A Stanislaus County Superior Court judge ruled Friday that there was sufficient evidence to hold a Turlock man over on a murder charge for the beating death of an elderly man in what authorities say was a suspected incident of road rage.
Michael Hoyt will be arraigned June 8, on a charge of second-degree murder for the death of Kenneth Winter of Hilmar. Hoyt is accused of beating Winter after a traffic incident on Paulson Road. The Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office contends the beating was so severe that it caused Winter to die from internal injuries hours after the alleged assault on Feb. 1, 2010.
“I don’t think Mr. Hoyt set out that day to kill Mr. Winter,” Judge Ricardo Cordova said in his ruling. “I find there is sufficient evidence Mr. Hoyt acted with implied malice by the continued striking of Mr. Winter while he was on the ground.”
A pathologist testified during the hearing that Winter had 45 distinct areas of injury.
The ruling was greeted with an emotional release from Winter’s family, who had been attending the hearing each day.
“I think the right decision was made,” said Winter’s cousin Nadine Walters. “He didn’t stop hitting Ken when he could have.”
Winter’s widow Bernice Winter cried silently as the judge delivered his ruling until she finally couldn’t hold it in any longer and left the courtroom and burst into loud sobs in the hallway.
“I’m glad the judge ruled for us,” she said. “I hope justice continues to be served in this case.”
Bernice Winter also has filed a civil suit against Hoyt.
The judge made his ruling soon after the final arguments made by Deputy District Attorney Wendell Emerson and Defense Attorney Frank Carson.
From the onset of the hearing the district attorney’s office was presenting the case as a clear instance of road rage.
“He (Hoyt) was in such a rage he turned a minor traffic incident into murder,” Emerson said.
The defense argued the case that Winter was the aggressive party and that Hoyt was acting in self-defense.
“Everything Mr. Hoyt did was reasonable under the circumstances,” Carson said.
Wednesday was the last full day of testimony in the hearing and the defense called Barbara Romero, Hoyt’s fiancée to the stand.
Romero was inside Hoyt’s vehicle that day and recounted a similar version of what led up to the alleged assault. Both Romero and Hoyt told Stanislaus County Sheriff’s investigators that Winter ran a stop sign and almost hit their vehicle and that Winter continued to drive erratically.
During the hearing there was an emphasis put on where Hoyt’s vehicle was when he stopped and Winter stopped his truck behind. Brook Avila, who drove up on the altercation, testified that the two vehicles were stopped in the middle road, but Romero testified that Hoyt had pulled his vehicle off to the side of the road. The defense argued this was an important distinction because in part it would have given Winter an option to drive around and go on about his way.
Romero testified that there were parts of the fight she could not see because the two men were on the ground, out of her line of vision, and because she was looking in her purse for her cell phone.
During his closing arguments, Emerson called Romero a biased witness whose testimony was not credible.
The defense put forth multiple theories during the hearing as to how Winter could have sustained the fatal injuries and to his state of mind. An autopsy revealed Winter had a blood alcohol level of 0.20, more than twice the legal limit and investigators did find a nearly empty bottle of vodka in his truck.
“He was the angry one,” Carson said of Winter. “He was the one who was going to exact some vengeance.”
Another theory mentioned by the defense was that Winter and his son Eric Winter, had a volatile relationship. The treatment records from the hospital mentioned that someone in the family thought it might have been the son who injured Winter. The son was interviewed by Kari Abbey, who at the time was a detective with the sheriff’s department. Abbey is now facing murder charges of her own.
Abbey could play a role in Hoyt’s upcoming arraignment and bail review. After the ruling was made, Carson argued for a bail reduction from the current $2 million to $200,000. The prosecution argued that $1 million was a necessary amount and the judge agreed. Carson argued that it was ridiculous his client was being held to a higher standard than Abbey, who used a firearm and is facing additional criminal charges. Abbey is free on a $300,000 bail. The judge stuck by his ruling and Carson said he plans to revisit the bail issue at the arraignment.
To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.