by Bill Monson
Cuesta Pass is a 1,500-foot-high gap where U.S. 101 crosses the Santa Lucia Range north of San Luis Obispo, California. On the night of August 23, 2002, a Ford F-250 pickup was pulling an old two-horse trailer down its northern grade.
In the cab were Jose Maria Iniguez, his friend Adan Alvarez, and Iniguez's 8-year-old son Caesar. In the trailer were two horses the trio planned to use on a deer-hunting trip.
As the pickup approached its turn-off, the Highway 58 off-ramp east to Santa Margarita, the latch of the trailer unbuckled. A red stallion named Granito fell halfway out of the trailer, raising a shower of sparks with its dragging hooves as it tried to hang on, then spilled out into the fast lane.
As it stood up, the horse was struck at 70 m.p.h. by a Toyota Tercel driven by Peter Hunt. Also in the car were Hunt's sister and a nephew. The horse slammed through the windshield, causing fatal head trauma to all three.
The Tercel then crossed the center divider and continued through the southbound lanes, coming to rest in a dirt embankment more than 500 yards away. Alerted by the sparks from the horse's hooves, the pickup pulled off onto the freeway's northbound right shoulder. While his son stayed in the truck, Iniguez and Alvarez got out and dragged the now dead horse from the fast lane to the center divide, Alvarez later told the CHP. But the CHP investigators were unable to find any witnesses who saw this. Instead, they found one who said that the men merely walked to the back of the trailer, closed the door, and drove off. Alvarez also said they continued with their hunting trip. Iniguez said they planned to come back for the horse the next day. However, it was not until August 26 that lawyer Chris Casciola reported that the truck and trailer involved in the accident belonged to Iniguez, a client of his. When interviewed by the CHP, Iniguez refused to say if he was the driver. His son said he was.
Throughout the rest of the year, the CHP continued its investigation, questioning Caesar Iniguez and Alvarez, and seeking new witnesses and evidence. In January of 2003, Alvarez went to visit his family in Mexico and was fatally shot during a feud unconnected with the case.
On February 24, the CHP finally felt it had enough evidence to arrest Iniguez. A month later, after a preliminary hearing, Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera ruled enough evidence existed to send the case to trial.
But because of Iniguez's lack of cooperation, defense maneuvering and court postponements, it was a full year before the case reached court. The defense argued this was too long, but was rebuffed. They did manage to get Alvarez's testimony withheld because he was now dead and could not be cross-examined. The trial then focused on whether Iniguez knew an accident had occurred. He said he didn't; the CHP said two men could not drag a 1,000-pound dead horse to the median, that it had in fact crawled there on its own. Plus there was the witness who said the men just closed the trailer door and drove off. The case came down to whether the jury believed Iniguez's version of what happened or the CHP's.
The jury could not agree on either and declared itself hung.
The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney has declared he will try Iniguez again. In the meantime, Iniguez is free on bail but not free of the charges which could put him in prison for over 15 years.
When I wrote about this case over a year ago, I cited a quote from Longfellow: "Though the mills of God grind slowly yet they grind exceeding small." Perhaps I should have quoted Gladstone instead: "Justice delayed is justice denied."
Three people are dead because a horse fell out of a trailer. Where is the justice for them?