Rene Rosas wants you to know he’s not perfect. But he also wants you to know he wasn’t drunk when a horrifying accident claimed the life of his friend, Ronald “Tuffy” Kelsey of San Luis Obispo.
Santa Maria police arrested Rosas, who lives in Santa Maria, on Aug. 24 of this year, while he was riding his bicycle. His arrest came on a bench warrant stemming from an incident that happened on Sept. 14, 2010.
On that day last year, Rosas had brought his motorhome to Tuffy’s Central Supply in Arroyo Grande for repairs to the gear system, which he claims was damaged when the RV was towed to an impound lot days before. Kelsey, 65, was the shop’s owner and head mechanic.
According to the police report, Rosas was in the driver’s seat of the 38-foot RV when it somehow rolled over Kelsey, who was underneath the rear of the vehicle. Emergency crews performed CPR at the scene, but Kelsey died of blunt force trauma, according to the county coroner’s report.
After his death, friends and family held a vigil in Kelsey’s honor. Rosas said he wishes he could’ve been there, but instead, he was sitting in SLO County Jail, arrested on suspicion of drunken driving and gross vehicular manslaughter.
At the time, media outlets reported Kelsey’s death as a result of an alleged DUI. Rosas blames the news for demonizing him, and now, he wants a change of venue.
“When the accident first happened, they had me looking like a drunk driver,” Rosas said. “The news smashed me. I don’t think I’ll have a fair trial in SLO County. Where am I going to find a jury of my peers?”
According to the Arroyo Grande police report, Rosas admitted sipping whiskey and ingesting marijuana prior to the incident. Officers administered two Breathalyzer tests, the first revealing a blood-alcohol content of .054 percent, the second at .062 percent, both under the legal limit.
Officers later administered a blood test at a hospital, two hours after the incident, revealing Rosas’ alcohol content at .05. He also tested positive for 0.33 mg/liter of methamphetamine, though Rosas told New Times he hadn’t used the drug, hadn’t gotten high at all on the day of the incident. Police also confiscated a small amount of Rosa’s prescription marijuana, which they found inside the RV.
The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s office was close to the end of the one-year deadline for filing misdemeanor charges when it filed one count of vehicular manslaughter, excluding gross negligence, against Rosas on June 1 of this year, issuing the warrant for his arrest.
San Luis Obispo County Deputy District Attorney Jordan Cunningham, the lead prosecutor in the case, wouldn’t discuss the reasons for the delay in charging Rosas. He said although the complaint against Rosas doesn’t include a DUI, he isn’t ruling out alcohol or drugs as factors in the accident.
“There was a victim mechanic who was under an RV weighing over 30,000 pounds,” Cunningham said. “Mr. Rosas had taken methamphetamine, marijuana, and alcohol and got behind the wheel and unfortunately backed over and killed the guy.”
Rosas, represented by SLO County public defender Anthony Lucero, doesn’t disagree with the police version of the incident. He claims he slept in the RV on the shop’s property the night before and cleaned the motorhome all day while Kelsey worked on other projects.
When Kelsey said he could take a look at the RV, Rosas told New Times he “chocked” the wheels with wood blocks while Kelsey checked the RV’s undercarriage. Rosas said Kelsey told him to get in the cab, start the engine, and put it into gear. The RV then lurched suddenly, slipping over the blocks and backing over Kelsey.
“My story’s not going to change to anybody,” Rosas said. “There’s nothing to hide. It just happened. I don’t know why it happened. He was my friend.”
Rosas said he met Kelsey two years prior to the man’s death, and the two became friends. Kelsey oftentimes let him stay in the RV on his shop’s property.
“He was an angel on Earth,” Rosas said of Kelsey. “He would help you and not even think twice.”
Rosas has yet to speak directly to Kelsey’s family since the incident, but did wish to express his sorrow publicly.
“I just feel terrible about it,” he said. “My heart goes out to them.”
A representative for Kelsey’s family didn’t wish to speak to New Times. However, John Mattly, a mechanic who worked with Kelsey at Tuffy’s Central Supply for 28 years, recalled Kelsey as kind man, well respected among his peers.
“You couldn’t ask for a better person,” Mattly said. “He had a heart 10 times bigger than he was. He was helping out the guy that backed over him. He felt sorry for him, and it cost him a lot this time.”
Mattly said Kelsey liked Rosas and frequently defended him to others. Though Mattly was at the shop the day of the accident, he didn’t actually see it happen. He did confirm that the RV had no emergency brake, and that its wheels had been blocked.
Though Mattly said he didn’t think much of Rosas, he doesn’t believe the man did anything intentionally to harm Kelsey. He also had no idea why Rosas would’ve been in the RV with the engine running while Kelsey was underneath.
Rosas currently has a separate case pending against him in SLO County Superior Court, filed in June 2010, accusing him of DUI and marijuana possession. If convicted on the more recent manslaughter charge, Rosas faces a maximum sentence of one year in county jail.
Rosas is due in court on Nov. 9 in San Luis Obispo for a trial setting conference in front of Superior Court Judge John Trice.
Rosas said he’s determined to take his argument in front of a jury.
“I’m going to trial,” he said. “I’m not making any deals.”
Jeremy Thomas is a staff writer at New Times’ sister paper, the Sun. He can be contacted at email@example.com.