Trial begins for Merced County sheriff's sergeant

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comApril 10, 2013 

— Testimony began Wednesday in the trial of Merced County Sheriff's Department Sgt. James Pacheco, who is accused of two misdemeanor DUI counts.

Prosecutors with the state attorney general's office claim Pacheco, 45, was drinking and driving the night of April 17, 2011. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The trial began with an opening statement by Darren Indermill, deputy state attorney general. Indermill told jurors at least two witnesses saw Pacheco return home around 12:30 a.m., driving a GMC Yukon.

Witnesses told California Highway Patrol officers that Pacheco had parked the GMC behind the patrol car in front of his house in Le Grand, bumping the GMC's front bumper against his patrol car's rear bumper in the process.

Witnesses said it appeared as if the defendant had been drinking, and called 911. CHP officer David Ross arrived at the home at 1:04 a.m. and noticed the bumpers of the two vehicles touching. Ross looked inside the GMC and saw an open can of beer in the center console, and another on the rear floorboard, Indermill told jurors.

Indermill said the officer went to the home and spoke to Pacheco, who appeared to have bloodshot eyes and had an odor of an alcoholic beverage on his breath. Indermill told jurors that Pacheco initially said he'd consumed three or four beers that night.

Pacheco was given several breathalyzer tests, which recorded his blood alcohol content around 0.13 percent. After being given the tests, however, Indermill said Pacheco asked the officer to read him back the results, as a "courtesy to a fellow law enforcement officer."

After Ross told Pacheco the results of the test, the defendant then told the officer he wanted to change his statement, and claimed that he'd drank tequila after he returned home.

Indermill told jurors Pacheco's inconsistent statement's to the officers were revealing. "I want you to think about whether you can believe those statements," he said.

Kirk McAllister, Pacheco's attorney, told jurors the incident was a minor situation that was "blown up beyond what actually happened."

McAllister said his client had been at a fund-raiser in Le Grand since around 6:30 p.m. that day. During that time, he consumed around three beers, and that he returned home and parked his GMC close behind the patrol car to prevent the GMC from blocking a neighbor's driveway

Pacheco drank two beers and a shot of tequila after returning home, McAllister said, before going to bed. He later was awakened by Ross and three other officers who had knocked on his door. McAllister said the officers "peppered" his client with questions after he'd just gotten out of bed.

During his opening statement, McAllister attacked the credibility of the witnesses in the case. McAllister said one of the witnesses, who spoke to Pacheco after he'd driven up to the house, claimed he could smell alcohol on the defendant's breath, only to later tell CHP investigators that wasn't the case. McAllister said the witness told investigators he made that statement to "make a more believable story," and the person he was with must have smelled the alcohol on Pacheco's breath.

"At the conclusion of this case, I'm going to ask you to find Mr. Pacheco not guilty on both of these charges," McAllister said.

Jurors heard testimony Wednesday from Nathanial Kirchman, a high school student who claims he and two others he was with witnessed Pacheco drive up to his home the night of the DUI arrest.

During his testimony, Indermill asked Kirchman if he could identify Pacheco in the courtroom. Kirchman looked around, but said he could not identify which person in the courtroom was Pacheco. The defendant was sitting about 5 feet away from the witness stand.

Kirchman testified that he was leaving his girlfriend's house when he saw Pacheco driving at about 35 to 40 mph. Kirchman said Pacheco parked the SUV behind the patrol car, tapping the bumpers of the two vehicles, "loud enough to hear it."

Kirchman said he ran over to Pacheco, asking if he was OK, to which the defendant mumbled "yes, I am all right." The defendant "smelled like beer" and walked into his house, Kirchman claimed. Kirchman said his friend then called 911 and reported the incident.

Wednesday's hearing was interrupted briefly after a microphone transformer in Judge Ronald Hansen's courtroom began emitting smoke. Court bailiffs cleared the room and technical staff addressed the faulty equipment. The hearing reconvened after about 15 minutes.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 285-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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