Sexual battery trial of Newhall restaurant owner gets underway

The Santa Clarita Courthouse. KATHARINE LOTZE/Signal.


The jury trial of a local restaurateur accused of sexual battery against a woman who once worked for him got underway at the Santa Clarita Courthouse on Friday.

Sam Albert Gardian, 48, co-owner of the Southern Smoke BBQ & Brewhouse in Newhall, is charged with two counts of sexual battery and two counts of simple battery.

Gardian committed the four misdemeanor counts against Jessica Castillo during four separate incidents, according to prosecutors.

Deputy District Attorney Taylor Carr presented her opening statements to jurors inside Courtroom 3 of the Santa Clarita Courthouse outlining how she intended to prove the crimes were committed.

In describing the two counts of “simple battery,” she told jurors Gardian “smacked” Castillo in the back of her head and grabbed her tongue with his thumb and forefinger and shook it.

In describing the first of two counts of sexual battery, Carr said Gardian, holding a piece of ice, shoved his hand down the back of the woman’s pants, under her underwear and “up against her vagina.”

The second alleged incident of sexual battery happened, she said, in the restaurant’s parking lot as Castillo was getting into her car.

“He followed her out to the car and grabbed the driver’s door before she could close it,” Carr said.

“He leaned into the cab of the car and shoved his hand down the front of her pants, under her underwear with his hand lingering on her vagina — for what probably, to her, seemed like an eternity — for about four or five seconds.”

Castillo responded with, “Dude, what’s it going to take for you to stop?” Carr said.

“This was a hostile work environment to say the least,” Carr told jurors. “And, on April 24, 2016, it escalated into something else.”

Gardian’s attorney David Diamond painted a different picture of what happened on that night when he was given a chance to respond to Carr’s opening statement.

Diamond told the jury to remember the words used by Judge Robert J. Schuit who described a prosecutor’s opening statement as a “table of contents” for the trial.

“Everything you were shown, you can’t take as fact,” Diamond told them. “This is a road map.”

He said he would use three words repeatedly throughout the trial: reliability, relevance and reality.

He said the jury would hear testimony that Gardian treated Castillo like a daughter, that Castillo had been “written up” a number of times and that Castillo was “very flirtatious, not just with my client but with others that work there.

“He gave her chance after chance to succeed in the restaurant environment,” Diamond said.

Diamond also told the jury they would hear testimony that the statements Castillo gave to police differed from statements made later on.

“You’re going to hear that from a sworn peace officer,” he said.

“About April 2016, you’re going to hear evidence of a slightly different story from people in the restaurant that it was a playful ice fight and that Castillo threw ice into Gardian’s chest.

“And that he opened the back of her pants and dropped the ice — his hand didn’t go down there,” Diamond said.

As for the second incident of alleged sexual battery in the parking lot, Diamond told jurors he would produce a witness who would testify that he “heard giggling.”

Carr introduced the jury to her first witness at the trial Friday, a former employee of the restaurant, Jillian Liberman.

Liberman told jurors she saw Gardian grab and shake Castillo’s tongue and saw him “smack her in the back of the head” with an open hand.

Carr asked her to describe the restaurant work environment. “It was hostile at times,” Liberman testified.

The tongue-grabbing incident began when Liberman asked Castillo’s advice about asking Gardian if she could leave work early, according to Liberman.

When Gardian denied the request and learned of the advice given he summoned Castillo and told her to stick out her tongue.

“I asked him if I could go home early and he said ‘No. We don’t do that kind of thing here.  Then he called Jessica over and asked her to stick her tongue out.

“He grabbed (her tongue) and said, ‘Stop running your mouth.’ He shook it around a bit, and I don’t know why. (Castillo) kind of stood there in shock, wondering why would someone do that to you,” Liberman testified.

Diamond later asked specifics regarding how Castillo’s tongue was allegedly held, looking to poke holes in Liberman’s memory.

“It wasn’t done in a nice tone or playful tone,” Liberman said. She also described the alleged head-hitting as “unprovoked.”

Under cross-examination, Diamond asked Liberman about being shown an exhibit from the prosecution, a photo depicting the inside of the restaurant. It came out during Diamond’s questioning of Liberman that the D.A.’s Office had presented an inverted photo.

Liberman said the photo was an “inverted” image of the restaurant’s actual set up.

He asked her what she did right after the alleged tongue-grabbing incident.

“We looked at each other,” Liberman said, referring to Castillo.

“Did she rinse her mouth?” Diamond asked her.

Liberman replied: “Now, that you mention it, she said, ‘I feel like rinsing my mouth.’”

“You didn’t see her rinse it out?” he asked.

“No,” said Liberman.

The trial is expected to continue next week.

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