at Salinas Valley State Prison at the time of the fight.

Though evidence and testimony presented in pretrial hearings suggest that Medrano was pushing for a fight, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office argues that Woolf delivered a final blow that sent Medrano to the ground, where he struck his head and was lying unconscious when Aranda began stomping on him.

Medrano died of blunt force trauma injuries at a local hospital later that day.

Aranda and Woolf have pleaded not guilty, claiming Medrano rounded up a posse of up to five others to rough up the two following a disagreement inside the bar.

Both were terminated from their guard jobs in April 2015, according to a prison spokesman. Court records obtained by The Tribune show that Woolf had been in at least three prior fights at separate bars and had been banned for life from one of them because of fighting.

I was under the impression they were gang-affiliated.

Witness Dakotah Lovelace, about defendants Aranda and Woolf

Superior Court Judge John Trice has received 17 letters in support of Woolf from friends and family members, many of whom have packed the courthouse in a visible show of support during the trial so far. Medrano’s family has also attended all the hearings, sitting on the opposite side of the courtroom.

Medrano’s family has created a “Justice for Alvaro” Facebook page. Medrano, who leaves behind five adult children, was a well-known vineyard manager at La Vista Vineyard in Paso Robles and worked as a consultant for other vineyards.

In a standing room-only courtroom Tuesday, the jury heard from Dakotah Lovelace, Medrano’s son-in-law, who was playing pool and drinking beer with Medrano prior to the fight.

Lovelace testified that he and Medrano were playing pool when he was approached by Aranda, who questioned him about the tattoos on his arm and called him a “little bitch.” Lovelace said he was scared by Aranda and Woolf, who he thought were gang members based on their attitude, the sports jerseys they wore, and ultimately, the way they fought.

“I was under the impression they were gang-affiliated. The way they talked and dressed,” Lovelace said. “They sure felt like it.”

Though it was not clear from testimony presented Tuesday what started the tension between the guards and Medrano, Lovelace said at one point Woolf used a racial slur for Hispanics and asked what they were doing in “his bar” before Aranda temporarily calmed the situation by buying Medrano and Lovelace a round of beers.

Under cross examination by Woolf’s attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu, Lovelace admitted to initially lying to the police, and later the news media, about the fight and the extent of his own injuries. He told police following the incident that Woolf head-butted him and threw him to the ground like a “rag doll.” He admitted Tuesday that wasn’t true, though he said Woolf did punch him in the neck and he at some point briefly lost consciousness before coming to and running away.

Lovelace said he lied because he was scared.

“It wasn’t because you were trying to convince the authorities you were the victim instead of the aggressor?” Funke-Bilu asked, to which Lovelace said no.

Under questioning by Aranda’s attorney, Gerald Carrasco, Lovelace gave another explanation for lying: He was concerned the incident would get “swept under the rug” because Aranda and Woolf were correctional officers.

Jurors also heard emotional testimony from Danielle Boatwright, who was bartending alone that night. Boatwright testified under questioning by Deputy District Attorney Craig Van Rooyen that she went outside the bar after hearing the commotion but never saw anyone in either group get punched or kicked.

She testified that some members of Medrano’s group took off running north on Mission Street. She said she then saw Medrano lying motionless on the ground and called 911 requesting an ambulance.

She grabbed a bottle of water from inside the bar and splashed it on Medrano’s hands and neck.

“I told him the police were on their way and that help would be here soon,” Boatwright said, wiping away tears. “I didn’t want to move him.”

She said she couldn’t tell if Medrano was breathing when police arrived.

Testimony continues Wednesday in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

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