A 21-year-old La Quinta man who choked his mother’s boyfriend to death after seeing the couple fighting pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter Thursday and was immediately sentenced to three years in state prison.
Robert Ryan Lugo was arrested last winter in connection with the Feb. 21, 2016, death of 47-year-old Byron Crews during a fight at the older man’s La Quinta home, during which Lugo placed Crews in a chokehold that proved fatal. Lugo was initially charged with second-degree murder, but that charge was reduced to voluntary manslaughter following an April preliminary hearing.
According to a declaration in support of an arrest warrant, Lugo intervened in a heated argument between his mother and Crews in the couple’s bedroom. The two men argued, and the altercation turned physical after Crews swung twice and missed Lugo and then connected with a third punch, striking Lugo in the mouth, the declaration states.
The fight took both men to the ground, where Lugo placed Crews in a chokehold until he was pulled off by family members. Sheriff’s deputies found Crews unresponsive. He was taken to John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Indio, where he was pronounced dead.
Lugo was also taken to a hospital that day. He was treated for minor injuries and then released, but was not arrested. Lugo was taken into custody last December in Desert Hot Springs, two months after he was charged with murder and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
"This was an accident,” defense attorney Greg Johnson told Riverside County Superior Court Judge Anthony R. Villalobos in April, alleging that Crews had shown abusive behavior toward his client’s mother in the past and Lugo was trying to protect her. Deputy District Attorney Robert Hightower argued that Lugo knew the danger of chokeholds due to his time on his high school wrestling team and had to be pulled off Crews by family members, showing he used more force than needed to subdue him.
Hightower pointed out that Crews had no weapon and said there was no evidence that he was going to physically attack Lugo’s mother during the argument. The prosecutor alleged Lugo was aware that Crews had breathing issues after the men previously tussled and the defendant had used the same method to subdue him, while Johnson said the chokehold was simply an attempt “to control the situation.”
Villalobos ultimately decided that Lugo should not be held to answer on the murder charge, ruling that he didn’t believe Lugo expected the chokehold to be a lethal move and emphasizing the size difference between the two men — Crews at 377 pounds and Lugo at around 200 — and Crews’ three punches thrown at the defendant.