VISTA — A man accused of killing a San Marcos mother and daughter in a suspected DUI crash on Interstate 15 near Fallbrook last spring appeared in court on Wednesday for a preliminary hearing.
Erick Arambula, 24, of Oceanside, was charged with seven felonies, including gross vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence causing great bodily injury, after crashing head-on into a Kia carrying Courteney Taylor, 29, and her four-year-old daughter Amaya, on April 23, 2023.
Neither the mother nor the daughter survived. The Silverado also struck the front end of a white Tesla carrying three passengers, causing minor injuries.
A preliminary hearing, known as a “mini-trial,” is typically held before trial to hear testimony and review evidence. A judge then determines whether there is sufficient cause to believe that an individual was responsible for committing a crime and moves ahead with a trial.
Several witnesses, including California Highway Patrol officers and a California Department of Fish and Wildlife officer who were on the scene the day of the crash, were called to testify in Vista Superior Court by Deputy District Attorney David Uyar.
Five friends and family members of the Taylors were present in the courtroom, all wearing shirts featuring photos of Courteney and Amaya with the phrase “never forgotten.”
Fish and Wildlife Warden Mario Noriega testified that on the afternoon of April 23, he saw a Toyota Silverado, whose driver was later identified as Arambula, run through a red light on Old Highway 395, which he pursued with his lights on for about 20 seconds until he stopped due to the dangerous rate of speed.
Noriega said the Silverado did not yield or slow down and then crashed into a fence on the side of the 395, which runs alongside and above I-15, creating a cloud of dust. The officer parked in the area, exited his vehicle, and saw the Silverado down the hill on the 15, turned upside down and near two vehicles with front-end damage.
“I went back to my patrol vehicle and got my medical bag because I saw a huge commotion down there,” Noriega said.
The vehicle was going over 100 mph at the time of the crash, officers said.
Defense Attorney Laurel Harris noted that no alcohol or stimulants were detected in Arambula’s system. However, a toxicology test of blood samples did detect marijuana, according to CHP Detective Ryan Nilsen.
Several CHP officers said they also responded to the scene after the collision. Officer Alexander Smith became emotional on the stand when describing the child who was pulled from the vehicle, later identified as Amaya Taylor.
Smith and other officers testified that life-saving measures performed on Amaya were unsuccessful. The fire department pronounced Courteney Taylor — who had been trapped in the vehicle and was unable to be immediately extricated — dead at the scene.
At the scene, officers said Arambula was conscious and receiving medical aid but was not responding to questions from officers. Smith testified that he informed Arambula he was going to perform a preliminary alcohol screening, which required him to breathe onto the device, and that Arambula appeared to “deliberately close his lips” and hold his breath.
Smith also testified that a diary, appearing to belong to Arambula, was found in his vehicle that mentioned drug use. Combining this with the way Arambula was driving before the crash, his eyes being glazed over at the scene and the scent of alcohol, Smith said he concluded that Arambula was under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
During cross-examination, Arambula’s defense attorney, Laurel Harris, asked officers how they knew the diary belonged to the defendant since it did not include his name, suggesting that it could have belonged to a previous passenger in the car.
While Harris argued that Arambula’s driving did not rise to the level of gross vehicular manslaughter, as stated in the charges, and said there was no evidence that he was evading the Fish and Wildlife officer, Judge Blaine Bowman disagreed.
“This is not a situation where this is simple negligence. This is clearly gross negligence … The driving is horrendous in this case. Absolutely horrendous,” Bowman said. “This was just a tragic loss of life. He was, in fact, evading police at the time he ran into these innocent victims.”
Arambula will be back in court on Jan. 31 for an arraignment on the amended complaint. No trial date has been set.