Crime

Driver in deadly ‘spice’ crash was irresponsible, prosecutor says as trial begins

Tanner Noah Mengore, left, sits next to his lawyer, Ilan Funke-Bilu, during opening arguments Wednesday in Mengore’s vehicular manslaughter trial.
Tanner Noah Mengore, left, sits next to his lawyer, Ilan Funke-Bilu, during opening arguments Wednesday in Mengore’s vehicular manslaughter trial. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Opening arguments in the trial of Tanner Noah Mengore — the Los Osos man accused of crashing a vehicle in October 2014 while high on synthetic marijuana, leading to the deaths of a 22-month-old and a 17-year-old — began Wednesday in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagner, who is prosecuting the gross vehicular manslaughter case, said the entire case can be summed up with the theme of “decisions, responsibility.”

In Mengore’s case, “it is really more about irresponsibility and poor decisions,” Wagner said.

Mengore has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Wednesday began with the prosecutor’s opening statement, and defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu said he would deliver his opening argument after the state rests its case.

On Oct. 25, 2014, Mengore was the driver of a borrowed Chevrolet Avalanche, with Wendi Brito Gallardo, 21, Michael Brito, 23, Alberto Brito, 17, and Mason Simmons-Gibson, 22 months, in the vehicle as passengers, according to law enforcement. The group allegedly drove to Cambria to purchase synthetic marijuana, also referred to as “spice.”

On the way back on Highway 1 between Cambria and Cayucos, the Avalanche struck a berm and left the road, rolling several times before coming to a rest. All four passengers were injured in the accident, and Alberto Brito and Simmons-Gibson later were declared dead. Mengore, the only person in the vehicle to be restrained by a seat belt, emerged from the accident with minor injuries.

Wagner alleged in his opening arguments that Mengore’s recklessness — allegedly consuming spice before driving and failing to ensure that his passengers were properly restrained — was the direct cause of the fatal accident.

“(Mengore) took a hit of spice about a half-hour before he lost control of the Chevy Avalanche,” Wagner told the jury.

Wagner emphasized that only Mengore was restrained and that Simmons-Gibson, a toddler, was not in a car seat.

The prosecutor acknowledged, though, that “there’s more blame to go around.”

(Mengore) took a hit of spice about a half-hour before he lost control of the Chevy Avalanche.

Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagner

Brito Gallardo, who was entrusted with watching her toddler nephew, pleaded no contest to child endangerment in January and agreed to testify against Mengore on behalf of the state. She is one of two dozen witnesses the state says it potentially could call.

First to testify on Wednesday was California Highway Patrol Officer Russell de Ases, who said he has investigated between 800 and 1,000 crashes in his 17-year career in law enforcement.

De Ases was the first officer to arrive on the scene, where emergency responders were already working to treat all five of the vehicle’s occupants.

The highway patrolman said that when he arrived, Mengore was sitting in the Avalanche, seat belt still buckled, while a firefighter treated him.

De Ases described a chaotic scene, with passing vehicles swerving to avoid striking witnesses. He said he had to rush to take witness statements but made a point to remember that Mengore was wearing his seat belt.

At Wagner’s request, de Ases identified Mengore in court Wednesday as the person he saw behind the wheel.

Another detail de Ases recalled: a large branch from a cypress tree.

The officer said the branch originally was between 10 and 12 feet off the ground. De Ases said that when Mengore’s vehicle struck the berm, allegedly traveling at 91 mph, the truck went flying and struck the branch.

“And it was sheered off,” de Ases said.

The trial for Mengore has been scheduled to last up to three weeks.

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7929, @andrewsheeler

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