Whether a Los Osos man was “kicking caution to the curb” when he crashed a car carrying four friends after smoking synthetic marijuana, killing a teenager and a toddler, or whether the crash was a “genuine accident” caused by interfering passengers is now up to a jury to decide.
Tanner Noah Mengore, 24, is facing about 12 years in state prison if convicted of two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, one count of child abuse resulting in great bodily harm, and felony DUI resulting in great bodily injury.
Attorneys for both sides finished two days of closing arguments Tuesday afternoon in San Luis Obispo Superior Court in a case involving a crash on Oct. 25, 2014, when Mengore drove siblings Simon Brito, 17; Wendi Brito Gallardo, 21; Michael Brito, 23; and their 22-month-old nephew, Mason Simmonds-Gibson, to Cambria to purchase “spice,” or herbs sprayed with a synthetic cannabinoid.
The drug mimics the psychoactive effects of marijuana, but also can lead to rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion and hallucinations, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In order to legally sell the products, the packaging typically lists it as not for consumption.
Seriously, who brings a toddler on a drug errand?
San Luis Obispo County Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagner
According to testimony during the two-week trial, Mengore smoked the drug before driving the group onto southbound Highway 1 toward Los Osos. Near Cayucos, he lost control of the SUV while driving about 90 mph, hit an embankment and sent the vehicle airborne before rolling several times.
Simon Brito and Simmonds-Gibson, who was not in a car seat, were killed. Michael Brito and Brito Gallardo suffered major injuries. Mengore, the only person wearing a seat belt, suffered minor injuries.
Brito Gallardo, who was babysitting Simmonds-Gibson at the time, pleaded no contest in January to a misdemeanor charge of willfully causing harm to a child resulting in great bodily injury. Initially facing a felony, prosecutors reduced the charge in exchange for Brito Gallardo’s testimony.
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.
In his defense, Mengore testified Friday that he agreed to drive the car because he thought the group would go to the Cambria smoke shop without him, and that it would be safest if he drove. He admitted to taking a hit of spice about 30 minutes before getting into the vehicle.
Mengore testified that he didn’t feel any effects from the drugs, but the next thing he remembered, he was talking to a paramedic after the crash.
This man was stone cold sober.
Defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu
In March 2015, Stacey Brito, mother of Simmonds-Gibson, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Superior Court against the store, Paradise Smoke Shop. That case is scheduled to go to trial in November.
In his closing argument Monday, Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagner continued with a theme of bad decision-making that he laid out in his opening, listing a series of decisions Mengore allegedly made that resulted in the deaths. He said Mengore showed “flagrant disregard and callous indifference” for the lives of his passengers.
“There was virtually zero regard for the consequences,” Wagner said. “Seriously, who brings a toddler on a drug errand?”
He warned jurors that Mengore’s defense attorney, Ilan Funke-Bilu, would try to “play the blame game” and pass responsibility to others in the car.
Funke-Bilu began his argument late Monday and continued Tuesday. He called the crash a “genuine accident” and told the jury “it’s not a crime to be 22 years old.”
Riffing on Wagner’s “blame game” comment, Funke-Bilu said the blame began immediately following the crash when “the CHP blamed my client without knowing the full story.”
“They could not wait to blame my client for crimes he did not commit,” Funke-Bilu said.
The attorney argued that Mengore was not driving impaired. THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana and spice — levels in Mengore’s blood were low and documented as “not well established” in a toxicology screening after the crash. An emergency room technician also noted that Mengore was “awake and alert,” and his heart rate and other vitals appeared normal.
“This man was stone cold sober,” Funke-Bilu said.
Funke-Bilu said Mengore’s passengers — who were smoking spice in the vehicle — began “slapping and punching” Mengore as he drove, with the crash occurring after one passenger grabbed the steering wheel. Wendi Brito Gallardo had previously testified that Simon and Michael Brito began slapping Mengore to get his attention.
In his rebuttal, Wagner pointed out that Mengore’s blood was first taken three hours after the crash, and that THC blood levels would have somewhat diminished.
Wagner further added that Mengore did not testify that a passenger grabbed the wheel when he was on the stand.
“There are no facts, no evidence (of a wheel grab),” Wagner said. “It’s unsupported.”
In order to find Mengore guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, the jury must find that he drove while under the influence, committed an infraction while driving (such as speeding), that he committed that infraction with gross negligence and that the negligence caused death.
In addition to acquittal, the jury can also find Mengore guilty of several lesser offenses, such as vehicular manslaughter with ordinary negligence.