Navy petty officer found guilty in fatal car crash off San Diego bridge
By PAULINE REPARD | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: February 13, 2019
SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — A jury on Wednesday found a Navy petty officer guilty of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated in a 2016 crash off the San Diego-Coronado Bridge that killed four people and injured seven others in Chicano Park.
The San Diego Superior Court jury did not find gross negligence, but rather ordinary negligence in the Oct. 15, 2016 crash.
The panel of six men and six women also found Richard Sepolio, 27, guilty of felony driving under the influence causing injury to multiple victims.
Jurors cleared Sepolio of reckless driving charges, and also found that his level of intoxication was not higher than the legal limit for driving in California, which is a blood-alcohol content of at least .08 percent.
“This was a great outcome on this case,” Deputy District Attorney Cally Bright told reporters out of court.
According to the prosecutor, Sepolio had been drinking earlier in the day and was on his cellphone, arguing with his girlfriend, while speeding onto the bridge and trying to pass another car on his left.
He lost control of his pickup, plunged off the bridge and into a crowd enjoying La Raza motorcycle rally.
Those killed were Cruz Contreras, 52, and his wife, Annamarie Contreras, 50, of Chandler, Ariz., as well as Andre Banks, 49, and his wife, Francine Jimenez, 46, of Hacienda Heights.
Sepolio was charged with 13 felony counts including four counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, plus driving under the influence and reckless driving. Some counts involved alcohol or negligence while others did not, leaving the jury with a variety of options for conviction.
Jurors found that Sepolio had driven at an unsafe speed — a “black box” recorder registered his pickup to 81 mph going onto the bridge — but also that he had not made an unsafe turning movement in trying to pass another car.
Jurors completed their deliberations on Monday, but Judge Charles Rogers decided to hold off on reading the verdicts until Wednesday — after a Tuesday court holiday — to give family and friends of Sepolio and of the victims time to travel to San Diego, in some cases from out of state.
Sepolio is expected to be sentenced April 2. He faces a range from probation to 18 years in prison.
Bright said if Sepolio gets an 18-year prison term, he would have to serve 85 percent of that, or 15 years.
“Nothing will bring back the family members lost that day,” she added.
Timothy Contreras, nephew of Cruz and Annamarie Contreras, said the family is “feeling pretty good about the verdicts.”
But, he added, “This whole thing has been tough — on (Sepolio’s) family, too. My aunt and uncle were wonderful people. They fostered a lot of children. They’re going to be greatly missed.”
Defense attorney Paul Pfingst noted, too, that the case was a tragic one for all involved.
“We’re gratified that the most serious charges were found not guilty,” Pfingst said. “But it is disappointing, despite the fact that he was driving under the legal limit, he was found guilty of driving under the influence.”
One of the jurors, Matthew Miller, told reporters that the panel members felt good about their verdict decisions.
“I think if was a very difficult decision to come to, a lot of factors,” Miller said. “We really hashed it out.”
One of the more difficult legal issues they wrestled with, Miller said, was whether Sepolio’s blood-alcohol level had impaired him. Jurors also were concerned over the California Highway Patrol’s mishandling of evidence, by storing away one of Sepolio’s blood samples and forgetting about it.
After reading the verdicts — a process that took nearly 30 minutes — the judge ordered Sepolio’s bail revoked and had him taken into custody. A sheriff’s deputy handcuffed Sepolio’s hands behind his back and escorted him out of the courtroom to a holding cell.
Pfingst said Sepolio asked him to tell his family to “stay strong.”
Sepolio’s parents, from Texas, sat in on the nearly month-long trial, along with his wife and their baby. They did not talk to reporters after the court proceeding.
Sepolio married the girlfriend with whom he was talking on his cellphone just before his crash.
Dozens of relatives of those who died, friends and victims who were injured in the park also attended the trial and listened quietly to the verdicts.
Because of one outburst from an audience member during the trial, the judge spent several minutes cautioning them about any disturbances while he read the verdicts. He had 11 deputies posted inside his courtroom and several more just outside.
Pablo Trevino, publisher of a magazine that hosted the motorcycle rally, had attended the trial and the reading of the verdicts.
He said he was a “little disappointed” in the results because Sepolio, with his wife and child, has a life ahead of him after prison.
“Although it was hard to see him get handcuffed, his family didn’t have to see him lowered into the ground like other families had to witness,” Treviño said.
The trial got underway with testimony on Jan. 14 and continued over the next three weeks.
Prosecution and defense lawyers presented varying blood-alcohol test results on Sepolio and interpretations of what caused him to swerve out of control on the bridge arching over Chicano Park in Logan Heights.
Sepolio testified that he had two alcoholic drinks — cider and a glass of wine — at lunch with a colleague from North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado. The lunch lasted from about noon to 2:30 p.m. They took an Uber ride back to her South Park apartment and hung out for an hour before he headed home, he said.
Pfingst said Sepolio was not under the influence by the time he was driving. The attorney said four blood and breath tests, taken later that evening, showed no higher than .05 to .06 percent blood-alcohol levels.
Bright said one of the test results actually showed a blood-alcohol level range up to .11 percent. Even with a lower level, she argued, Sepolio was still considered impaired for driving.
As Sepolio headed toward Coronado, he talked on his cellphone with his girlfriend. He testified that he hung up seconds before starting onto the bridge from northbound Interstate 5. He tried to merge into the left lane, but a car to his left sped up and he accelerated, too, trying to pass it.
Then he lost control of the truck, swerved too far left, hit the bridge barrier wall and veered to the right. His truck hit that barrier and became airborne.
The truck plummeted down, clipped a light pole then crushed vendor booths where several people were standing. An estimated 3,000 people were in the park for the motorcycle rally, music and food festival that afternoon.
Witnesses testified that several men rolled the truck off the victims, then hauled Sepolio out the back pickup window. He was clutching his cellphone, and, some witnesses said, smelled of alcohol.
Investigators later found text messages from his girlfriend in which she made numerous apologies for her behavior. The prosecutor said the messages show that the couple had been arguing, putting Sepolio in an irritated and impatient state as he drove.