A judge in Pasadena Wednesday dismissed 10 felony charges against a so-called "Dine-and-Dash Dater" who was accused of walking out on checks while on first dates with numerous women at Southland restaurants.
However, Superior Court Judge Darrell Mavis ordered Paul Guadalupe Gonzales, 45, to stand trial on a pair of misdemeanors -- petty theft and defrauding an innkeeper.
Gonzales -- whose bail was reduced from $315,000 to $100,000 -- is due back in court for arraignment Monday, when prosecutors may ask another judge to consider reinstating the felony charges.
After a hearing that lasted two days, Mavis said he did not dispute that the women Gonzales allegedly abandoned at restaurants were "victims."
"The women are victims," Mavis said. "But victims of what crime? That's really the issue."
Mavis noted that "the trouble the court has is the elements of the charge," saying that the restaurants -- not Gonzales -- were being paid by the women.
Deputy District Attorney Michael Fern told the judge that Gonzales "wanted a free meal" and brought unwitting women into his alleged scheme "knowing this was going to happen to them." Most of the women -- who were embarrassed about being left behind with the check -- went ahead and paid the entire check to avoid any "further embarrassment," the prosecutor said.
Gonzales had been charged with eight felony counts of extortion and two felony counts of attempted extortion involving 10 women, along with the misdemeanor counts. Four other counts -- three counts of extortion and one count of defrauding an innkeeper -- were dismissed at the onset of the preliminary hearing, with the prosecution citing the unavailability of witnesses.
The criminal complaint alleged that the crimes occurred between May 2016 and April 2018.
Gonzales' attorney, Deputy Public Defender Salvador Salgado, hailed the judge's decision to dismiss the felony counts.
"From the very beginning I have advised the District Attorney's Office that this was not the appropriate charge, and it was confirmed today," Salgado said outside court. "... He (the judge) has to rule on what has been filed."
Salgado argued during the hearing that the women cannot be considered victims of someone who walks out on a bill, insisting that the entity that would be "out" the money would be the restaurant -- not the person with whom his client was allegedly sitting. In asking for the judge to dismiss the felony counts, he called them "rather exaggerated."
When the hearing began last week, seven women told Mavis they were "embarrassed" and believed they had no choice but to pay the bill when they realized the man they had met for a first date had left the restaurants without paying any portion of the check.
Gonzales allegedly met the women through online dating sites and took them to restaurants in cities including Pasadena, Glendale, Long Beach and the Beverly Hills area.
One of the women, Martha Barba, testified that she knew she would be left with the bill the moment he walked out of a Houston's restaurant in Pasadena.
Barba said she met Gonzales through the online dating site Plenty of Fish and agreed to meet him for dinner at a Chipotle restaurant in Pasadena, but he subsequently asked to leave the fast-food eatery and go to the nearby Houston's while assuring her that he would pick up the tab.
Gonzales "mentioned something about Facetiming with his kids" after the two ate, and said he said he had to go outside to speak with them, but never returned, according to Barba.
Barba said she asked the waitress for the bill -- which she thought was close to $200 -- and paid it using part of her rent money because she was embarrassed about what had happened.
"I felt humiliated a little bit," she said.
Other women called to the stand had similar accounts.
Wendy Luttrell told the judge that she met Gonzales through a dating site and agreed to meet him in February at Parkway Grill in Pasadena, then realized she had been left behind with the check just over a half-hour after he said he needed to wire money to his daughters in college in Arizona.
"I don't have a choice. He left so I had to pay the bill," she said,noting that it wasn't the restaurant's fault "that he's a jerk."
All the women said Gonzales chose the restaurants where they met for their first dates, and some said they later contacted the dating site where they had first encountered him to inform them what had happened.
Gonzales also received a haircut and color treatment from a Pasadena salon in April and left without paying, according to court documents.
The judge also heard testimony from Pasadena police Detective Victor Cass, who said he spoke with two other women who were alleged victims. One of the women was "mortified" by what happened and paid the bill of about $80, while a restaurant agreed to pick up the tab when another woman was allegedly left behind, the detective said.
The detective -- who said he arrested Gonzales after recognizing him while the defendant was walking in Old Town Pasadena on Aug. 25 -- told the judge that Gonzales said he used to have high-paying sales jobs, but had no money and was basically broke.
After his arrest, Gonzales talked at length about his physical ailments and explained that the only way he ever felt better was if he ate really good food, the detective said.
Under cross-examination, the detective said he "quickly debunked" the defendant's claim that it had accidentally happened once and pointed out the number of times Gonzales had allegedly left his dates with the tab.