Driver in fatal Cuesta Grade crash to face murder trial

Gino Lopez, 21, of Arvin, is accused of driving under the influence when he caused a crash on the Cuesta Grade that killed 16-year-old Emily Reyes.
Gino Lopez, 21, of Arvin, is accused of driving under the influence when he caused a crash on the Cuesta Grade that killed 16-year-old Emily Reyes. Courtesy of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office

A 21-year-old Arvin man accused of driving under the influence and causing a crash that killed his passenger was seen throwing empty beer cans off the side of Highway 101 shortly after the collision, according to testimony presented in court Tuesday.

Gino Lopez is facing charges of second-degree murder, vehicular manslaughter and gross negligence, felony driving under the influence of alcohol, hit-and-run after causing injury or death and driving with a suspended license following an April 15 crash that killed 16-year-old Emily Reyes.

Lopez pleaded not guilty to all charges in May and has remained in custody in San Luis Obispo County Jail since his arrest in lieu of $25,000 bail.

At a preliminary hearing Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Michael Duffy heard testimony from two CHP officers who responded to the accident, as well as from a state accident reconstruction specialist, before ruling that enough evidence exists to move the case forward to trial.

Lopez is accused of driving a 1994 Honda Civic south on Highway 101, just south of TV Tower Road, on April 16 when he lost control, crashed into a metal guardrail and collided with a tractor-trailer. Lopez had three passengers: Reyes, 19-year-old Brittany Arreola and 18-year-old Henry Aguilar, all of Wasco.

A 2016 Volvo then crashed into the Honda, causing Reyes to be thrown from the Civic. The other two passengers suffered moderate to serious injuries.

On Tuesday, CHP Officer Jacob Scott testified that when he came upon the scene within minutes of the crash, Reyes was lying facedown on the road, which was partially blocked by the wrecked Honda. Scott said he was told by witnesses that the driver “appeared drunk” and was about 500 feet away, throwing beer cans off an embankment on the west side of the highway.

Scott said he walked down the road and saw Lopez and Aguilar ducking behind a guardrail. After the officer shouted at them, the men walked toward him, he testified. Lopez, who had suffered several injuries to his head and face, asked about Reyes and Arreola.

Another CHP officer, Gerardo Trejo, testified that several witnesses reported seeing the Honda race past them at estimated speeds ranging from 70 to 120 mph.

While on the roadside, Trejo interviewed Aguilar, who said he and Lopez had been drinking from a 30-pack of canned Budweiser during the drive from Bakersfield on their way to Pismo Beach. As they neared the place where the Honda ultimately crashed, Trejo said, Aguilar told Lopez to slow down.

“He said he was afraid they were going to crash ... He said that everybody (told Lopez to slow down),” Trejo said. “His statement was that Lopez told him to shut the (expletive) up.”

About an hour and a half after the crash, Trejo administered two Breathalyzer tests on Lopez, with both showing a blood alcohol content of 0.10, he said. The legal limit to drive in California is 0.08.

Under cross-examination by Lopez’s attorney, Trace Milan, Trejo testified that the Breathalyzer did not work as it was supposed to and failed to print out a paper record of the results. Trejo said he did not know when the Breathalyzer had last been calibrated.

Scott Peterson, the crash reconstructionist, testified that the Honda was most likely traveling at 74 mph when Lopez hit the brakes. He said the car had undergone several modifications and that two of the car’s brakes were in disrepair.

Despite its poor condition, the car’s state did not cause the crash, Peterson said.

In his closing statement, Milan questioned the legitimacy of the DUI charge and said prosecutors failed to prove Lopez committed any crime other than speeding.

“What we have here is a young man in a hurry to get to the beach, but by all accounts was in control,” he said. “All (witnesses) said was he’s going too fast.”

In explaining his ruling, Duffy noted previous testimony that Lopez had a past DUI conviction from January 2014 in Arvin, in which Arvin police at the time of his arrest gave him a verbal “Watson advisement.” In that advisement, the officer told Lopez that should a death result from him driving under the influence, he could be charged with murder.

“I do believe you were aware of just how dangerous it was to be driving under the influence of alcohol,” Duffy said before holding Lopez to answer the charges.

Reyes, the oldest of four children, had graduated from Grizzly Youth Academy in San Luis Obispo in December, her mother previously told The Tribune.

Lopez is due back in court for a second arraignment Oct. 4.

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @MattFountain1