Benavides man charged in 2003 death of Freer High School junior

Sue Fleming, Duval County Correspondent

SAN DIEGO - Testimony began Tuesday in the intoxication manslaughter trial of Rene Armando Charo of Benavides at the Duval County Courthouse.

Charo is on trial for the May 17, 2003 motor vehicle accident death of Amanda Celeste Lichtenberger of Freer.

If found guilty and convicted for the second-degree felony, he could face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Charo is represented by attorneys Charles Barrera and John Gilmore.

The first witness called to testify on behalf of the prosecuting district attorney's office was Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Edward Groves.

Groves testified he arrived at the scene of the accident on Highway 339 between Benavides and Freer sometime after 1:30 a.m.

"It was a major vehicle accident," he said. "It was a rollover with injuries. I arrived and saw a red Mustang rolled over in a bar ditch."

Two victims were still inside the vehicle and one had been thrown outside the vehicle, he said.

Charo and Lichtenberger were partially ejected and another passenger, Rita Roxanne Luna, was on the ground outside, Groves said.

He said he notified EMS and HALO-Flight immediately.

Assistant District Attorney Jon West asked Groves if he recognized any of the three individuals injured.

"I recognized Roxanne," he said. "I knew Roxy was from Freer."

Groves said Luna appeared to have severe head and shoulder injuries.

Lichtenberger was in and out of consciousness in the back seat and Charo was conscious but was complaining of leg pain, he said.

"I determined he was the driver," Groves said.

Groves said he administered triage medical treatment before EMS arrived.

Upon further questioning by West, Groves said he began evaluating the accident using a laser used for road measurement, making notes of skid marks and taking photographs of the scene. Six photos were then admitted into evidence for jurors to view.

West asked Groves what actions, in his opinion, caused the accident, Groves replied, "based on evidence at the scene, loss of control of the vehicle by the driver."

During cross-examination, Gilmore questioned if marks on the road could have been an indication there had been steering or brake application prior to the accident.

"No," he answered, "and there were no objects in the road - water or oil."

Groves said he determined the cause of the accident to be steering application from the north bound lane of traffic into the south-bound portion.

"The vehicle came to rest in a fence and at a mesquite tree," he said.

Gilmore asked if Groves had questioned Luna for information regarding the cause of the accident.

"Three times and she did not have any information as to what caused it," he replied. "I asked her at the scene - she was dazed; at the hospital and again later and she didn't know anything."

Concluding questioning, Gilmore asked Groves if speed could have been a contributing factor.

"No, you can't determine that factor when using the laser," he said.

Rigo Villarreal also testified and said he was certified in rescue tools with the Freer Volunteer Fire Department.

He said when he arrived, he proceeded to first secure the area, then used the "jaws of life" to open the passenger's door.

Afterward, the medical team took over, he said,

West called Rita Roxanne Luna to the stand. Luna said she and Lichtenberger, both juniors in high school at the time of the accident, were best friends.

She testified she had gone to a party at a home in Benavides that night with about seven others, including Lichtenberger and Charo.

"We played pool and drank," she said.

Luna testified alcohol had been brought to the party.

"Amanda and Rene were dating," she said.

After awhile, everyone left to go to Freer to attend another party but turned back to Benavides later, she said.

"Why did you turn back?" West asked.

"We heard it was going to be busted," Luna said. "We were underage."

She said no food or snacks were being eaten, everyone was drinking beer.

Luna said about 12:45 a.m., she left the party in Benavides with Charo and Lichtenberger who were arguing.

"His tone was aggressive, they were arguing about Amanda's ex-boyfriend," she said. "He was very angry."

When asked if beer was in the car, she said no.

Luna said she sat in the back seat, Charo drove and Lichtenberger was in the front seat on the passenger's side.

"I just wanted to get home," she said. "He was driving very fast, was very angry.

"I don't remember anything during the wreck, I just remember asking Amanda if she was all right and she asked me if I was all right," she said. They talked a bit longer and then Luna said she realized Amanda was passing away.

During cross examination by Barrera, he asked if she had taken drugs at the party.

Luna admitted cocaine had been available.

"There were three lines in the bathroom - I took one," she said.

Upon further questioning by Barrera, Luna denied telling others, including a nurse, that the accident occurred because they swerved to miss an animal in the road.

"So you're saying they're all lying," Barrera asked.

Yes, they are, Luna said. "I never said that."

The last witness called to testify Tuesday was Dr. David Kerek of CHRISTUS Spohn Memorial Hospital in Corpus Christi. He said he treated Charo for multiple injuries, including a broken leg, at about 4 a.m. May 17.

Kerek stated he was a trauma surgeon and has worked in the ER for five years.

"Hospital reports show he was brought in May 17 and released May 24," he said.

Kerek testified blood and urine analysis had also been taken.

Barrera then pointed out Kerek was not a toxicologist, and Kerek said he was not authorized to conduct such tests.

Barrera asked Kerek if he knew if Charo's tests were really Charo's or if they could be someone else's, to which the doctor responded "no, he did not know."

Assistant District Attorney Rudy Gutierrez asked if swabs used to clean a shot site could possibly contaminate tests, Kerek answered again, that he did not know.

"If test results are suspicious, I repeat them," he said.

The doctor did testify that Charo's drug screen was negative and was unable to determine alcohol levels.