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Sailor responsible for deadly San Diego bridge crash is sentenced to nearly 10 years

Richard Sepolio sits in court with his attorney, Paul Pfingst during a sentencing hearing in San Diego Superior Court. Sepolio crashed his car off the Coronado bridge into Chicano Park, killing four people.

NELVIN C. CEPEDA/THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE (TNS)

By PAULINE REPARD | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: May 2, 2019

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — A San Diego judge listened Thursday to emotional pleas for leniency and for severity before ordering a Navy petty officer to state prison for nine years and eight months for his 2016 crash off the San Diego-Coronado Bridge into Chicano Park that killed four people and injured seven.

Richard Sepolio, 27, dressed in his Navy uniform, listened impassively as several onlookers, including his mother, broke into tears as the sentence was imposed.

Superior Court Judge Charles Rogers referred to Sepolio several times as a “fine young man” raised to honor God, country and family.

“If the consequences of this case were not as devastating, there would not be a better candidate for probation,” the judge said.

But, the judge added that instead of running sentences for each count concurrently, “because we have four (fatal) victims, consecutive terms are appropriate.”

Afterward, defense attorney Paul Pfingst, who had argued for probation for his client, expressed disappointment that Sepolio’s service to his country “did not work to his advantage.”

Sepolio was convicted in February of four counts of negligent vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and felony driving under the influence of alcohol, causing injury to multiple victims. Jurors also found Sepolio had driven at unsafe speed — 81 mph — just before losing control of his truck while trying to pass a car on his left.

A crowd of about 3,000 people were enjoying food and music at La Raza motorcycle rally on Oct. 15, 2016, when Sepolio’s pickup crashed down onto some vendor canopies at the park directly under the bridge at Interstate 5. Killed were two married couples, Cruz and Annamarie Contreras of Chandler, Ariz., and Andre Banks and Francine Jimenez of Hacienda Heights.

Families of the victims and supporters of Sepolio, including his parents, wife and baby, packed the courtroom to hear the young man’s fate. Many read tearful accounts of their loved ones whose lives were cut short or changed forever.

Rogers explained that he had a range of options for Sepolio, ranging from probation to nine years, eight months in state prison.

During a three-week trial that opened in January, 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 Barrio Logan.

Investigators found text messages on Sepolio’s phone from his girlfriend — now his wife — in which she made numerous apologies for her behavior. The prosecutor said the messages show that the couple had been arguing on the phone moments earlier, putting Sepolio in an irritated and impatient state as he drove.

Sepolio testified that he drank an alcoholic cider and a glass of wine at lunch with a female 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 to Coronado, he said.

His attorney said Sepolio was not under the influence by then, pointing to blood and breath tests taken later that evening, that showed no higher than 0.06% blood-alcohol levels. In California, drivers are presumed to be under the influence with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08% or greater.

The prosecutor said one test actually showed a blood-alcohol level range up to 0.11%, but she argued that even with a lower level, Sepolio was impaired for driving.

As Sepolio drove north on I-5, he talked on his cellphone with his girlfriend. He testified that he hung up seconds before starting onto the bridge. Then, he said, 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 and hit the left-hand barrier wall, then veered right. His truck hit that barrier and became airborne.

The truck plummeted down, clipped a light pole then crushed two vendor booths where several people were standing. 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.

Sepolio suffered a fractured neck, broken ribs and hand and other injuries, his attorney said.

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