Witnesses Describe Horror in Deadly Chicano Park Crash - NBC 7 San Diego

Witnesses Describe Horror in Deadly Chicano Park Crash

Richard Anthony Sepolio, 25, an active duty service member stationed in Coronado, was behind the wheel in the deadly October 15, 2016, crash that killed four people in San Diego's Chicano Park

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A San Diego judge will decide if a Navy Petty Officer will go to trial for being behind the wheel of a truck that flew off the Coronado Bay Bridge in October 2016, plowing into a crowd below in Chicano Park. Four people were killed in the horrific crash; the suspect is accused of driving under the influence. (Published Wednesday, June 14, 2017)

    Victims and witnesses at Chicano Park described how a fun afternoon turned into an afternoon or terror when an accused DUI driver and U.S. Navy sailor flew off the bridge and crashed into a crowded park below. 

    "We didn't hear nothing, we didn't see nothing," said Julie Delatorre, one of the hundreds who attended the La Raza Ride motorcycle festival being held at Chicano Park that day.

    On Oct. 15, 2016, Richard Anthony Sepolio, 25, was behind the wheel of his truck when his vehicle plunged 60 feet off the Coronado Bridge transition ramp, landing on a large crowd below in Chicano Park. 

    Four people were killed in the fiery, chaotic crash: Cruz Elias Contreras, 52; AnnaMarie Contreras, 50; Andre Christopher Banks, 49; Francine Denise Jimenez, 46.

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    Delatorre spoke at Sepolio's preliminary hearing, where a judge is set to decide if the case will move to trial.

    She was taking a photo with friends moments before the car flew off the bridge. She walked out of a tent, into the park; she took a few steps before the car came flying down.

    "It felt like I was being sucked by a big vacuum cleaner and being pulled backward," she testified. "And I just told myself to hold on, it would be over."

    Carlos Ulloa, a Barrio Logan resident, said he first noticed something may be wrong when he heard a lot of screeching and dragging on the bridge above. He thought a car may have crashed on the bridge. 

    "I heard screeching, tired, metal, crushing, lots of dragging, for a really long time," he testified.

    When the car came flying over the bridge, he heard a big "whoosh", he said. 

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    "When this thing flew, it was like out of a movie," he recalled.

    Delatorre said she never saw the car coming -- she only felt the impact. She may have lost consciousness, she said. When she woke up, she was stuck between the truck's bumper and tailgate. 

    "Al I remember is waiting for everything to turn black, thinking I was going to die. And I felt paralyzed in it, I was telling myself to hold on, it would be over," she recalled. "Then I opened my eyes and I was caught between the bumper and the tailgate and I was already saying, 'help.'"

    The gentleman lifted part of the car up and she got up, apparently uninjured, Deltorre recalled. She took a few steps and either collapsed or someone caught her. She next remembers sitting in a chair. 

    Miraculously, at Sharp Coronado, she learned she had minor injuries. Nurses pulled shards of glass out of her from the impact, and she was released the same day. 

    Flora Gonzalez, a witness, heard screeching, "a lot of screeching," prior to the crash. 

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    "I was whirled around, like a wind tunnel, that I was in a wind tunnel," she said. "No control."

    The force of the truck's landing threw her a distance. The suffered whiplash injuries to her shoulder, neck and whole right side of her body. 

    Though Delatorre does not have lasting physical injuries, she said in testimony, the mental impact of the crash remains, months later. 

    "Things are not the same. Everything’s changed," Delatorre said through tears as she testified. "I have times where things are okay, and then I remember something. . .It’s hard. It’s just really hard."

    Sepolio, an active duty service member stationed in Coronado, has been jailed since October 2016. In early November 2016, a San Diego judge rejected a request from Sepolio's attorney to release the suspect into the care of the U.S. military, ordering him to stay in jail. That day, the judge set Sepolio's bail at $2 million.

    Sepolio was seriously hurt in the crash, suffering injuries to his back, ribs and hands.

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    Prosecutors said his injuries prevented officials from performing an accurate breathalyzer test and that blood drawn later provided a more accurate measurement. An hour after the initial tests, a blood sample was drawn and Sepolio's BAC was measured at .08. Prosecutors have also said Sepolio was distracted behind the wheel, sending a text message on his cellphone.

    Sepolio's defense, San Diego attorney Paul Pfingst, known for his work on high-profile cases, has argued that his client was not drunk and was not texting.

    "The breath tests that were taken shortly after the accident show that his blood alcohol level was below the legal limit,” Pfingst said in court last year.

    The defense attorney also said Sepolio took his cellphone out after he crashed to call for help but he was not texting prior to that.

    Sepolio pleaded not guilty to multiple charges related to the fatal crash, including four counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and counts of driving under the influence causing injury or death.

    Pfingst said that prior to this, Sepolio had no criminal record and had been proudly serving his country. The attorney has argued that Sepolio was "forced off the bridge by another vehicle," which ultimately led to the tragic crash.

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    However, in prior court proceedings, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office maintained there is no evidence the defendant was forced off the bridge.

    If convicted on all counts, Sepolio could face a maximum sentence of 23 years and eight months in prison.

    That is 16 years for those killed and then an additional seven years for those injured.

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