Witnesses in a murder trial on Monday described seeing a pair of young men dumping cans of beer out of a smashed Honda Civic as their 16-year-old friend lay dead or dying on Highway 101 following a crash on the Cuesta Grade in 2016.
Gino Lopez, 23, is on trial after pleading not guilty to a charge of second-degree murder as well as other charges including gross vehicular manslaughter, driving under the influence resulting in injury or death, hit-and-run resulting in injury or death, and driving on a suspended license.
If convicted of the second-degree murder charge alone, the Arvin resident faces 15 years to life in state prison.
The case against Lopez is known as a “Watson murder” case, so named after the advisement DUI offenders must sign that says they acknowledge if they drive drunk in the future and someone dies as a result, they may face a second-degree murder charge.
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Lopez was convicted of misdemeanor DUI in Kern County about nine months prior to the fatal crash, according to court records.
He is accused of driving with a blood alcohol content of at least 0.10 on April 19, 2016, while speeding in a modified 1994 Honda Civic southbound down the Cuesta Grade with three passengers in the car, before causing a crash that killed passenger Emily Monique Reyes.
Reyes of Wasco was a 2015 graduate of Grizzly Youth Academy in San Luis Obispo who had planned to join the U.S. Marine Corps, her mother previously told The Tribune.
According to the California Highway Patrol, Lopez lost control and crashed into a metal guardrail before colliding with a tractor-trailer just south of TV Tower Road.
A 2016 Volvo then crashed into the Honda, causing Reyes to be ejected from the vehicle. She was later pronounced dead at the scene. Another passenger, 19-year-old Brittany Arreola, also of Wasco, suffered major injuries but survived. The driver of the Volvo suffered minor injuries, and the truck driver was not injured.
Both Lopez and 18-year-old passenger Henry Aguilar, also of Wasco, suffered non-life-threatening injuries and were reported as being seen throwing beer cans out of the crashed Honda.
Lopez was arrested after he was found walking with Aguilar along the hillside. He has remained in San Luis Obispo County Jail custody since his arrest in lieu of $25,000 bail.
Aguilar was not charged in the case and is listed among potential witnesses.
The trial against Lopez began Friday with opening statements and witness testimony, which continued Monday with CHP Officer Gerardo Trejo, who testified to finding cans of beer and bloodied clothes down the western hillside abutting the highway, near the scene of the crash.
Michael Nevares of Courtland testified that he was broken down on the side of the highway when a dark Honda Civic with what sounded like “loud exhaust pipes” roared past his vehicle.
Nevares testified that a CHP officer who arrived to help him get his car back on the road warned him to be careful ahead because of a “really bad fatal accident.”
“That’s why I’m here (today),” Nevares said on the stand Monday. “Because I told him, ‘Let me guess.’”
On the stand, Nevares could not recall or estimate how fast the Honda was going when it passed him on the side of the road. Shown a police report by Deputy District Attorney Michael Frye, Nevares recalled that he told the CHP at the time that the Honda was going at least 100 mph.
Crystal Chothia of Sonora testified that she was one of the motorists to call 911. Under examination by Deputy District Attorney Danielle Wheeler, Chothia said that she was a passenger in a large truck with several other people traveling in the middle lane when a dark-colored Honda raced past them in the slow lane.
When asked if she noticed anything unusual about the vehicle, Chothia replied: “Everyone did.”
“They were either going to get in a bad accident or a ticket,” Chothia said.
Soon, Chothia’s vehicle came upon the scene of the crash, and she described seeing someone inside the “smashed” Honda covered in blood and a girl lying motionless on the pavement in front of the car. Chothia said vehicles had to swerve to avoid running over the girl.
Chothia said she saw a male pulling Bud Light cans out of the floor area of the front seat of the Honda and “throwing them down the hill.”
Under cross examination by Lopez’s attorney, Trace Milan, Chothia said that, when passed by the Honda, she didn’t immediately think the driver was under the influence, but that he “looked like a Nascar driver, going down a hill.”
“I didn’t think he was drunk; I just thought he was a very fast driver,” Chothia said. “It didn’t cross my mind, until we crossed the scene and saw the beer cans.”
Another motorist, Randy Tos of Hanford, testified that he and his wife were driving southbound in the middle lane, and were closing in on the tractor trailer, which was to the right in the slow lane, when Lopez’s Honda came up at a high rate of speed in the slow lane behind the truck.
Tos testified that he could tell the driver was going to attempt to change lanes by squeezing bewteen his car and the truck. Tos hit the brakes, and the Honda pulled in front of him, but over-corrected and swerved underneath the tractor trailer, which came to a stop, he said.
“It’s one of those things — you try to avoid (a crash), then it’s over, and you wonder, ‘How did I avoid that?’” Tos said.
Tos said he pulled over and ran back to the crash scene, where he saw a girl in the roadway, another passenger injured in the Honda, and two “panicked or excited” young men “extracting containers” of beer from the Honda.
Tos said he tried to get the men to stick around while an off-duty EMT tended to the injured, but they ultimately walked away from the scene, down the western hillside despite witnesses yelling at them to stop, Tos said.
Asked whether he smelled alcohol on the two men, Tos said the smell was “in the air.”
In an Aug. 16, 2016, preliminary hearing, CHP officer Trejo, under cross-examination by Milan, testified that the Breathalyzer used on Lopez did not work properly and failed to print out a paper record of the results.
A crash reconstructionist also testified that the Honda was most likely traveling at 74 mph when Lopez hit the brakes, and said that two of the car’s brakes were in disrepair.
Trial testimony is scheduled to resume Tuesday.
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