The 8th Judicial District Attorney's Office in Taos dropped charges this month against a California man accused in a car crash that killed two people and left a third with a traumatic brain injury in 2017, citing evidence that the man and his friends were shot at outside a local bar before the collision.
Juan Espinoza, 22, was charged with four counts of vehicular homicide and other charges related to the crash.
The state dropped the case Thursday (Dec. 13) after a grand jury found evidence to suggest Moses Romero, 33, of Taos had fired a handgun at Espinoza and two other men during an altercation outside The Alley Cantina early the morning of Sept. 30, 2017, just before the crash occurred.
Romero was indicted on five charges: two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, one count of shooting at or from a motor vehicle, one count of possession of a firearm or destructive device by a felon and criminal damage to property under $1,000.
The grand jury found evidence to suggest Espinoza was fleeing the site of the attempted shooting when he collided head-on with another vehicle on State Road 68 south of Taos.
The crash killed 25-year-old Hannah Metzger of Delray Beach, Florida and 33-year-old Cedrick Kober of Little River, South Carolina. A third passenger, Cody Woolard, then 26, suffered life-threatening injuries, including a traumatic brain injury that left him partially paralyzed. Woolard recently returned home to Illinois, where his parents are still helping him recover.
The victims' families waited for more than a year for the case to move forward before the district attorney's office delivered news that the case had been dismissed due to a number of complications.
After he was hospitalized at Holy Cross Hospital with non life-threatening injuries, Espinoza admitted to deputies that he and three friends, workers on a New Mexico Gas pipeline project, had been drinking before the collision. But the deputies were unable to get an accurate alcohol reading from Espinoza using a breathalyzer. The only successful test registered a ".01," well below the legal limit.
Deputies found that administering the test was difficult because the suspect's mouth had been injured and was crusted with blood. Seeking to then take a blood test - the common alternative when breathalyzers won't work - deputies found that no approved blood-testing kits were available in Taos County last September. The New Mexico Department of Health later acknowledged there was a statewide shortage in the fall of 2017.
During the interview, Espinoza told deputies about an alleged altercation at The Alley Cantina.
He said someone had punched one of his friends as he was leaving the bar. On the street outside, he said a man then shot at them as they were attempting to leave.
During the shooting, he said he climbed into the shooter's vehicle, a white Chevy Tahoe, and drove off to avoid being shot.
Espinoza claimed he was then chased and shot at by the driver of a white Dodge truck as he sped south on State Road 68.
He said the back window of the truck he had taken was shot out during the chase. All he could remember after that, he said, was the Tahoe going into a slide and then "blacking out."
More to the story
At a preliminary hearing held in February, the three men who were out drinking with Espinoza before the shooting - Patrick Maiorka, Anthony Palmeri and Antonio Hernandez - provided testimony that overlapped with Espinoza's story.
Maiorka, who said he had worked with Espinoza on another construction project in California, claimed that he was the one who had been punched while leaving The Alley Cantina.
During the alleged altercation outside the bar, both Palmeri and Maiorka said that a "big" man in a tall white T-shirt exited a white Chevy Tahoe and threatened them with a handgun.
As they climbed into Palmeri's vehicle and fled the scene, they said the man shot at them four times. As the shots were fired, they said they saw Espinoza climb into the shooter's Tahoe and drive off.
Hernandez testified that he had left the bar separately to get his own vehicle from a nearby parking lot, and then came upon the scene to see the shooter and hear the shots being fired.
In a photographic police lineup provided by Taos Police Department, all three witnesses identified the same man, Moses Romero, who pleaded guilty to possession and trafficking of heroin in 2008, according to court records.
As Palmeri and Maiorka drove south, they said they saw Espinoza being chased by a driver in a white Dodge Ram down State Road 68.
After returning to their motel, Maiorka left in Palmeri's vehicle to go search for Espinoza. He traveled southbound until he came upon the scene of the crash.
There, 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]," Maiorka told the court in February.
Detective Barry Holfelder of Taos Police Department took the stand to testify that he had removed bullet fragments from the rear of Palmeri's vehicle. On the Tahoe Espinoza crashed, he said he found the back window shattered and shotgun pellets embedded in its gasket.
This week, Deputy District Attorney Ron Olsen said other evidence shown to the grand jury included exterior surveillance footage that captured the altercation as well as testimony from other witnesses to the incident.
Romero is scheduled to be arraigned before Judge Sarah Backus on charges connected to the incident Jan. 2 in Taos District Court.