A Navy petty officer who was behind the wheel of a pickup truck that plummeted over the side of a transition ramp to the San Diego- Coronado Bridge and landed in Chicano Park, killing four people, was convicted Wednesday of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.
In addition to the four manslaughter counts, Richard Anthony Sepolio, 27, was found guilty of DUI causing injury. Jurors acquitted Sepolio of four counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicted, seven counts of reckless driving and one count of driving over the legal alcohol limit and causing injury.
Sepolio faces up to 18 years in prison, with sentencing scheduled for April 2.
The Oct. 15, 2016, crash killed Annamarie Contreras, 50, and Cruz Contreras, 52, a married couple from Chandler, Arizona; and Hacienda Heights residents Andre Banks, 49, and Francine Jiminez, 46. Seven other people were seriously injured.
Deputy District Attorney Cally Bright told jurors in her closing argument that Sepolio chose “to drive irritated, impaired and impatient.” The prosecutor said that in addition to having drinks prior to getting behind the wheel, Sepolio was arguing with his girlfriend over the phone just moments before losing control of his truck on the bridge.
Sepolio testified he was driving on the transition ramp — a route back to Coronado that he had driven more than 90 times before — when he sped up to merge in front of another car and lost control.
The defendant said he remembered being on top of a freeway barrier looking down, then waking up in the park and being pulled out of his truck. Sepolio said his memory was mostly “cloudy” about what happened after his truck plunged into the crowd below.
On the stand, he denied arguing with his then-girlfriend on the phone just before the crash, but admitted on cross-examination that he’d just left a lunch with a female Navy colleague where “the idea was to go out and have a good time.” Sepolio testified he had a glass of alcoholic cider and a glass of wine at lunch before heading back to Coronado.
Whether Sepolio was intoxicated was a point of contention during the trial, particularly with one blood sample not tested for more than a year after the crash, according to defense attorney Paul Pfingst.
While the jury did not find Sepolio guilty of the greatest charge he faced — gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated — jurors did not disagree that Sepolio was under the influence.
Bright said she believed Sepolio was grossly negligent due to driving while under the influence and distracted, but supported the jury’s findings, which included its rejection of the charge that Sepolio was intoxicated above the legal blood alcohol limit.
Juror Matthew Miller told reporters the panel believed “alcohol played a role in this crash” but said there were “issues with the way the police had handled some of the evidence.”
Miller also said that Sepolio’s intoxication “took away from some of the forethought that rose to the level of gross negligence.”
Pfingst said outside the courtroom that he was disappointed that Sepolio was convicted of DUI causing injury, despite jurors finding that he was driving below the legal limit. However, he said that no matter how the verdicts played out, the events were tragic for people on both sides.
“This has been a horrible experience for everybody involved. Anybody who denies the tragedy of this experience has got their head in the sand,” Pfingst said.
“My client is a very good, decent, young man who was not driving over the legal limit, and had a traffic accident which has led to this. He will pay a heavy price for that, as will his family,” Pfingst said. “But there are people who have been killed as a result of this, so there’s a lot of sadness to go around. I hate these cases … where good people, driving under the legal limit, get into a traffic accident … Who could have foreseen that you could go over the railings of a bridge, who could have foreseen that there were people underneath in massive numbers? It’s just an extraordinary series of events that created this tragedy.”
Timothy Contreras, nephew of Annamarie and Cruz Contreras, said his aunt and uncle invited him to Chicano Park that day, and had he not had other plans, he would likely have been standing next to them when they were killed.
Contreras, who traveled from Mesa, Arizona, to hear the verdict, said, “I wake up thinking about them. I just can’t believe they’re gone. This is just a tragic situation … accident — I don’t know if I’d call it an accident. He (Sepolio) obviously made choices that day — something happens like this, it’s just unbelievable, and you wake up every day and say `how did this happen?”‘
Updated at 12:45 p.m. Feb. 13, 2019
–City News Service