For Nelson Olivera and his family, Christmas was always a time of mirth and togetherness. That all changed two years ago when Olivera watched his brother fall to the street outside his Bluffton home, bleeding and riddled with bullets.
Six rounds slammed into 34-year-old Carlos Olivera after he argued with a tow truck driver who had placed a parking boot on his minivan during a Christmas Eve visit. Carlos died that night, and the tow truck driver, Preston Oates, ended up in jail on manslaughter and weapons charges.
But as the second anniversary of Carlos’ death approaches, a series of events — some routine, some bizarre — have left the criminal case in limbo and Oates a free man while he presses a self-defense claim in a bid to get his charges dropped.
The Olivera family is angry and frustrated with the slow pace of the judicial system and the antics attributed to Oates since his arrest.
Oates, 29, got out of jail last year despite allegations of an escape attempt, and he’s since been accused of violating his house arrest.
Authorities said they also linked a computer in Oates’ home to the posting of a bogus dating website profile for Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner, who is married. Someone using the same computer also posed as Tanner’s wife to post pro-Oates comments on a newspaper website, deputies said.
Prosecutors tried last month to get Oates’ bond revoked, but to no avail. A judge placed him on electronic monitoring so authorities can track Oates’ whereabouts. But he also gave Oates more freedom to leave his home to get a job.
Meanwhile, Oates’ supporters have been making noise insisting that Carlos Olivera was the one who committed a crime on the night of his death by pulling a gun on Oates during the dispute.
None of this sits well with the Oliveras.
“We feel we are treated like we are the defendants in this case and the defendant is treated like the victim,” Nelson Olivera said.
“Every time he does something wrong, he is getting more privileges. It seems like he is getting off little by little, and we cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone declined to comment on the case while Oates’ attorneys appeal his charges to the S.C. Court of Appeals.
Oates’ legal team argues that the state’s so-called “castle doctrine” law shields Oates from prosecution because he was acting in self-defense and protecting his property. A Circuit Court judge denied their first attempt to dismiss the charges, but they are appealing that ruling. No hearing date has been set.
“We cannot bring the case to trial until the appeals courts have ruled,” Stone said. “It is not proper for me to comment on any of the facts of this case until then.”
Jared Newman, one of Oates’ attorneys, said his client has done nothing wrong and he simply wants to find gainful employment while he waits for the case to move forward. Oates’ arrest hobbled his tow-truck business and he’s been forced to live with a cloud over his head, he said.
“He is anxious to have his case heard by the Court of Appeals because his life right now is on hold,” Newman said.
A bad boy rep
Oates had something of a bad-boy reputation even before the shooting. Stories swirled around the community about Oates supposedly targeting Hispanics for towing. His past also includes other violent run-ins on tow calls and a 2010 arrest for allegedly running an illicit, after-hours club.
The smirking face Oates displayed for his police mug shot after the shooting did little to improve his image, nor did reports that he said “Feliz Navidad” — Spanish for “Merry Christmas” — to Olivera’s relatives as deputies led him away from the shooting scene.
Oates’ family and friends, however, have insisted he is getting a bad rap and should never have been arrested. They say he is a generous man, has no beef against Hispanics and is not a violent person.
The Edgefield neighborhood, where Nelson Olivera lives, doesn’t allow cars to park on its narrow streets, and the homeowners association hired Oates’ company, Pro Tow, to deal with any rule-breakers.
Nelson Olivera has said his brother was parked on the street no more than 15 minutes while he visited with relatives. When Carlos walked outside, he found Oates had slapped a parking boot on his minivan. The two men argued, but Oates refused to remove the boot unless Carlos handed over a $300 fee, authorities said.
Nelson Olivera said his brother, who had a valid concealed-weapons permit, showed Oates a gun he had tucked in his waistband. Oates handed over the keys to the boot. Olivera’s family said Oates then shot Carlos while his back was turned and finished him off execution-style.
Carlos Olivera was shot six times — four times in the back, once in the arm and once in the head, according to authorities and the victim’s family. A police report from the autopsy tells a somewhat different story, indicating two wounds to the back, one to the side, one to the arm, one to the abdomen and one to the back of the neck.
Oates has insisted that Carlos held him at gunpoint and robbed him of his keys. Oates maintains that he shot Carlos because he was in fear for his life after being ordered from his truck at gunpoint to remove the boot, according to court papers.
Oates’ supporters point to a statement Nelson Olivera gave to investigators on the night of the shooting, in which he said “my brother pull his gun” and told Oates to release the van.
Nelson Rivera said he was in shock and struggling with his English when he spoke to investigators, and he maintains that Carlos never pointed his pistol at Oates. “Since day one, (Oates) has been lying,” he said. “He attacked us, and now he is twisting the truth.”
Posts spur probe
While the case awaits an appeals court ruling, Oates has been living at a home his father owns at an undisclosed location in another county, authorities said. A computer at the home was found to have been used to post the fake profile for Sheriff Tanner on Match.com, Sheriff’s Master Sgt. Brian Baird said.
A county employee spotted the profile and brought it to the sheriff’s attention. It had his photo and biographical information lifted from the sheriff’s office website or that of the local Republican party, Baird said. The profile went up shortly after Oates was released from jail, he said.
Investigators also found that the same computer had been used to post comments on The Island Packet’s website by someone posing as Tanner’s wife, Bluffton police Capt. Angela McCall-Tanner. The imposter posted comments supportive of Oates and the castle doctrine, Baird said.
After tracing the online posts to the computer in the home where Oates was confined, investigators noted that some updates had been from other areas of the state, Baird said. “That concerned us because he was under house arrest at the time,” he said.
Investigators checked Oates’ cellphone records and found calls placed around the state and in North Carolina, Baird said.
Stone quickly moved to revoke Oates’ bond, but Oates’ attorneys argued that the sheriff’s office probe was improper because it was based on an outdated state libel and slander statute that been declared unconstitutional. Newman said authorities also couldn’t prove Oates was the one who had used his phone to place calls around the state.
“What they were trying to do was find any way they could to get Mr. Oates’ bond revoked,” he said.
No charges have been filed in the phony online posts under the Tanners’ names, and the solicitor told The Beaufort Gazette that none are anticipated.
“I don’t think it really matters whether he even did what they say he did,” Newman said. “It may be in poor taste, but it’s not a criminal matter.”
For the Oliveras, the episode is just one more perplexing chapter in a painful saga dating back to Christmas Eve 2010. As they gather for the holiday this year, thoughts of Oates won’t be far from their minds.
“Before this episode, everyone was happy because Christmas is a beautiful time of the year,” Nelson Olivera said. “But not anymore. This guy is the Grinch who stole Christmas from the Olivera family.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.
Friends and family of Carlos Olivera gathered outside the Beaufort County Courthouse after Circuit Court Judge Craig Brown denied Bluffton tow truck operator Preston Oates early in the case. Oates was charged with killing Olivera during an argument over a parking incident on Christmas Eve 2010.×
Tow company owner Preston Oates (right) said he acted in self-defense and was protecting his property when he fatally shot Carlos Olivera on Dec. 24, 2010.×