Family of slain restaurant owner is suing Merced County

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMarch 26, 2013 

The family of a Merced restaurant owner killed last year is suing Merced County for more than $11 million, claiming negligence and wrongful death, according to court documents.

Regina Vasquez Reyes-Trunnel, the victim's ex-wife, filed the lawsuit on behalf of their two children, both minors at the time of the slaying. Reyes-Trunnel said Tuesday that she didn't have an attorney.

The man, 49-year-old Benjamin Munsayac, was bludgeoned with a claw hammer and slashed with a box-cutter knife, police reports show. He was found Feb. 21, 2012, at Accesscare Home of Merced at 128 E. Main St.

Officers found Munsayac's body inside his bedroom at the home, where he worked as a licensed caregiver. He was covered in blood, lying on his back inside a half-open closet. Munsayac appeared to have injuries to his head.

The suspect, Evan James Lovett, remains in custody at the Merced County Jail with no bail. He's charged with murder, including special circumstances for robbery and carjacking, committing a crime for financial gain and use of a deadly weapon.

Prior to the slaying last year, Lovett was being held at the jail on suspicion of driving under the influence and related charges. The lawsuit claims he was released on bail based on "inadvertent disregard" despite a history of violent crime.

"Mr. Lovett should not have been granted bail given the seriousness of his previous crimes," according to court documents.

The plaintiff, Reyes-Trunnel, claims the county courts and Probation Department "failed to assure the safety of citizens" by allowing "Mr. Lovett to run free."

"When we looked at the records ... we found out he had 13 criminal charges in Alaska, mostly misdemeanors," Reyes-Trunnel said of Lovett. "Merced County let him go" and Munsayac was killed four days later, she said.

Reyes-Trunnel said neighbors reported that Lovett had been angry because he felt the victim owed him money. However, she said, Munsayac had paid him back.

"We have documentation and proof that he fully paid this person according to their contract agreement," she said.

Roger Matzkind, chief civil litigator for the Merced County counsel's office, said Lovett was released because he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence and a hit-and-run, both misdemeanor charges.

"You wouldn't hold someone in jail for a misdemeanor," Matzkind said.

Matzkind said the county will respond in writing to the lawsuit in the next few weeks, asking to have the case dismissed. The county maintains that even if the claims in the complaint were true, there is no legal basis for a lawsuit.

"It's terrible that these kids lost a father, but I don't think the law or the facts support liability on the part of the people of this county," Matzkind said.

Munsayac was co-owner of Traditional Filipino Cuisine, a restaurant in north Merced's Raley's shopping center. The restaurant closed not long after Munsayac died.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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