The case against Ruben Marquez, the alleged driver in the fatal hit-and-run outside a Golden bar, is moving forward after a three-day preliminary hearing.
A judge ruled March 14 that there’s enough evidence against Marquez to bind over all 17 charges against him for trial. The judge also ruled Marquez will continue to be held without bond. He’s scheduled to enter a plea at 8:30 a.m. March 31 at the Jefferson County Courthouse.
Marquez, 29, is facing first-degree murder, vehicular homicide and multiple assault charges for allegedly driving a truck into a crowd of people outside The Rock Rest Lodge on Oct. 9.
Adrian Ponce, 26, was killed in the incident, and at least four others were injured, including Rock Rest employees.
Marquez’s preliminary hearing — which ran Feb. 3, March 2 and March 14 — was formatted like a small-scale trial with both the prosecution and defense presenting witnesses in their favor. A preliminary hearing determines whether there’s sufficient evidence for the case to proceed through the judicial system.
As Judge Lindsay VanGilder summarized in her rulings, the entire case hinges on who was behind the wheel at the time the truck drove into the crowd.
Marquez’s defense attorneys asserted that co-defendant Ernesto Avila, who owns the truck, was the driver that night and that he confessed to doing so in a recorded interview with law enforcement.
However, the prosecution argued that, based on witness statements, Marquez was behind the wheel during the incident, and that Marquez and Avila exited and switched seats shortly after. Prosecutors also argued that Avila’s supposed confession shouldn’t be taken at face value, as he’s clearly intoxicated in the footage, and VanGilder agreed that Avila was talking in circles.
Avila, 25, was driving when a Jeffco Sheriff’s deputy stopped the truck a few blocks away from the Rock Rest. He’s been charged with one count of felony accessory, has pleaded not guilty, and is scheduled for trial in late August.
VanGilder ruled March 6 that Avila will have a separate trial from Marquez, if the latter’s case goes to trial.
She recognized how separate trials would have duplicative evidence and create “difficulties for the victims and the survivors of the deceased victim.” However, as she stated at Avila’s March 6 arraignment, she feared having a joint trial would create an appellate record and “require retrials for both defendants.”
The prosecution’s case
In the general facts of the case, as VanGilder summarized, is that three cousins — Marquez, Avila and Jose Loera — went to The Rock Rest Lodge on Oct. 8.
At bar close on Oct. 9, Marquez’s group got into a verbal argument with Ponce’s group outside. The verbal confrontation escalated to a physical one, with one witness reporting that Ponce punched Marquez.
Avila’s truck was parked outside the Rock Rest, on roughly the southeast side of the building. Avila reportedly got into the truck, but it wouldn’t start. He left the keys inside, based on what he told investigators, and exited the vehicle.
As bar employees were outside trying to break up the fight, Avila and Marquez got back in the truck. However, the prosecution posited that Marquez was behind the wheel this time and intentionally drove into the crowd.
When describing the driver, witnesses gave a mix of descriptors, including bald, short, heavier-set Hispanic male wearing a white T-shirt with neck and face tattoos. These match Marquez’s appearance on Oct. 9.
The bar manager, who was within a few feet of the truck when it hit the crowd, later picked Marquez out of a photo lineup. He told investigators he was 100% certain Marquez drove the truck into the crowd.
Avila, who was described on the night as a taller, skinnier Hispanic male with short hair wearing a dark T-shirt, is believed to be a passenger at the time. Some witnesses described the passenger and the driver either voluntarily exiting the vehicle or being pulled out, and switching seats shortly after the incident.
Around that time, the truck drove away from the bar toward South Golden Road, as seen on surveillance footage from a nearby business.
The truck didn’t travel far and ultimately returned to the Rock Rest, likely to pick up Loera. At least one witness said Loera was in the truck when it hit the crowd but was pulled out afterward and ran away, while Loera told investigators he wasn’t in the truck, was running away and came back when he heard a commotion.
Witness photos confirm Loera was outside the truck at some point after it hit the crowd.
As the truck was sitting in front of the Rock Rest on South Vernon Road, a Jeffco Sheriff’s deputy stationed his patrol car right behind it. The deputy didn’t see anyone enter or exit the vehicle, and it drove a few blocks before it finally stopped along 10th Avenue.
The deputy and other law enforcement questioned the three men, with a state trooper interviewing Avila on video. The trooper asked Avila who was driving the truck when it hit the people, and Avila responded, “I was.”
However, as VanGilder pointed out in her ruling, Avila twice said, “I told my cousin to go, go, go.” He also said, “At first, my cousin was driving.”
VanGilder also noted how, in a later interview at the sheriff’s office, Avila claimed he took over as the driver when the truck was stopped in Mount Vernon Road. Initially, he was positive he wasn’t driving the truck when it hit the crowd; but when pressed, he said he wasn’t sure because he blacked out.
The defense’s case
Throughout the three-day hearing, Marquez’s defense attorneys stressed the number of conflicting eyewitness accounts. Some witnesses’ statements contradict each other, and some witnesses gave differing details at the scene than they did in later interviews.
Some didn’t see the driver at the time of the crash, and others gave a description that better described Avila than Marquez, the defense attorneys argued. They also pointed out how some witnesses never described Avila and Marquez switching seats after the truck hit the crowd.
The prosecution argued to give more credibility to the witnesses who were sober, mostly employees. And while the bar manager identified Marquez as the driver, another employee described the driver as a skinnier man, the defense pointed out.
Of the seven witnesses who described Marquez as the driver, the defense claimed five of the accounts were misleading.
One was Ponce’s friend who, the defense argued, claimed either Avila or Marquez could’ve been the driver. The attorneys also believed that JCSO’s reports summarizing witness statements that Marquez was the driver contradicted the recorded interviews at the scene.
They also called into question a witness who didn’t give any description of the driver at the scene, but later “magically remembers everything … in an unrecorded, undocumented phone call” with investigators, they described.
Ultimately, the defense argued, there were as many statements Avila was the driver as there are statements Marquez was.
“Mr. Marquez is a rougher-looking individual,” one of the attorneys said. “There are certain things that stick out about him in a stressful situation — that are going to stick in the mind of the viewer.”