A jury Monday heard conflicting versions of a horrific crash in October 2016 that killed four people in Barrio Logan.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Paul Pfingst acknowledged that his client, Richard Sepolio, was going more than 80 miles an hour -- and trying to pass another vehicle -- when his truck spun sideways and hit two concrete barriers before flying off a freeway ramp and crashing into a crowd of people in Barrio Logan on Oct. 15, 2016.
Sepolio was traveling north on Interstate 5 and had exited on the ramp that leads to the Coronado Bridge. That elevated ramp makes a westerly turn above Chicano Park, where Sepolio’s truck landed.
A large group was attending the La Raza Ride motorcycle festival at the park on that day. Cruz Elias Contreras, 52; AnnaMarie Contreras, 50; Andre Christopher Banks, 49; Francine Denise Jimenez, 46, were killed.
Seven others injured on the ground. Sepolio survived significant injuries, and now faces a long list of felony charges, including four counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.
“He chose to drink and get behind the wheel,” Maryann Contreras told reporters outside the courtroom during a break from opening statements. “That's the bottom line. He killed four people.” The victims including Contreras' parents, Cruz and Annamarie.
"Being here is brutal,” Contreras said. “It's hard to hear all the evidence, all the details, knowing the pain that my parents suffered when they were there to celebrate one of the best days that they've had."
“People are traumatized forever,” said Pablo Trevino, who organized the Chicano Park event and witnessed the horrific crash. “They don’t get to come back from that.”
Sepolio’s lawyer, Pfingst, told jurors that the evidence will show his client was not drunk or negligent, even though he did exceed the posted 65 mile per hour speed limit.
Pfingst said multiple tests put Sepolio’s blood alcohol level at below the .08 blood alcohol level limit, and he vigorously questioned the accuracy of what he told jurors was the one test that determined Sepolio had reached the .08 threshold while behind the wheel.
The defense attorney also told jurors that police and prosecutors mishandled a crucial evidence of laboratory evidence that would buttress his claim that Sepolio was not drunk.
"He was involved in an accident that killed four people, and he feels the same way the rest of us would,” Pfingst told the jury. “What a horrible event, what a horrible tragedy it was. But that does not (have) anything to do with alcohol. It doesn't change the fact that he not driving under the influence. And the only greater tragedy would be to convict an innocent man of a crime he didn't commit."
Prosecutor Cally Bright offered a very different version of events.
She said at least one lab test put Sepolio's blood alcohol level above the legal limit.
Bright also told the jury Sepolio was drunk, arguing on his phone and speeding in the moments before the crash. She also described him as "angry, irritated and impaired,” and clearly guilty of all thirteen felony counts, including multiple counts of D-U-I causing injury, and reckless driving resulting in serious injury,
Sepolio was 25 on the day of the crash and was stationed in Coronado.
Sepolio has filed a lawsuit claiming the city and Caltrans should take responsibility for the crash.
“The City does not control or maintain the bridge,” City Attorney Chief of Staff Gerry Braun said. “Mr. Sepolio was drunk, speeding, and texting when he lost control of his truck and flew off the bridge, killing innocent people. He should take responsibility for his behavior.”
In Dec. 2017, a local judge removed the city of San Diego from a lawsuit from one woman who was injured in the crash. She said the city should be responsible for protecting the public from vehicles driving off the Coronado Bay Bridge.
Sepolio has been in custody since Oct. 2016. In the following month, a judge denied Pfingst’s request to have his client released into the care of the U.S. military and set Sepolio’s bail at $2 million.
If convicted on all counts, he could face a maximum sentence of 23 years in prison.
"For just the people that have died, they're looking at two years for each additional victim, so for the four people that are killed, that max amount of time a judge can impose is 16 years," Bright said.
The additional seven years would be for those injured in the crash, according to Bright.
“The only greater tragedy would be to convict an innocent man of a crime he didn't commit," Pfingst told the jury.
The presiding judge ordered that no videos or photos be taken of the witnesses, jury, or the gallery for the ongoing trial.