A Santa Barbara judge found there isn’t enough evidence to support the Grand Jury’s indictments of the girlfriend and sister of Benjamin Vargas — accused of murdering 26-year-old Vincent Velasquez during an Isla Vista brawl last year — and dismissed the charges against the two women.
Karen Medina and Maria Vargas were indicted in October as accessories to the May 15 homicide. Authorities accused Medina of assaulting Velasquez during the attack, while Vargas was accused of driving the car away from the crime scene. The women spent eight days in jail before posting bail.
But Judge George Eskin ruled Thursday that “a properly informed grand jury would have declined to find probable cause to indict” Maria Vargas, and that the “cumulative effect of errors and omissions in the conduct of the grand jury proceedings … created substantial prejudice” to Medina’s right to due process.
Eskin found there was no evidence showing Maria Vargas had any idea a crime had been committed, as she was merely picking up her brother and Medina in Isla Vista that night. “Speculation and conjecture were substituted for lack of evidence to establish Maria’s knowledge that a murder had occurred; a person does not drive a ‘getaway’ car without knowledge that her passenger(s) have committed a crime,” Eskin concluded. “There was no competent evidence to support the requisite elements of aiding Benjamin, the alleged perpetrator of a homicide, with the specific intent that he avoid or escape arrest, trial, conviction, or punishment.”
Mark Pachowicz, attorney for Maria Vargas, praised the judge’s decision. “This case never should have been brought in the first place,” he said. “It was a complete injustice, and it’s starting to be fixed.” He said the charge brought extreme consequences for Vargas, who was working and in school at the time and had never been in trouble before. “Every day she woke up, and it affected her in a profound way,” he said.
Adam Pearlman, attorney for Medina, said his client has endured similar strife. “Ms. Medina is relieved that the case has been dismissed,” Pearlman said. “She wants to thank Judge Eskin for making the correct decision in a difficult situation. She has lost two jobs because of the police action in this case: one job when the police were looking for her at her work and a second job when she was arrested at her work after the meritless indictment was handed down. She looks forward to getting back to a normal life.”
Benjamin Vargas’s trial is set to begin next week, though his attorney, Ron Bamieh, doesn’t expect it to begin until April. Since news that the two women were indicted became public, Bamieh has argued in front of the judge that prosecutor Hans Almgren used the indictments to keep the two women — key witnesses for the defense — from testifying. Bamieh, in a statement to media Thursday, used even stronger language than Pachowicz, saying the case was “an example of a prosecutor who puts winning a trial ahead of truth and justice.”
He said he will file a motion to recuse Almgren because of what Bamieh characterized as misconduct. “[Almgren] decided it was worth destroying the lives of these two young women in order for him to obtain a conviction in a case it appears he cannot win,” Bamieh said.
Almgren noted that at least 12 of the jurors on the Grand Jury indicted both women but declined comment further because the case is supposed to head to trial next week.
Vargas is accused of stabbing Velasquez more than a dozen times during the fight. Two of those stab wounds — one that pierced his jugular, the other nicking his heart — were considered fatal. Bamieh said his client acted in self defense and noted that multiple witnesses say Velasquez threw the first punch. Indeed, according to testimony at a preliminary hearing in June, an intoxicated Velasquez began the confrontation when he started speaking to Vargas and Medina, who were walking down the street.
Based on anonymous tips and other various leads, Vargas was arrested two days later outside his attorney’s office.