A Navy petty officer whose pickup truck flew off a transition ramp to the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge and crashed into a crowd in Chicano Park, killing four people, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to felony vehicular manslaughter and DUI charges.
Richard Anthony Sepolio, 24, was arraigned from his wheelchair in a hospital conference room on four counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and two DUI counts. He faces nearly 24 years in prison if convicted and had his bail set at $2 million.
Sepolio suffered a broken hand, broken rib and fractured vertebrae in the crash, according to his attorney, and it’s unclear when he’ll be discharged from UCSD Medical Center.
The crash that occurred shortly after 3:30 p.m. last Saturday killed Annamarie Contreras, 50, and Cruz Contreras, 52, a married couple from Chandler, Arizona, and Hacienda Heights residents Andre Banks, 49, and Francine Jimenez, 45.
Authorities said Sepolio, a Navy aviation electronics technician assigned to Coronado-based Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 6, lost control of his GMC pickup truck, which went over the concrete railing on the north side of the bridge and fell more than 60 feet.
Prior to the crash, Sepolio used the Uber ride-hailing service to go a restaurant, where he had a bottle of wine and a couple of cocktails, Deputy District Attorney Cally Bright alleged.
Sepolio and a female friend also used Uber to go back to her house, and despite her warnings to the defendant not to drive, he got in his truck and headed home toward Coronado, Bright told reporters.
The defendant told police that he was on Interstate 5 where it transitions onto the bridge in a 45 mph zone and was trying to move over to the left lane, Bright said.
According to Sepolio, another driver wouldn’t let him move over, so he gunned his engine and was going about 81 mph when he hit the left guardrail and spun off the freeway and landed in Chicano Park, the prosecutor said.
Four people were killed instantly and seven others were hospitalized — four of them with serious injuries, the prosecutor said. The park was filled with attendees of an event organized by the owner of the motorcycle magazine Vatos Y Viclas.
Sepolio’s blood was drawn an hour after the crash, and was measured at .08 percent, Bright said. She said the defendant’s blood-alcohol content at the time of driving was estimated to be between .08 and .09 percent.
Drivers in California are considered under the influence if their blood- alcohol content is .08 percent or higher.
“This is seven new (DUI fatality) cases in seven weeks,” Bright said. “It shocks me, is what it does.”
Defense attorney Paul Pfingst told reporters that Sepolio was cut off in traffic and was not under the influence at the time of the crash.
The attorney said his client — who has no prior record — aspired to be a Navy Seal.
A bail review was set for Nov. 2 and a preliminary hearing for Jan. 25.
On Tuesday, Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, pledged to make improving safety on the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge a top priority. He said the iconic bridge has become synonymous with a loss of life from vehicle crashes and suicide. Hueso called on Gov. Jerry Brown for more resources to improve safety and prevent suicides, such as guardrails or higher sides.
“We have to make sure the bridge is safe for the people above and the people below,” Hueso said.
Tommie Camarillo of the Chicano Park Steering Committee said Saturday’s crash was not the first time the bridge has affected the safety of those at or near the park below. On separate occasions, a motorcycle and a vehicle fender had fallen off the bridge, he said.
–City News Service
This story was updated at 4:39 p.m. to include additional details.