FORMER LEMON GROVE COUNCILMEMBER ARAMBULA, MAYOR AND CITY MANAGER TAKE STAND IN ASSAULT TRIAL

By Jessyka Heredia

Photos by Jessyka Heredia and MIriam Raftery

Photo, left: David Arambula

March 4, 2023 (Lemon Grove) – Testimony was heard yesterday from the defendants in day two of the civil trial Christopher Williams vs. David Arambula and the City of Lemon Grove, in which Williams alleges that former Councilman Arambula assaulted him during a business meeting at Arambula”s house to discuss Williams’ medical marijuana dispensary application with the City. The application had been denied by the planning commission and an appeal was slated to be heard by the City Council the following week.

Arambula disputes assault claims

Arambula was called to the stand first by Cory Briggs, who represents Williams in the case. Arambula said he met Williams for the first time the evening of July 14, 2017 at his home. Arambula stated that Taisha Brown,  Vice Chair of the county Democratic party at the time, invited Williams with Arambula’s consent because Arambula was tasked with “bringing as much revenue sources as possible” by the city Manager Lydia Romero.

Arambula said that Brown knew the city’s financial condition was in the red and that Williams wanted to invest in the city. When asked by Briggs if he knew they would discuss city business, Arambula said, “Yes, investing in the City.” He denied knowing that Williams had a pending cannabis dispensary application on appeal, contradicting Williams’ testimony the day before.

Arambula said that when Brown and Williams arrived at his home, he greeted them at the door and walked them both into his dining room. Arambula says that Williams arrived with two bottles of alcohol, a bottle of wine and a bottle of Captain Morgan (rum). This conflicted with Williams’ testimony the day before; Williams said he brought wine and champagne at the request of Brown and that the Captain Morgan belonged to Arambula.

Arambula was asked several times how much alcohol he consumed and his first answer was “I drank one glass of wine that I nurtured the whole night” while later he said he topped off his glass 2-3 times during the course of the night. On the stand, Arambula was asked if he saw Williams pour himself drinks and he stated, “five times at least, full 10 ounces.” Williams ear;oer said on the stand that he had “no more than two.”

The former Councilmember insisted that once at the dining room table, the three exchanged 10-15 minutes of “niceties” including Williams’ involvement in Little League and his desire to connect with community. Arambula stated that once Williams mentioned his application for his medical marijuana dispensary, he shut down the conversation because it was “inappropriate”. 

Arambula admitted that there is a binder issued to him by the City Manager containing the City Council meeting agenda inside sitting on this dining room table, but insisted it is never opened that he saw and that he regularly kept the binder there. 

Arambula said he then felt uncomfortable and “jumped in the pool to exit the situation” but that Mr. Williams continued to try to get his attention whenever Arambula would return from the restroom throughout the night, which eventually became a “nuisance” or “irritation.” 

Arambula said he stayed in the pool 80% of the time and when asked about a video that Brown had recorded during his time in the pool, he stated he didn’t know he was being recorded. He also stated that claims by Williams that he was skinny dipping were false and that he had on his shorts and boxer underwear. The jury was not shown the video of Arambula in the pool, but he acknowledged on the stand that Taisha Brown was joking about the size of his penis while she recorded the video.

When Briggs asked Arambula how Mayor Racquel Vasquez came to be invited, Arambula said Brown called the Mayor on speaker phone around 9 p.m. and that “I may have mentioned (to the Mayor) hey, you should come over.” Briggs asked, “If she was just your Council Colleague, why would you be calling her at 9 p.m. on a Friday night?” Arambula said Brown invited her and that he had invited his neighbor over for a BBQ, “it was a nice summer day.”

When Mayor Vasquez arrived, Arambula stated that he didn’t recall letting the Mayor in, that she walked in. He said they walked over to the dining room and exchanged niceties and that the Mayor had just come from a city event in the park. He stated he walked away and that Brown and Vasquez are friends, so they hung out together making their way to the patio/pool area outside.

Arambula said he saw the Mayor and Williams talking around the pool but that he could not hear their conversation. When Arambula was asked if they talked about the permit with the Mayor he responded, “Not that I recall.” 

Photo, right: Christopher Williams

Later Arambula recalled Williams “grinding on the Mayor” while dancing with her at the pool and that the Mayor looked uncomfortable; Arambula saidt he saw Vasquez wave off Williams. When Briggs asked him if he intervened, Arambula said “Not Initially. After it went on, I said ‘Stop it. Taisha come get your guy.” The Mayor later testified that Williams did not grind on her, but that he did make her feel uncomfortable and placed his hands on her. 

Briggs asked Arambula about his former colleague on the City Council, Yadira Altamirano, “What was your relationship like?” The defense objected but the judge overruled it. Arambula said, “We worked together.” Briggs followed up, “Was it a good relationship?” Arambula paused but did not answer. Briggs asked, “Did the City seek a temporary restraining order against you to protect her from you?” Arambula’s attorney objected, which the judge sustained.

Arambula said he was unsure of when Williams left originally but stated that the Mayor, Brown and Williams all  exited at approximately the same time. Briggs asked him why he didn’t ask Williams to leave earlier and he said, “I didn’t want to be rude,” Arambula continued with “I didn’t want to insult Taisha or her guest… I was new to politics,” he noted that as a party official, “her endorsement was critical.”

After the group left the house, Arambula said he understood that Brown and Vasquez departed while Williams planned to call an Uber, even though Arambula had offered to let Williams to sleep in the guest room just 30 – 40 minutes earlier. Briggs asked skeptically, “You were willing to let a stranger stay at your house?”

Arambula said that Williams returned a few minutes later, knocked and the door and appeared to have left his phone or  something, so he let him inside..

At this point, Arambula’s story differed drastically from testimony by Williams, who had claimed that he returned because he forgot his phone. Williams testified that after exchanging jokes about Williams being skinny and Arambula’s penis size, Arambula attacked Williams , struck him with a bottle and got Williams in a choke hold. Williams said he blacked out briefly and feared for his life,  threw Williams over his shoulder using a wrestling move. Williams also testified that Arambula bit him and punched him repeatedly during the altercation, and had photos of his injuries taken later that night. Williams also had photos showing no bruising on his hands or knuckles. Williams believed he was “attacked” because he had refused a request from Arambula to take on a business partner in the dispensary.

By contrast, Arambula said when he returned from the restroom, Williams had “the same drink in his hand; he put the drink down and grabbed me by the lapels and said, “You’re gonna do what the f**k I’m telling you to do.” Then Arambula said, “He started choking me: I bit down. Took a bite…stepped on him, and bit his other arm…because Williams was digging his arm into my throat.”

Arambula confirmed he had training in self defense and in hand-to-hand combat in the Marines. He said, “I bit hard enough to break his hold, twice.,He added that he bit Williams a third and fourth time when Arambula was on the ground “after he tried to kill me… I pushed him off, he hit me in the face, chest clavicle.” Then Williams did a wrestling move and “knocked me to the ground… I was still in astonishment… He would have killed me if I hadn’t tried to bite him as hard as I could.”

Arambula said he hit Williams eight or nine times in between holds, “a couple on the body, mouth, nose, above both eyebrows.” Was he bleeding? Asked Briggs, “yes” responded Arambula. Arambula also claimed Williams punched him repeatedly. When Briggs asked Arambula if he ever hit Williams in the head with a bottle?’ He said, “absolutely not” but provided no other explanation for a gash on Williams’ face that required several stitches.

Briggs then asks Arambula, “Did you call an ambulance?” “I did not,” he replied and continued that as the tussle continued, “He was drunk. I just wanted to get him out of there.” Williams had earlier claimed that Arambula had about five drinks and was intoxicated.

 Next, Arambula said, “I grabbed his belt loop and took him outside; he couldn’t stand up…” He said he called Brown to “Come get your guy.” He later found Williams’ phone on his table, he said.

When asked why he didn’t call the police, Arambula said Williams had a lot to drink, attacked a public official in his home, and that since “the eminent threat was gone” he didn’t want to cause Williams any more trouble. He stated that he only spoke to the Sheriff after Williams tried to press charges much later. No charges were filed. Briggs asked Arambula, “When you ran for office, were you endorsed by the Deputy Sheriffs Association? “  Arambula responded, “I was.”

After the incident, Aranbula testified  that he looked at his body to see if he was injured. He stated he did not go to the doctor. In court yesterday, he said he had bruises on his neck, chest and a rash of sorts on his clavicle. However, Briggs read from a deposition, in which Arambula had stated, “I did not have any wounds.” 

In cross examination, Kathryn Lee-Colgan, Arambula’s attorney, asked questions about his educational background, how many kids he has (three of his own, and two he is raising as his own) and If he was honorably discharged from the Military. “Yes,” he replied.  She asked why he decided to run for Council in 2016. He said Councilmember Jennifer Mendoza approached him and asked, “What do you do for your community?” adding that his young son encouraged him to run.

He said his campaign was self-funded and that it only takes about $2,000 to get elected in Lemon Grove. He denied asking that Williams give him money or to take on a partner for the medical marijuana dispensary, but acknowledged he should have “vetted him better” referring to Williams. Since the incident he said he has not conducted any more business get -togethers at his home .

Arambula, calm through his testimony about the altercation, showed a flash of emotion when he described the trial as “embarassing.”

In testimony the day before, both Williams and his fiancée stated that Arambula came up to them after a Council meeting a few days after the altercation, apologized and Williams said that Arambula tried to hug him. Arambula denied that any of that had occurred.

Arambula said that after the incident, he found out that there is a conference room at City Hall for Council members to hold meetings. “We developed those procedures” after the incident. Arambula, who was on the Council about six months at the time,  has also said that he didn’t have an office at City Hall.

City Manager testifies she wasn’t told of incident initially

After lunch, City Manager Lydia Romero briefly took the stand. Briggs asked if she has ever attended meetings at public places other than City Hall to which she replied that she has, at restaurants but not at private residences. She confirmed that back in 2017 binders with the Agenda packets were delivered to Councilmembers homes the Thursday before a meeting.

Briggs then asks Romero how she first became aware of the incident:” I was aware of the incident when I received a claim form from Mr. Williams,” Romero stated. She was then asked if she ever discussed this with Arambula or Vasquez ,and she said that she had not.

Briggs proceeded with questions about whether the City Council members were considered employees and if the ywere paid or received insurance. Romero stated that they are not employees and are paid a stipend of $600 month and do not receive life insurance or car stipends, but can enroll in health insurance and that the city does cover travel such as hotel and airfare. 

Mayor Vasquez takes the stand

Emily Straub, one of Arambula’s defense attorneys, called  Mayor Racquel Vasquez up to the stand and asked her how long she has been Mayor. Vasquez stated that she was elected in 2016 and has served for six years as Mayor of Lemon Grove. She confirmed she was invited by Taisha Brown but was unsure of the exact time she arrived. She said she received the call as the “Movies in the Park” event was ending and that it was about a 10 minute drive to Arambula’s house. She said the movie starts at dusk and runs about two hours, so she estimated she arrived between 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

Photo, left: Mayor Racquel Vasquez

Vasquez said she had known Brown for approximately five years at that time but had only known Arambula about seven months. She stated that her relationship with Arambula was a “professional relationship” and that her relationship with Brown was” a little bit more than professional.”

When Brown telephoned the Mayor, Vasquez said Brown told her, “I’m in Lemon Grove at David’s house, you should stop by, it’s just me and David.” Vasquez testified, “I wanted to get to know him better” so she went. She said there was no mention on the phone of a cannabis dispensary application. 

Vasquez said she had never met Williams before but that he did try to talk about the dispensaries. “I immediately cut him off. I said, ‘So sorry, I can’t discuss that or I would have to disclose it’ and that was the end of the conversation,” Vasquez stated. “If I had a conversation with a potential applicant I would have to disclose. I would have to leave the dais and let other Vouncilmembers decide that.”

When asked if Williams tried to approach her again about the dispensaries she said, “No” but that he did later  tell her he was at her swearing in ceremony, and that he was happy I got elected. She said Wiliams stated “how attractive he thought I looked” adding, “He got in my personal space, way too close for comfort.” She said she felt “very uncomfortable.”

Vasquez said Williams was aggressive. “I’m continuously trying to walk away… so that at least  half the length of the pool is between us.” She said she told Brown to “Come get your guy” 3-5 times. When asked how Brown responded she said, “With laughter”.

The Mayor said she was ready to leave but that it “took coaching to get her (Brown) to leave with me.”

When asked if Williams seemed intoxicated, the Mayor replied, “My opinion is they all had too much to drink. I came in completely sober and I am not a drinker.”

Vasquez denied seeing Arambula throw a glass or display any hostile behavior and that she did not see Arambula naked in the pool. She was asked if Arambula was ever disciplined for the incident? She replied, “No.”

The Mayor told Briggs on cross examination that when she came home, “I immediately told my husband exactly what happened, took a shower and rolled my hair…” Vasquez estimated she left around 11:30 p.m. or 12 a.m.

Briggs asked Vasquez if she saw anyone pouring drinks.“ In this moment I cannot say,” she replied. She was unsure of the size of Arambula’s glass. When asked if  “Mr. Arambula’s glass had a stem like a wine glass the Mayor said, “ The only person that had a wine glass that night was Brown.” This contradicts earlier testimony by Arambula, who said he was drinking wine. Williams previously testified that only Brown drank wine.

Briggs asks, “Did you ever try to talk with Lydia Romero about what happened?” Vasquez said “Yes,” but that “Lydia Romero said she could not talk to me about that.”

Briggs read from the deposition that Vasquez never reported touching/ contact by Williams to anyone.

Vasquez stated under questioning that she did not recall hearing Williams stutter when speaking before the City Council regarding his dispensary appeal after the incident; Williams earlier said the violent incident had affected him emotionally, including causing him to stutter at times when speaking in public.

Arambula’s fiancée, Alma Velasquez, was unable to testify, the jury was told, so a portion of her recoded video deposition was played from October 2019. In the video, she stated that she became aware of the incident after Arambula called her “about 30-40 minutes after it happened.”

Alma Velasquez said she saw bruises on Arambula’s “hands and knuckles, more on his right hand” and that there were “no injuries to his face.” She said that the next night, after the couple returned from a friend’s wedding, she  saw faint bruising around his neck and chest, and no cuts or scrapes. 

The city, which has contended that the meeting was a social gathering and not business, had previously submitted a motion asking to be dismissed as a defendant, but the judge denied that request.

Photo, left:  Defendant, plaintiff, and attorneys rise to await jury entering courtroom

Both sides rested their cases Thursday. Final arguments will be made on Monday, March 6,2023 after which a jury will determine the outcome.

 

 

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