Case dismissed against man accused in Taos crash that killed two

A vehicular homicide case filed against Juan Espinoza, 22, of Bakersfield, California was dismissed this month. John Miller

Updated Feb. 8 at 9:50 a.m.

A California man charged with killing two people and gravely injuring another during a September car crash in Taos County may have been shot at and chased prior to the fatal collision, a hearing revealed Thursday (Feb. 1) in Taos Magistrate Court.

Months after he had first appeared for an October arraignment in a wheelchair, Juan Espinoza, the 21-year-old defendant, seemed to have healed from injuries sustained during the Sept. 30 crash, which resulted in the deaths of Hannah Metzger, 25, of Delray Beach, Florida, and Cedrick Kober, 33, of Little River, South Carolina.

A third victim, Cody Woolard, then 26, was also traveling with Metzger and Kober at the time of the crash and suffered a traumatic brain injury. As of press time on Wednesday (Feb. 7), Wendy Gontram, who had employed all three victims as river rafting guides at New Mexico River Adventures, said that Woolard has been flown to a hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, where he remains stable, but unresponsive.

Tim Hasson, a state prosecutor with the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, called three witnesses to the stand late Thursday morning (Feb. 1): Deputy Elias Montoya, Sgt. Jake Cordova and Sgt. Gilbert Atencio – all of the Taos County Sheriff’s Office.

Montoya was the first to respond to the report of the crash in the early morning hours of Sept. 30. He said he had discovered both vehicles turned over on their sides. A Chevy Tahoe driven by Espinoza was still near the roadway while a Nissan Juke driven by Metzger had slid down an embankment a few hundred yards away. Montoya said all three victims were trapped inside the vehicle.

He subsequently encountered Espinoza walking on the roadway, his eyes bruised and bloodshot, “nearly closed,” Montoya noted. Montoya said he did not interview Espinoza at this first encounter.

Cordova was dispatched to Holy Cross Hospital, where he and a deputy met with Espinoza, who allegedly told them he had been drinking in the hours before the crash. Cordova and the deputy made a few failed attempts to gain an accurate blood-alcohol reading from Espinoza using a breathalyzer.

As noted in a prior story, but not mentioned during the hearing, the sheriff’s office said they were unable to gather a blood sample as an alternative due to a lack of testing kits available in New Mexico last fall. The New Mexico Department of Health later confirmed the shortage. The district attorney’s office has acknowledged that lacking this piece of evidence presents a special challenge in prosecuting the case.

During a cross-examination, defense attorney Aleksandar Kostich revealed what may now serve as another obstacle for the state when he questioned Cordova regarding evidence recorded on the sergeant’s lapel camera.

Asked what the video contained, Cordova said the camera had recorded a conversation in which Espinoza, who had traveled from Bakersfield, California last year to work on the Río Grande Gorge gas pipeline, told him that one of his coworkers had been battered as they were leaving The Alley Cantina before the crash. He also claimed that he and two other pipeline coworkers had been shot at in an intersection near the bar.

Espinoza said he had climbed into and fled in the assailant’s vehicle to avoid harm. He said he was then chased and shot at by the driver of a white Dodge truck as he fled southbound on State Road 68. He said the back window of the Tahoe was shot out during the chase and that all he could remember from the crash was the Tahoe going into a slide before he blacked out.

Kostich called the three coworkers, Anthony Palmeri, Patrick Maiorka and Antonio Hernandez, as witnesses during the hearing. All three provided separate testimony that overlapped in key areas: that they had been with Espinoza that night, first for dinner and beers at the Taos Mesa Brewing Taproom, and later, at The Alley Cantina, where they stayed until last call.

Maiorka, who said he had worked with Espinoza on another construction project in California, claimed that he had been punched in the face while leaving the bar. Two other witnesses said they had heard of the alleged battery second-hand.

In the intersection at the western exit of Taos Plaza and Camino de la Placita, Palmeri and Maiorka said that a “big” man in a tall white T-shirt had exited a Chevy Tahoe and threatened them and Espinoza. The man then produced a firearm, the witnesses said. They also claimed to have seen a woman exit the Tahoe near another vehicle, a white Dodge Ram.

As they attempted to flee in Palmeri’s vehicle, Palmeri and Maiorka said that the man shot at them four times using what they believed to be a handgun. As the shots were fired, they said they saw Espinoza climb into the assailant’s Tahoe and flee, according to their testimony.

Hernandez, who said he had left the bar separately to get his vehicle from a nearby parking lot, came upon the scene as the alleged shooting unfolded. Hernandez said he also caught a glimpse of the assailant.

All three later identified the same man as the shooter in a photographic police lineup provided by the Taos Police Department.

As they fled south, Palmeri and Maiorka said that they later saw a tow truck and what they believed was the same white Dodge Ram chasing Espinoza southbound on State Road 68.

After they returned to the hotel where they had been staying, Maiorka said he left in Palmeri’s vehicle to go search for Espinoza. He said he traveled southbound and allegedly came upon the scene of the crash. He said he could see the Tahoe turned over on its side and allegedly heard someone shouting, “That’s what you get for stealing my [expletive], [expletive].”

Rachel DeAguero, the woman who had allegedly exited the Tahoe during the event outside the bar, was also called to the stand during the hearing. She denied several times that the man the witnesses had identified as the shooter, whom she said is her boyfriend, had fired any shots. Instead, DeAguero said that her Tahoe had been stolen outright after she and her boyfriend had spent the night celebrating her birthday at The Alley Cantina.

Detective Barry Holfelder of Taos Police Department was the last to take the stand. He said he had interviewed all parties and examined Palmeri’s vehicle and the Tahoe. Holfelder said he recovered bullet fragments from Palmeri’s vehicle. On the Tahoe, he said he had discovered the back window shattered and shotgun pellets embedded in its gasket.

Following the hearing outside the courtroom, he said that charges had not yet been filed against the alleged shooter.

Kostich moved twice during the hearing to dismiss the charges of vehicular homicide and reckless driving, arguing that the state had presented insufficient probable cause to pursue charges that imply Espinoza’s actions had been criminally negligent or murderous during the crash. Instead, Kostich’s line of questioning suggested an alternate scenario: one where Espinoza had been shot at and then chased by his assailants, possibly placing him under duress when he collided with the other vehicle.

At the end of the four-hour hearing, presiding Judge Ernest Ortega said that there remained sufficient probable cause to retain the eight counts against Espinoza.

The case will continue in Taos District Court.

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