Joetopia

When an adult was needed at the Elkhorn Bar, prison guards weren’t it

Former Salinas Valley State Prison guard Travis Woolf, left, stands with his lawyer Ilan Funke-Bilu as he listens to the reading of the verdict acquitting him of manslaughter in the death of Alvaro Medrano following a fight outside the Elkhorn Bar in San Miguel on Sept. 7, 2014.
Former Salinas Valley State Prison guard Travis Woolf, left, stands with his lawyer Ilan Funke-Bilu as he listens to the reading of the verdict acquitting him of manslaughter in the death of Alvaro Medrano following a fight outside the Elkhorn Bar in San Miguel on Sept. 7, 2014. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

One thing was missing outside the Elkhorn Bar on that fateful September night in 2014 when a drunken fight resulted in the death of a North County vineyard manager: an adult.

Alvaro Medrano didn’t act with any sense or maturity when he challenged three Salinas Valley State Prison guards to a fight, and he paid for it with his life.

The posse he assembled brought no reason to the dispute and only made a bad situation worse.

And of course, Travis Woolf and Sergio Aranda, trained corrections employees who should have some skills at de-escalating conflicts, utterly failed to be the figuratively bigger men when they beat to death a stumbling, drunk man nearly 20 years their senior, according to a pathologist’s testimony and video presented in court.

On Thursday, the case reached a dramatic conclusion when a jury found Woolf, 37, of San Miguel and Aranda, 36, of Salinas, not guilty of all manslaughter and assault charges.

With that, the two former prison guards avoided their personal nightmare scenario of going to prison themselves and ending up on the wrong side of the bars.

But I have to wonder: Did they learn their lesson?

Will they watch how much they drink now? Will they realize that, despite their acquittal, there is a fine line between self-defense and manslaughter?

Prior to the trial, 17 people submitted letters of support for Woolf, testifying to his character as a loving family man who dotes on his 10-year-old daughter.

But according to an earlier court motion, this loving family man has a long history of getting into alcohol-fueled trouble, details the jury did not hear.

The deadly fight outside the Elkhorn was apparently Woolf’s fifth documented bar fight.

He was banned for life from the Kilt Bar and Pub (now Pappy McGregor’s) in Paso Robles, where he allegedly tossed around racial slurs and head-butted a security guard, according to police reports and a statement from a bar employee.

As far back as 2003, he was cited for battery following an incident at Mother’s Tavern in San Luis Obispo, according to the court motion. In 2012, he was arrested on suspicion of being drunk in public at the California Mid-State Fair.

On the day of the fight in September 2014, Aranda testified that he, Woolf and another guard, Luis Ordaz, spent the day drinking and watching football before driving to look at a property Woolf was interested in, then drove to the Elkhorn for more drinking and football and an eventual deadly bar fight.

So, yeah ... drinking, driving and fighting.

Does that all sound like stand-up behavior to you?

Is this the kind of role model Woolf wants to be for his daughter?

Aside from the bartender, the only person I’ve been even marginally impressed with in this case is Ordaz, who apparently didn’t get involved enough in Medrano’s death to be charged and who was truly apologetic when he took the stand.

“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 told the jury last week. “We are very, very sorry. We feel really bad for (Medrano’s) death.”

After testifying, he also apologized to Medrano’s children as he left the courtroom.

I wish Woolf and Aranda had expressed their regret in that kind of public way. I am disappointed by people who think it’s more courageous to throw punches than to say “I’m sorry.”

I don’t know the true character of the men, but their behavior that day disgusts me. They worked in a career that demands responsibility, moderation and diplomacy. Yet they showed few of those traits on Sept. 7, 2014.

Ultimately, it cost one man his life and them their livelihoods. They are very lucky it didn’t cost them more.

Have they learned from this? We’ll see.

But the next time Woolf has the choice between picking up a beer or a My Little Pony, he should pick the toy horse.

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