In a trial the judge called one of the most difficult cases he’s presided over, two former prison guards were acquitted Thursday of all charges against them in the death of a well-known North County vineyard manager following a 2014 fight outside a San Miguel bar.
Before a San Luis Obispo courtroom packed with family and friends of both the victim and the defendants, a jury found Travis Woolf, 37, of San Miguel and Sergio Aranda, 36, of Salinas not guilty of manslaughter and assault charges in the death of La Vista Vineyards manager Alvaro Medrano, 54, who suffered fatal brain injuries in a fight involving at least eight people outside the Elkhorn Bar on Sept. 7, 2014.
Both Aranda and Woolf faced a maximum of 11 years in prison if convicted.
After the verdict was read, much of the courtroom erupted in tears. Woolf and Aranda embraced their attorneys, Ilan Funke-Bilu and Gerald Carrasco.
Neither the defense nor Deputy District Attorney Craig Van Rooyen asked to poll the jury on their verdicts, and the jury avoided the impassioned scene by exiting through a back hallway.
A difficult case
Before the courtroom dispersed, Superior Court Judge John Trice noted that the case was one of the most difficult he had seen in more than 30 years as a judge and former prosecutor.
“It’s a very tragic case,” Trice said, before commending the attorneys for their professionalism throughout the trial and applauding the families of both parties for their respectful conduct in the courthouse.
After the courtroom had cleared, prosecutor Van Rooyen said he respected the jury’s decision but said the District Attorney’s Office felt the defendants were responsible for Medrano’s death, and prosecutors felt an obligation to his family to bring the case before a jury.
“The sheriff’s and our office gave it everything we could, and we believed strongly in this case from the beginning,” Van Rooyen said. “We wanted Mr. Medrano’s family to know law enforcement and our office wasn’t going to forget about this.”
He said surveillance video capturing the fight was pivotal in the decision by the DA’s Office to file charges against the two men. The video showed Woolf twice punching Medrano in the face — causing Medrano to fall to the ground — and also appeared to show Aranda stomping on Medrano’s head as he was lying there, unconscious.
“What I saw in the video was very, very different from what the jury saw,” Van Rooyen said.
Despite the verdict, Van Rooyen called the case one of the most important he’s ever prosecuted.
“I don’t regret at all filing this case or taking it (to trial),” he said. “We knew from the beginning that this was going to be hard-fought. And I think (Medrano’s) family understood that, too. But that didn’t affect how we pursued this case.”
Funke-Bilu, Woolf’s attorney, said the verdict was a somber victory.
“I don’t consider this a win,” he said. “Someone died, and I think the more appropriate way to describe it is relief that justice was done.”
Funke-Bilu said that he had to attend a hearing in another department immediately following the reading of the verdict and had not had a chance to speak with his client.
Carrasco, Aranda’s attorney, could not be reached for comment.
On a Justice For Alvaro Facebook page about an hour after the verdicts were read, supporters of Medrano’s family said in a post that they were “shocked and disappointed” in the verdict, which they called “as tragic and senseless as Alvaro’s death given the circumstances and evidence in the case.”
“Alvaro was an amazing father, husband, grandpa, and friend who touched thousands of lives in so many positive ways,” the statement said. “He was the most kind, compassionate, selfless person we had ever met.”
The post continues: “Our hearts, thoughts and prayers go out to Alvaro and his family today. We ask that … you all continue to support Alvaro family during this continued difficult time.”
Facts of the case
Aranda and Woolf were correctional guards at Salinas Valley State Prison at the time of the bar fight but have since been terminated, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Both had pleaded not guilty, claiming Medrano gathered his friends to rough them up following some kind of disagreement inside the bar.
During the trial, jurors heard testimony from Dakotah Lovelace, Medrano’s son-in-law, who was with Medrano at the bar before participating in the fight. Lovelace testified that he thought Woolf and Aranda — who were drinking with a third guard who was not charged in the case — were “gang-affiliated” and that they instigated the fight by calling him and Medrano names and racial slurs as they sized them up.
However, Lovelace admitted to initially lying to sheriff’s detectives about the extent of his injuries because he didn’t want the case “swept under the rug” becauase of Woolf and Aranda’s occupations.
The bartender who worked the Elkhorn that night testified that while she didn’t see any of the actual fighting, Medrano — who she said she knew as a bar regular and described as a “very nice man” — started the fight after leaving the bar and then returning with friends.
Woolf did not take the stand, and evidence of his past violence at bars was not allowed to be presented, but Aranda testified in his own defense that he was horrified when he later saw surveillance footage taken outside the bar that shows him appearing to stomp on Medrano’s head after Medrano had been knocked unconscious by a punch from Woolf.
Aranda admitted on the stand that it appeared he stomped Medrano. But Aranda also said that he hit his head during the fight and didn’t remember what followed other than seeing Woolf on the ground at one point.
Aranda testified that the fight came after a simple misunderstanding between the guards and Medrano and Lovelace, and that the guards tried to avoid a fight.
The third guard, Luis Ordaz, corroborated much of Aranda’s account of the night and expressed his remorse that the fight ended in tragedy.
“We are very, very sorry. We feel really bad for (Medrano’s) death,” Ordaz testified.