Fatal Crash : Santa Paula Boxer Faces Hardest Fight

Times Staff Writer

On July 17, 1987, boxer Lupe Aquino paraded through Santa Paula in the back seat of a convertible. Spectators crowded along eight blocks of Main Street to cheer the hometown boy in tiger-striped shorts who, five days earlier, had become the world's super-welterweight champion after beating Duane Thomas in Bordeaux, France.

Hardly a year later, Isaias Guadalupe Aquino, 25, faces charges of manslaughter and felony drunk driving.

Sunday at 2:20 a.m., Aquino was driving from a rock concert with three friends when his Mercedes-Benz swerved out of a slow lane on the San Diego Freeway, dropped 40 feet down an embankment and landed upside down on Sepulveda Boulevard, killing his best friend, Ventura disc jockey Howard Thomas, 25, and Teresa Bello, 26, of Ventura, Thomas' girlfriend.

Aquino's girlfriend, 25-year-old Michelle Avila of Ventura, was taken to UCLA Medical Center with moderate injuries and has been released. Aquino suffered facial cuts and a back injury.

Court Date Set

After hospital treatment, Aquino was arrested and held in custody until Art Aragon, a former professional boxer once known as L.A.'s "Golden Boy," provided the $2,500 bail for his release. Aquino's arraignment is scheduled for Sept. 8 in Los Angeles Municipal Court.

In Santa Paula, where signs proclaiming "Home of Lupe Aquino" once decorated the east and west entrances to town, reaction to the charges has been somber.

"I feel bad for a young man who put his whole life into the sport," said Felix Vega, a boxing trainer who worked with Aquino for three years.

"With his boxing, Lupe proved to the people of Santa Paula and Ventura County that you don't have to be from the big city to be someone," said Vega, standing in a boxing ring in a shed behind his Santa Paula home, surrounded by punching bags, laminated news clips about Aquino, and a banner reading The Rocky Road to Stardom.

Affixed to a wall was a poster that said Budweiser Salutes Santa Paula and Its Champ, Lupe Aquino.

"This will not help his career," Vega said.

The World Boxing Council ranks Aquino, who was born in Mexico, as the No. 2 challenger in its super-welterweight division.

"It's all everybody's been talking about," said Annie Salas, the owner of El Brillante market in Santa Paula. "It's just tragic, and we all feel it."

Salas, who has known Aquino since he was a young boy, added: "He was and is a very nice kid. He wouldn't hurt anybody purposefully."

Drunk-Driving Forum

Stan Sponseller, a cook at Eddie's Cafe, said, "It's kind of a discouraging thing to hear. It makes the town look bad, in a way."

"It's unfortunate that these things happen to celebrities," said Mayor Carl Barringer. "It's difficult to ascend to the heights. It's a classic story of too much too soon."

Aquino's family in Santa Paula declined to talk about the crash. Aquino's lawyer, Robert Troy Caron of Ventura, was not available for comment.

Motivated by the tragedy, Dave Baker and Ed Crandall, both friends with Aquino and Thomas, plan to orchestrate a forum next month to examine the drunk-driving problem in Ventura County.

Baker and Crandall are asking a number of state and local officials to participate. They plan to establish the Howard Thomas Memorial Scholarship Fund and a benefit concert in Thomas' honor.

"We're trying to make some big waves," said Baker, the president of Crown Billiards in Ventura. "Our sights are on national impact."

Thomas, whose radio pseudonym was "HT the Body Rocker," was program director for KMYX in Ventura. He was the son of Mike Thomas, the station's owner.

Still in Shock

KMYX disc jockey Doug Gilmore said the station has been flooded with phone calls from listeners expressing sadness about the disc jockey's death.

"He was very popular," Gilmore said, "and a lot of us are still in shock. It's hard to process the fact that Howard is no longer with us."

Sam Salas, who works at the Santa Paula Nautilus gym where Aquino lifts weights during the off-season, said he and Aquino listened to Thomas' show during afternoon workouts.

Salas and others believe that Aquino will struggle with the fact that Thomas, his best friend, died in the wreck.

"It will be the biggest fight of his career," Crandall said.

Three months after winning the world title in 1987, Aquino was dethroned by challenger Gianfranco Rosi in Perugia, Italy. Aquino lost again in January to Donald (the Cobra) Curry, and blamed his lackluster performance on injuries suffered in an auto accident.

But, until the recent crash, Aquino had been battling back to the top.

In his last match June 24, Aquino thrashed Royan Hammond in Atlantic City, making his record 33-4-1, with 22 knockouts. In 38 professional fights, Aquino has never fallen to the canvas.

The recent charges involving the crash are not Aquino's first. In February of 1987, he was charged with battery after he allegedly broke Avila's jaw during an argument.

Aquino and Avila have a 4-year-old son.

Since then, Aquino has been part of a "diversion" program, meaning that he must obey all laws and attend anger-control workshops for two years in order to avoid sentencing on the battery charges.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Patricia Kelliher, who filed the battery charges last year, said that if Aquino is found guilty of manslaughter and drunk driving, he will have broken the terms of diversion and may face further sentencing for the earlier battery case.

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