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LQ man charged in choking death to be tried for voluntary manslaughter

INDIO, Calif. - A 21-year-old La Quinta man initially charged with second- degree murder in the death of his mother's boyfriend will instead stand trial for voluntary manslaughter, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Robert Ryan Lugo is accused in 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 allegedly placed Crews in a chokehold that proved fatal.

Lugo would have faced 15 years to life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder, but now faces a maximum potential sentence of 11 years. 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.

Lugo pleaded not guilty to murdering his stepfather in November

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.

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The fight took both men to the ground, where Lugo allegedly 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, about nine months after Crews' death and 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 the judge, 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. Despite that, ``(the defendant) instantly responded with deadly force,'' said Hightower.

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.''

Riverside County Superior Court Judge Anthony R. Villalobos said he did not believe Lugo expected the chokehold to be a lethal move and ruled that the circumstances did not rise to the level of a murder charge.

He emphasized the size difference between the two men -- Crews at 377 pounds and Lugo at around 200 -- and Crews' three punches thrown at the defendant.

Lugo will return to court May 2 for a post-preliminary hearing arraignment.


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