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The beating of a lifetime

With a SLO firefighter assault trial finally underway, the defendant and victim are both painted as aggressors

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Following more than a year of continuances, jurors began hearing arguments and testimony from the alleged victim in a brutal bar beating involving a San Luis Obispo city firefighter.

John Ryan Mason faces felony counts of battery following a June 4, 2011, late-night incident at a wedding reception in a San Luis Obispo bar and grill.

According to police, the off-duty Mason repeatedly punched and elbowed Los Osos furniture builder Jory Brigham in the men’s bathroom following an argument, causing the latter serious injury.

Despite the undisputed fact that Brigham received a broken nose, jaw, and cheekbone—a total of 17 broken bones in his face, he said—requiring the installation of three steel plates in his face and more than seven hours of surgery, in addition to the fact that Mason told investigators he hit Brigham roughly four times after Brigham hit the ground, Mason’s attorney continued to paint Brigham as the aggressor.

Throughout his questioning, Mason’s attorney, Chris Casciola,  also characterized Brigham as a gossip and claimed he was dishonest with investigators, drunk on the night in question, and money-hungry, with Brigham allegedly laying the foundation to pursue Mason for civil damages.

Prior to jury selection, Casciola tried in vain to prohibit the prosecution from making mention of an “affair,” as well as from introducing testimony from people who allegedly witnessed violent behavior from Mason in the past.

“I recognize that it creates issues I would prefer to not get into,” SLO Superior Court Judge Michael Duffy said before denying the motion. “Unfortunately, I don’t see how that can be avoided.”

On Sept. 10, both sides presented their opening statements.

Deputy District Attorney Kristy Imel set the stage, claiming Mason was looking to settle a score with Brigham over a comment on Brigham’s since-deleted Facebook page that mentioned “walk[ing] out on your family,” which Mason allegedly took as a jab at his marital situation. Brigham maintains that the comment was about a number of people he knows and not specifically directed at Mason, who wasn’t named in the post.

“This case is about rage, opportunity, and revenge,” Imel told jurors in her opening, dramatically raising a glossy close-up photograph of Brigham’s battered and bruised face.

Invoking conservative radio personality Paul Harvey, Casciola told the jury: “And now for the rest of the story.”

“I’m glad the press is here,” Casciola said, perhaps in a subtle nod to former prosecutor Karen Gray, who had unsuccessfully attempted to convince Duffy to place a gag order on the trial because of the intense media attention. “We’ve been waiting for 15 months to tell this.”

According to Casciola, Brigham instigated the fight, and Mason was only defending himself. Casciola contends that an intoxicated Brigham spent the hours following the wedding playing “moral police” and pursuing the family issue.

“In some marriages, things don’t go smooth all the time,” Casciola said. “Everything [between the couple] has been resolved. It’s only an issue for one person: Jory Brigham, I guess. It’s not Mr. Mason that keeps bringing it up, it’s Jory.”

Casciola also spoke to Mason’s character, noting that he’s a SLO High School graduate, a 15-year veteran firefighter, and a father of two children.

“Mr. Mason takes life very seriously, as evidenced by his job. Jory is a little more carefree,” Casciola said.

Brigham, the first to take the witness stand, initially looked a little uncomfortable fielding questions, speaking softly and having to be reminded by Duffy to speak into the microphone.

Under cross-examination, Brigham had to immediately defend himself against allegations from Casciola that he previously lied on the stand about two flasks he later revealed he had brought to the wedding for himself and a friend, implying he had consumed more alcohol the night in question than he previously admitted.

“Alcohol is critical in this case,” Casciola said. “We all know what it does to a person.”

Brigham repeatedly testified that he consumed about six or seven drinks over the course of the roughly eight-hour wedding, dinner, reception, and drinks at the bar—but denies drinking from the flask.

The alleged victim also had to dodge accusations that he had hired a lawyer to pursue civil damages against Mason should Mason be found guilty.

Caught in a hypothetical, Brigham also had to explain why he hadn’t previously admitted that he may have “touched” Mason in the bathroom during the altercation.

“If someone comes at you, of course you’re going to touch them at some point,” Brigham shot back.

“Did you do that last night?” Casciola asked.

“What, protect myself?” Brigham responded. “Obviously not very well.”

Jurors are expected to hear from at least 38 more witnesses before closing arguments.

Imel said that jurors would hear in the coming days testimony from a taxi driver who originally arrived at the bar to pick up the Masons just prior to the bathroom incident, but reportedly refused to let John Ryan in because he was being “verbally aggressive and confrontational.”

“[Mason] was spoiling for an argument,” Imel said.

Jurors are also expected to hear from a bar bouncer who, according to Imel, unsuccessfully attempted to stop Mason—whom the bouncer initially believed to be a witness—in the parking lot.

Casciola said there are “multiple” witnesses who will testify that Brigham was the aggressor in the incident, as well as others who saw him drinking from a pocket flask earlier in the evening.

According to the San Luis Obispo Human Resources Department, Mason has remained on unpaid administrative leave from the city since April. He’s not expected to testify.

Duffy told jurors the trial is expected to last approximately three weeks. Hearings are set to continue at 1 p.m. on Sept. 13 in Department 5.

Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.com.

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