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Swirling sands: A tragic death on the Oceano Dunes has led to a torrent of investigations, lawsuits, restraining orders, and fights 

Bryon Tatum, 52, was struck and killed by an oncoming vehicle on the Oceano Dunes as daylight was fading on Dec. 28, 2014. His death was a tragedy.

Everybody agrees on that.

Unfortunately, that’s about the only point of agreement these days among Tatum’s friends, family, and acquaintances.

On March 16, about 20 of those people packed a San Luis Obispo courtroom for a hearing to process more than 15 different restraining orders they’d filed against each other.

As Judge Barry LaBarbera grimaced and pleaded with the assembled crowd to interact peacefully, they nonetheless yelled at each other, accused each other of lying, angrily shook papers, and purposefully sat on opposite sides of the courtroom, glaring.

The tense hearing was a microcosm of the contentious atmosphere that’s followed Tatum’s death, full of fights, online and in-person threats, emergency room visits, lawsuits, law enforcement investigations, and the aforementioned restraining orders.

While hurt feelings over Tatum’s death are a major cause of all this drama, some of the people involved said that family history, old beefs, and physical altercations following Tatum’s death have also played a role.

As many of the details of the last three months are disputed, New Times has done its best to represent all sides and contextualize information whenever possible.

“This has been a nightmare for me,” said Jennifer Bouvette, a friend of Tatum’s who claims she’s been the target of violence and harassment. “The beach was supposed to be my serenity, but all this violence has changed my whole world.”

A Jan. 30 violent incident involving Bouvette and other friends/family of Tatum is at the center of much of the current conflict. For her part, Bouvette claims she was jumped on the dunes by a large group of people who proceeded to beat her.

“I had hair ripped out of my head, blunt force trauma all over my body, and a cut on my face,” Bouvette told New Times. “I drove myself to the hospital, but I was there all night, and I’ve been to the doctor nine times since.”

Bouvette filed nine restraining orders in the wake of that incident, and on March 16, LaBarbera approved all of them for a six-month period. Among the restrained are Kathryn Tatum (Bryon’s daughter), and Danika Early, a Tatum family friend against whom Bouvette filed a citizen’s arrest as the purported instigator of the incident.

When contacted by New Times, Early declined to comment because of her ongoing legal situation. In court on March 16, Early described the situation as “pretty much a bunch of drama” and admitted that she had “gotten into a physical confrontation.”

However, Early claimed in court that she was merely defending herself on Jan. 30, adding that Bouvette “jumped out of her vehicle and scratched my face.” Early also said she’s been harassed online, by text, and by fliers placed on cars regarding her purported role in the altercation. She responded in kind and filed a six-month restraining order against Bouvette, which was also approved by LaBarbera on March 16.

Also in court that day was Allen Castillo, a close friend of Bouvette’s, who had separate restraining orders against Kathryn, Danika, and seven other people approved as well, despite objections from many of the restrained.

“I am requesting immediate orders because the violence is escalating with physical threats, racial slurs, and reckless driving,” Castillo wrote in his rationale for the restraining orders. “I fear for my safety and the safety of my family.”

For his part, LaBarbera seemed exasperated with the whole situation.

“I don’t know if there’s going to be a criminal case, and I don’t know who’s telling the truth here,” he said during the March 16 hearing. “You just have to live in peace—stay away from each other, and I don’t want to see any of you again [in court].”

State Parks was the law enforcement agency that responded to the Jan. 30 incident, but they responded well after the disputed initial altercation.

“There was a lot of uncertainty at the scene, and not a lot of evidence to identify any one aggressor,” Chief Ranger Kevin Pearce told New Times. “There was a citizen’s arrest on behalf of Ms. Bouvette, but there were no crimes committed in the presence of our officers.

“We’ve forwarded all of the information onto the DA’s office, and it’s up to them about whether to pursue criminal charges,” he concluded.

Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham confirmed that his office has received the report regarding the Jan. 30 incident, but—as of press time—the matter was still under review.

“I know people are denying that they beat me, but I was attacked,” Bouvette said. “Whether Danika gets charged criminally or not, I will be filing a civil case against her, because I don’t want to have any more altercations in my life.”

As it happens, Bouvette isn’t the only person set on litigation. Bryon Tatum’s daughter Kathryn—who’s had two restraining orders filed against her—filed a separate unlimited civil case on Feb. 20 over her father’s death.

In the suit, Kathryn names Oceano Dunes concessionaire Luv2Camp as well as Dustin Van Phillips as defendants. Van Phillips, a Luv2Camp employee, was driving the Luv2Camp vehicle that struck and killed Tatum on Dec. 28.

“Kathryn Tatum is the sole surviving heir of [Bryon Tatum],” the suit states. “Kathryn Tatum has lost the care, comfort and society of her father, as well as his financial support for the necessities of life.”

Morro Bay attorney Todd Porter is representing Kathryn in the lawsuit, and he told New Times that Kathryn doesn’t wish to speak to the media.

“It was a tragic accident, but everything is really premature at this point,” Porter said as to why he filed an “unlimited” civil case. “Putting monetary numbers on a wrongful death case this early on disrespects the jury’s function, in my mind.”

In the suit, Porter alleges that “Van Phillips became distracted, and looked down, and when he looked up he crushed Bryon Tatum against the rear of [Tatum’s] 1969 GMC Truck. As a result of his injuries, Bryon Tatum died on the scene.”

Porter declined to comment on the potential for a criminal case regarding Tatum’s death, while Assistant DA Cunningham said his office has yet to receive any report about Tatum’s death, as of press time.

Pearce of State Parks said his office (along with the California Highway Patrol) just recently completed its investigation into Tatum’s death.

“Our legal office has given us direction not to discuss the Bryon Tatum investigation, as there’s the potential for litigation,” Pearce said.

Luv2Camp representatives didn’t return multiple calls for comment from New Times.

Going forward, the restraining orders are valid through Sept. 18, and Kathryn’s civil suit is scheduled for a case management conference on June 29.

 

Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be 
reached at rheyden@newtimesslo.com.

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