Is driver in Cuesta Grade crash guilty of murder — or was he ‘showing off’? Jury will decide

Gino Lopez, 23, of Arvin was convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter for a DUI crash on the Cuesta Grade in April 2016 that killed 16-year-old Wasco resident Emily Reyes.
Gino Lopez, 23, of Arvin was convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter for a DUI crash on the Cuesta Grade in April 2016 that killed 16-year-old Wasco resident Emily Reyes.

A 23-year-old Arvin man’s fate is in the hands of a San Luis Obispo jury after attorneys in his DUI-related murder trial on Thursday finished presenting their closing arguments.

The District Attorney’s Office accuses Gino Lopez of second-degree murder for the death of his 16-year-old passenger Emily Monique Reyes, alleging he acted with conscious disregard for human life when he was drinking beer and driving down the Cuesta Grade on Highway 101 at speeds as fast as 120 mph.

”It looks like the defendant was using the highway as his own personal NASCAR track,” Deputy District Attorney Michael Frye told the jury.

But Lopez’s defense attorney, Trace Milan, argued that Lopez simply made a dangerous lane change while speeding, and that his slightly-above-the-legal-limit blood alcohol content and chain of custody issues with his blood and breath samples call into question if he was even drunk.

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“We see them on the road every day,” Milan said. “It’s a regular event for a (21-year-old) to be driving like he thinks he’s going to live forever.”

Lopez’s case is what’s called a “Watson murder” trial, named after the advisement DUI offenders must sign that says they acknowledge they may face a second-degree murder charge if they drive drunk in the future and someone dies as a result. Lopez was convicted of misdemeanor DUI in Kern County about nine months prior to the fatal crash, according to court records.

In addition to the murder charge, Lopez faces charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, driving under the influence causing injury, driving with a 0.08 or higher blood alcohol content, leaving the scene of an accident and driving on a suspended license. Lopez concedes the latter charge, Milan said.

With the murder charge alone, Lopez faces at least 15 years to life in state prison.

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 told The Tribune.

Emily Reyes (2)
Emily Reyes, 16, of Wasco was killed in a car accident on the Cuesta Grade on Friday night. Reyes graduated from Grizzly Youth Academy in San Luis Obispo in December. Courtesy photo

Lopez 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, before changing lanes unsafely and causing a collision, allegedly, with at least one other car and a guard rail.

Reyes, who was riding in the rear passenger seat without a seat belt, was ejected after the car was struck by a Volvo. Reyes was declared dead in the roadway from severe head injuries.

Lopez and one passenger attempted to run away from the crash by escaping down the western hillside that abuts the highway, but they eventually walked back to the site and Lopez was arrested.

Witnesses in the trial included other motorists on the highway that day, as well as CHP officers who responded to the scene, an Arvin police officer who gave Lopez his Watson advisement in 2015 and county vehicle mechanic experts.

Several motorists testified to seeing Lopez’s car fly by them before they came upon the crash site. Others testified to seeing a pair of young men dumping cans of beer out of the smashed Honda following the crash.

Another passenger, Henry Aguilar, was not charged in the case and testified against Lopez, saying he told Lopez to slow down.

In closing arguments, Frye argued that Lopez committed an act that caused the death of Reyes, which would not have occurred if not for Lopez’s conscious disregard for human life.

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Aside from drinking while driving, Frye said Lopez also knew or should have known that his modified older-model car was unsafe to drive, much less speeding and swerving in and out of traffic. A mechanic testified that Lopez’s brake pads were completely shot and that the tires wore against the car’s wheel wells.

“The defendant wasn’t the only cause of this accident,” Frye said. “It was his speeding, his lane-changing, his reckless driving.”

If jurors find Lopez not guilty of murder, they may still find him guilty of the manslaughter charge.

But Milan — who called no witnesses and relied on cross-examinations — told jurors that the prosecution did not prove the elements required for the murder or the gross manslaughter charges.

Milan told jurors that the fact that Lopez was intoxicated alone does not constitute gross negligence. He also noted that none of the motorist witnesses testified that Lopez was driving as if he were impaired.

“The only evidence brought forward is that he was driving fast. ... He was driving like someone who was showing off his new car to his friends,” Milan said. “Nobody said he looked drunk, nobody said he hit them. All they had to say was he passed them.”

Milan added that, two years after the crash, officials still did not appear to have a firm understanding of how the impacts actually occurred, with photos showing Lopez’s car crushed and mangled but other cars and semi trucks with very little damage. He noted that most of the motorists who testified contradicted each other about the crash.

“I’m still waiting for them to call the witness who’s going to prove (the crimes) beyond a reasonable doubt,” Milan said.

Deliberations resume Friday.

Be prepared when you hit the road. Here are some quick tips on what to do if you are in a car accident.

Matt Fountain 781-7909, @mattfountain1

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