On Friday, nine days into the trial of Tanner Noah Mengore, who is charged with causing two deaths while under the influence of synthetic marijuana, the defendant took the stand in his own defense.
Under questioning from his attorney, Ilan Funke-Bilu, Mengore described why on the afternoon of Oct. 25, 2014, he got into the vehicle that later would strike a berm, leave the road, fly high enough to shear a branch off a tree 10 feet off the ground, and then roll several times before coming to a rest.
Two passengers, 2-year-old Mason Simmonds-Gibson and 17-year-old Simon Alberto Brito, died in the accident, while two others, Wendi Brito Gallardo, 21, and Michael Brito, 23, were seriously injured.
Mengore, the only person in the vehicle wearing a seat belt, emerged with minor injuries from the crash on Highway 1 north of Cayucos.
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Mengore said his decision to drive the Brito siblings and their toddler nephew from Los Osos to Cambria to purchase “spice” — which are herbs sprayed with a synthetic cannabinoid — was motivated by a desire to protect Simmonds-Gibson.
“Because I knew they were going to go with me or without me,” Mengore said, and he believed their best chance of making a safe trip was with himself behind the wheel.
Just as spice was the reason Mengore and the Britos made the trip to Cambria that day, Mengore said spice was the reason he had severed ties with that family the year before.
Mengore said he had lived with the Brito family in Los Osos since he was 19, even coming to be called “Tanner Brito” in the process, but that the family’s increasing drug use turned him off.
“The whole spice thing was what made me decide to leave,” Mengore said.
Moving out at 21, Mengore said he didn’t see the Britos, most of whom he had known since junior high school, for a year. Until the day they showed up at the tire shop where he worked.
Under cross examination, Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagner seized on Mengore’s employment, as well as his acknowledged past use of spice.
“True or false, you wouldn’t go to work at the tire shop with a spice buzz,” Wagner asked, to which Mengore said true.
Mengore also acknowledged being concerned about the 2-year-old not being secured in a car seat in the vehicle. In response to Wagner’s questioning, Mengore said his parents likely used a car seat for him when he was very young, as well as for his younger sisters.
Mengore told the jury that when he and the Britos arrived at the smoke shop in Cambria, he was asked by Michael Brito to secretly purchase a bag of spice on Brito’s behalf, so that Brito Gallardo and Simon Alberto Brito wouldn’t know he had more. Mengore said he agreed to do so.
Under cross examination, Wagner asked, “Michael Brito’s not here to defend or contradict anything you say,” which Mengore affirmed.
Though Michael Brito survived the 2014 accident, he was struck and killed by a car while crossing the street in Los Osos nearly a year later.
Mengore told Funke-Bilu that he took a hit of spice from a pipe shortly after it was purchased. He said he did so because he had already turned down an offer once, and he didn’t want to offend who he considered to be family.
“I could sense that negative impact coming on,” Mengore said.
After taking a hit, Mengore said he never felt anything from it, but he still spent the next 30 minutes walking to a nearby gas station, where he smoked a couple of cigarettes and bought tea and chips. When he returned to the vehicle, Mengore said Brito Gallardo was upset with him.
“We had to get Mason back to the house before (Brito Gallardo’s sister, Stacy Brito) got off work,” Mengore said.
Brito Gallardo had been entrusted with watching Simmonds-Gibson.
Mengore said that as he drove the Britos back to Los Osos, they started smoking spice in the vehicle. He then recounted traveling along Highway 1. He said he remembered several vehicles in front of him traveling at a high speed, a silver or gray sports car passing him at an even higher speed, and then nothing.
At least, until he awoke to a paramedic speaking with him.
“They were telling me, ‘Stay still,’ they were going to cut me out of the car,” Mengore said.
Mengore admitted to using cocaine and marijuana the night before the crash, as well as spice just before driving, but insisted throughout his testimony that he was never driving under the influence.
“I didn’t feel anything ever. Period,” he said.
At the conclusion of Mengore’s testimony, Funke-Bilu told Judge Michael Duffy that he rested his case. Duffy instructed the jury to return to court Monday afternoon, when Wagner and Funke-Bilu are expected to deliver their closing arguments.