Beaufort News

Tow-truck driver indicted on manslaughter, weapon charges

Preston Oates
Preston Oates

A Beaufort County grand jury indicted Bluffton tow-truck operator Preston Oates this week on a charge of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of a man during a Christmas-Eve parking dispute, according to the 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor's Office.

The manslaughter charge could carry a sentence of two to 30 years, according to Solicitor Duffie Stone. Oates also was indicted Thursday on a charge of possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime, which carries a mandatory five-year sentence.

No trial date has been set, Stone said Friday.

The 27-year-old Oates, co-owner of Pro Tow, has been in the Beaufort County Detention Center since Dec. 27, three days after the shooting death of Carlos Alberto Olivera, 34, of Bluffton. Oates was denied bond on the manslaughter charge Jan. 28.

The shooting occurred after an argument over a wheel boot put on Olivera's minivan in the Edgefield neighborhood near Bluffton, according to the Solicitor's Office. Oates was confronted by Olivera's family and friends. Oates said he would remove the boot for $300, according to authorities. The argument then escalated.

Olivera was shot six times -- four times in the back, once in the arm and once in the head -- according to the Solicitor's Office.

Both Olivera and Oates had .40-caliber Glock pistols, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner has said. Olivera had a concealed-weapon permit but never fired his gun, according to sheriff's investigators.

Olivera's gun was found 18 feet from his body, investigators have said. Nelson Olivera, the victim's brother and a witness to the incident, told investigators on the night of the shooting that his brother had at one point removed the gun tucked in his waistband but never pointed it at Oates.

Nelson Olivera said Friday the family had hoped the charges would be elevated to murder. A neighbor's surveillance video showing the first three rounds Oates fired at Carlos Olivera should be evidence enough, Nelson Olivera said. He said his brother was shot first in the back while he walked away from Oates.

Stone said Friday the manslaughter charge is appropriate for now, as investigators still are determining where Olivera's gun was when Oates shot him.

"That is a big question in the case," Stone said.

Stone said the grainy surveillance video is being digitally enhanced. If more evidence comes to light, Stone said he could go back to the grand jury to seek a murder charge.

The grand jury, whose function is to evaluate evidence and determine if it warrants a trial, could have elevated the charge Thursday to murder on its own, Stone said.

Stone said the difference between manslaughter and murder is premeditation. The grand jury has the ability to call witnesses and issue subpoenas, but Stone said he did not know what the 18 grand jury members did and said because their proceedings are secret.

A petition drive has been under way to get the charge elevated to murder. Spearheaded by Bluffton resident Alan McDonald, who has said he has no family connection to the victim or the defendant, 1,000 signatures were collected and presented to Stone in January.

Nelson Olivera said Friday the petition drive was not the family's idea, but the signatures show community support.

"We feel the support of the people and that they see the injustice," he said.

Stone has said he would not take public opinion into account in prosecuting the case.

Attempts Friday afternoon to reach Oates' lawyers, Don Colongeli and John Ferguson, were unsuccessful.

Colongeli and Ferguson have said Oates acted in self-defense and that Carlos Olivera threatened Oates' life and brandished a gun.