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Councilman urges release of man accused in fatal shootout at Santa Cruz marijuana operation


SANTA CRUZ — A Watsonville city councilman on official letterhead asked for a former neighbor, student and Future Farmers of America affiliate charged with murder — “a reflective and peaceful young man” — to be released from Santa Cruz County Jail.

Eli Gutierrez 

Eli Gutierrez, 26, was charged with murder with a firearm and possession of an illegal assault weapon Dec. 5 — five months after 32-year-old Dominic Quintana died in a shootout in a failed robbery at the defendant’s home and illegal pot shop at the 100 block of Lawrence Avenue in Watsonville, according to court documents.

A trove of supporting letters for Gutierrez — an awarded FFA member and Watsonville HIgh School graduate — were attached to a request attorney Eugene Martinez filed supporting bail reduction from $1 million to $25,000. The defendant could afford the requested amount, Martinez wrote. The lengthy filing includes the defendant’s 2011 high school diploma, veterinary assistant course certification in 2010 and a photo of him kneeling beside a healthy-looking pig at the Salinas Valley Fair in 2010.

Only one of the letters came from an elected official. On Jan. 16, Councilman Lowell Hurst wrote that he knew Gutierrez since the young man was 15 or 16 years old.

“I came to know Eli well and feel confident in saying he poses no physical danger to the community and is (in) fact a reflective and peaceful young man devoid of violent or hostile intent,” Hurst wrote. “It is (hoped) that he has learned a powerful lesson and can return to the neighborhood as a productive law-abiding citizen of our community.”

The letter is not addressed by the state Political Reform Act, which governs campaign-finance reporting, political ad disclosure, state lobbying reporting and conflicts of interest, according to the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Watsonville City Councilman Lowell Hurst wrote a letter on city stationery in support of a man charged with murder. (Dan Coyro — Santa Cruz Sentinel file) 

In a distant but similar scenario, the San Francisco Chronicle reported in December how that city’s mayor used what appeared to be personal stationery for a letter asking former Gov. Jerry Brown to release her imprisoned brother. No ethics violations were found by sources in the Chronicle’s report.

Hurst apologized by email for not responding to calls Monday while traveling home from a family obligation.

Allegations

Shell casings from multiple weapons littered the grow-op in a scene so large, California Department of Justice provided a crime lab to process the evidence, authorities have said. Gutierrez is accused of gunning down Quintana with an AR-15 assault rifle, according to court documents.

The two suspected robbers — Quintana and Louis Ledesma, 50 — were accused of stealing cash and marijuana from the home, from which they fled running, authorities have said.

Ledesma pointed a gun at pursuing officers, who were close enough to knock the firearm from his hands before he ran from the home, police have said.

A police dog and Taser stopped the escape less than 1,000 feet west of the crime scene.

Gutierrez wasn’t the only person detained soon after the shooting. Authorities initially arrested another man, Elias Gutierrez, who was at the house but did not face charges linked with the shooting. Assistant District Attorney Celia Rowland, when asked in July whether murder charges would be filed, said it was being discussed but declined to elaborate on a pending investigation.

In the motion for bail reduction, Martinez provided new details in the investigation. Four people were attacked by two men who entered the garage, where the defendant’s father operated a dispensary, he wrote.

He also listed some information about the weapons: “Mr. Quintana was armed with a .45 caliber handgun and Mr. Ledesma was armed with a loaded 9 mm handgun.”

Accomplishments

A retired doctor and a Cabrillo College Horticulture Department nursery manager wrote letters citing positive interactions with Gutierrez. Michelle Simon, a former pediatrician at Salud Para La Gente and CEO of Pacific Coast Pediatric Center, was the defendant’s doctor until she retired in 2018.

“I hope the court will take into account his history and act leniently in this current matter,” Simon wrote.

Gutierrez studied horticulture at Cabrillo College, according to court documents.

Heather Blume, of the Cabrillo College Horticulture Department, wrote that Gutierrez was hired as a departmental student assistant for spring semesters in 2013 and 2016. He earned work experience college credit for his role with the department, she wrote. Gutierrez worked on an organic farm in that role to improve his skills in the garden, Blume wrote.

Hurst wrote in the official letterhead that he served as an advisor for the Watsonville FFA group in which Gutierrez participated.

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