San Miguel defendant: ‘It looks like I stomped him’

Sergio Aranda, 36, of Salinas, before testimony begins May 10 in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.
Sergio Aranda, 36, of Salinas, before testimony begins May 10 in San Luis Obispo Superior Court. By Joe Johnston

A former Salinas Valley State Prison guard testified that he hit his head and didn’t remember much about a fight that left a North County vineyard manager dead, and was “in disbelief” when he saw surveillance footage that appears to show him kicking the unconscious victim.

Sergio Aranda, 36, of Salinas, is facing manslaughter and assault charges, along with Travis Woolf, 37, of San Miguel, in the September 2014 death of well-known North County vineyard manager Alvaro Medrano, who died after a brawl outside the Elkhorn Bar on Mission Street.

The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office argues that Woolf delivered a devastating punch that sent Medrano to the ground. Medrano struck his head and was lying unconscious when Aranda stomped him, the prosecution says. Medrano died of blunt force trauma injuries at a local hospital later that day.

Aranda and Woolf have pleaded not guilty, claiming Medrano rounded up four of his friends to rough up the guards following a heated exchange inside the bar. Both were terminated from their guard jobs in April 2015.

Before Deputy District Attorney Craig Van Rooyen rested the prosecution’s case on Monday, he called Sheriff’s Deputy James Silverstein, one of the first responders at the scene that night. Silverstein said that when he arrived, he found Medrano lying unconscious in a parking space next to the sidewalk. After administering chest compressions, Silverstein said he talked to Woolf, who was standing on the sidewalk and allegedly smelled of alcohol.

“He said, ‘Arrest me,’ ” Silverstein testified. When Silverstein asked why, Woolf replied, “Because I hit him,” according to Silverstein.

On Tuesday, defense attorney Gerald Carrasco called his client, Aranda, to the stand to testify.

Aranda recalled the events leading up to the fight, saying that he and another Salinas Valley State Prison guard, Luis Ordaz, drove from Salinas to San Miguel to Woolf’s house for a day of watching football and drinking.

He recalled having “a little buzz” after drinking an estimated six to eight beers over several hours, when the trio drove to check out a nearby property Woolf was interested in. Afterward, Aranda said, the plan was to go back to Woolf’s before “calling it a day,” but the group decided instead to stop for some beers and another football game at the Elkhorn, a bar Aranda said he had never been to.

The trio had another two or three beers when Medrano and his son-in-law, Dakotah Lovelace, arrived and started playing pool, he testified. The guards noticed Lovelace’s tattoos, which piqued their curiosity.

Aranda said he had seen “similar shadings” at the prison, and, not knowing what kind of crowd came into the Elkhorn, he approached Lovelace to “take a better look.”

When asked why, Aranda said: “To see if they were gang-related — if they were prison tats.”

We are very, very sorry. We feel really bad for (Medrano’s) death.

Luis Ordaz, a friend of Aranda and Woolf who also participated in the fight

He testified that as the two complimented each other’s tattoos, Woolf walked up and jokingly asked, “What are you (racial slur for Mexicans) talking about?”

“That’s when (Medrano’s) expression changed,” Aranda said. “I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. That’s just how we get along.’”

Aranda said tensions cooled for a time and Medrano and Lovelace left, but soon they returned with at least three other men. The bartender told them last call had passed and urged them outside, he said.

Aranda said that Medrano told the group he would be waiting for them outside. When he went outside to calm the situation, Aranda said, Medrano told him to “bring out the white boy.”

He testified that he hit his head during the fight and didn’t remember much other than seeing Woolf on the ground at one point. But when he was shown surveillance video of the fight weeks later, he said he was disturbed.

“I was in disbelief. It was a hard watch,” Aranda said. “It was shocking to me.”

Under cross-examination by Deputy District Attorney Van Rooyen, Aranda was asked for his reaction to the part of the video where, prosecutors allege, he kicked Medrano while Medrano was on the ground unconscious.

“It looks like I stomped him,” Aranda said.

“You stomped on his head, didn’t you?” Van Rooyen pressed.

“I don’t know where that foot landed, sir,” Aranda replied.

On Thursday, jurors heard testimony from Ordaz, who mostly corroborated Aranda’s testimony about the guards hanging out during the day. Ordaz, who is the only one of the guards to admit he was “drunk,” said that he joined Aranda in scrutinizing Lovelace’s tattoos at the bar.

Discussing the fight, Ordaz testified that he landed a few punches and originally thought he had hit Medrano. He said the fight ended when the guards chased four of the men down the street.

“When we came back, we saw Medrano on the ground,” he said.

Van Rooyen asked Ordaz why he later told a sheriff’s detective, “I should have known better.”

“At (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation), they expect us to be responsible. This ... being drunk in public, they don’t want us to be in that situation,” Ordaz said. “We are very, very sorry. We feel really bad for (Medrano’s) death.”

After stepping down from the stand, as he walked out of the courtroom, Ordaz apologized to Medrano’s children, who were sitting in the audience, for the loss of their father.

The defense is expected to rest following testimony Friday. Closing statements are expected to begin Monday morning.