A Navy petty officer who was behind the wheel of a pickup that plummeted over the side of a transition ramp to the San Diego-Coronado Bridge and landed in Chicano Park, killing four people, was sentenced Thursday to nine years and eight months in prison.
The sentence was the maximum available for Richard Anthony Sepolio, 27. He was convicted in February for the Oct. 15, 2016, crash that killed Annamarie Contreras, 50, and Cruz Contreras, 52, a married couple from Chandler, Arizona; and Hacienda Heights residents Andre Banks, 49, and Francine Jimenez, 46. Seven other people were seriously injured.
Sepolio was convicted of four counts of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and one count of DUI causing injury.
The same jury acquitted him of four counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, seven counts of reckless driving and one count of driving over the legal alcohol limit and causing injury.
Sepolio drank prior to getting behind the wheel — but was found to be below the legal blood alcohol limit — and was speeding and attempted to cut off another driver when his truck careened off the bridge and landed on 11 people, four of whom died.
Dressed in his Navy uniform, Sepolio addressed the victims’ families and told them he was “wholeheartedly sorry.”
While standing at the defense table and turning to face them, he said “I understand that you’re angry, I do. If I was in your spot, I wouldn’t be quick to forgive.”
The penitent statements came after several hours of victim impact statements from the family members of those killed and injured in the crash, who alleged that Sepolio had never apologized for what happened or showed any remorse.
“My words will not change a thing, though I wish they could,” he told the families, some of whom came from out of state to attend. “I don’t know why I survived. I wish I could trade places with them.”
Deputy District Attorney Cally Bright said the sentence, which she and the victims’ family members found inadequate, highlighted a fundamental issue with the state’s DUI sentencing guidelines. Bright said that driving under the influence causing injury is considered both a serious and violent felony under state law, while ordinary negligence causing death is only considered a serious felony, leading to lesser sentences in cases like this, even when victims were killed.
The guidelines also qualify Sepolio to earn 50 percent custody credits, meaning that despite the sentence, he will only serve at most, four years and 10 months.
“This disparity of sentencing cannot be fixed by the judge or the sentence in this case, but can only be addressed and fixed by the legislature,” Bright told reporters after the hearing. “The current law does not address a case of this magnitude.”
Prior to the jury’s verdicts, Sepolio was looking at possibly more than two decades behind bars, had he been convicted on the gross vehicular manslaughter counts.
San Diego County Superior Court Judge Charles G. Rogers said he thought Sepolio was “a fine young man” but said he was negligent and should serve time in prison due to the immense loss involved.
“If the consequences in this case were not so devastating, there would not be a better candidate for probation,” Rogers said.
Family members shared not only their pain, but also their love and yearning for their lost family members.
Annamarie and Cruz Contreras were together for 36 years, married for 32, had three daughters, and fostered 26 children, according to family members who spoke Thursday. The couple were “inseparable” and displayed a compassion for taking in and caring for needy children, family members said, and their absence has rendered family get-togethers hollow.
Their youngest daughter, Mia Contreras, 23, said she feels like “a shell of a person” and “empty” without her parents, whose deaths left her feeling she no longer wanted to celebrate any of her life’s milestones, such as her recent college graduation.
Their middle daughter, Milinda Oberly, said their parents’ deaths coincided with the date of her wedding anniversary, forever tarnishing the occasion. Oberly was one of several who refused to call the crash an accident, and reproached Sepolio at Thursday’s sentencing hearing.
“You walk the halls (of the courthouse) with your head held high in your uniform like you’re some kind of hero. You ain’t a hero, Mr. Sepolio. Heroes save people, not kill them. You’re a senseless kid who stole four innocent lives,” she said.
The Contreras’ eldest daughter, MaryAnn, she could no longer stand joining family members for the holidays and being “surrounded by happiness and laughter” without them.
Jimenez and Banks had been dating for about a year at the time of their deaths.
Jimenez’s daughter, Alejandra Rodriguez, was 15 when her mother died, and now had trouble remembering the sound of Jimenez’s voice.
“I’ve been trying to give myself a little bit of closure by saying everything happens for a reason, but it just makes me bitter because I can’t find a reason for this,” she said.
Jimenez’s daughter, Linda Martinez, said Sepolio was “no different from the guy that pulls the trigger. His vehicle was the weapon.”
Banks’ sister-in-law, Liz Gutierres, said Sepolio “murdered” Banks, who was a “support system” for her and her 9-year-old daughter.
Banks’ mother, Toni, said “I just want to know if he realizes what devastation he brought to our family and the holes that he built. In fact, I want to know how in the world he sleeps at night.”
At trial, Bright told jurors Sepolio chose “to drive irritated, impaired and impatient.” In addition to having drinks prior to getting behind the wheel, Sepolio was arguing with his girlfriend on the phone just moments before losing control of his truck on the bridge, the prosecutor said.
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 his attorney.
While the jury did not find Sepolio guilty of the greatest charge he faced — gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated — jurors agreed 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.
Updated at 5 p.m. May 2, 2019
— City News Service
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