A soft-spoken Richard Sepolio testified Tuesday that he was not driving under the influence of alcohol two years ago when he crashed his pickup off the San Diego-Coronado Bridge into Chicano Park, killing four people.
The 27-year-old Navy aviation technician is charged with 13 felony counts including four counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, DUI and reckless driving causing death or injury.
He faces more than 23 years in prison if convicted of all charges.
Cruz Contreras, 52, and his wife, Annamarie Contreras, 50, of Chandler, Ariz., were killed, as were Andre Banks, 49, and his wife, Francine Jimenez, 46, of Hacienda Heights.
They were part of a crowd of an estimated 3,000 people in the park for a rally at the end of the annual La Raza motorcycle run on Oct. 15, 2016.
Food and souvenir booths were set up in the park, and Sepolio’s truck landed on one booth.
One of the main issues at trial is whether he was under the influence after having drinks at brunch several hours before driving.
Also at issue is whether he was speeding while trying to pass a slower car and was in an irritated state of mind after talking to his girlfriend on his cellphone while driving.
A forensic expert testified that, calculating backward from one hospital blood test showing a .04 percent blood-alcohol level would indicate he had a .08 or .09 percent level while driving. Another test pointed to a .05 or .06 blood-alcohol level.
A driver in California is presumed under the influence at .08 percent, but could be considered impaired with a lower blood-alcohol level.
If jurors find Sepolio guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter without being intoxicated, his time in prison would be considerably less than 23 years.
Testimony in the trial, which so far has lasted nine days, trial ended Tuesday and lawyers are expected to give their closing arguments Wednesday in San Diego Superior Court.
Sepolio was the final defense witness, telling a jury of six men and six women that he had a glass of cider and a glass of wine at a noon brunch with a fellow aviation technician from North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado.
In planning the brunch, Sepolio said he’d texted his colleague that he wanted to get “white girl wasted” at the restaurant, Chocolate Eclipse in North Park.
They returned by Uber to his colleague’s South Park apartment and he spent about an hour hanging out with her and playing with her dogs, he said.
He phoned his girlfriend, who was in Missouri, and talked to her while driving to Coronado, with the phone in his truck console. Under questioning from his attorney, Paul Pfingst, he said they talked about her soccer match and how she wanted him to buy a pair of shorts that he considered to be too short.
“I don’t have the legs for them,” he told the court.
Deputy District Attorney Cally Bright asked him if he and his girlfriend, to whom he is now married, had an argument on the phone seconds before his crash.
She pointed to transcripts of the woman’s apologetic text messages to Sepolio’s phone, saying, “I’m sorry I’m such a bad girlfriend,” “I’ll change” and “please don’t hate me” — all suggesting some kind of dispute between them.
Sepolio said he had not read her texts at the time, 3:37 p.m., because he had plunged over the bridge by that time. He said they had hung up as he drove north on Interstate 5 to a transition lane onto the San Diego-Coronado Bridge.
Sepolio said he sped up to pass a blue car on his left, so he could get out of the right lane that merged with other bridge traffic coming off southbound I-5.
“As I was about to pass, they sped up, so I sped up as well,” he testified. “I thought I had enough room to go left.”
California Highway Patrol accident reconstruction experts testified that Sepolio’s “black box” recorder in his 2005 GMC pickup showed he was going 81 mph seconds before the crash, and about 60 when the truck hit a guardrail barrier.
Sepolio said he didn’t remember his truck hitting the left bridge barrier before bouncing to the right.
“The next thing I remember was looking down at a group,” he said.
His truck landed on its wheels atop the four victims who died. Several others were injured. People in the crowd tipped the truck onto the passenger side so others could check on the crushed victims.
Some men hauled Sepolio out of his back truck cab window. A trauma doctor testified that Sepolio suffered a fracture spine, sternum and other broken bones as well as brain bleed.
California Highway Patrol officers gave him two breath tests in the hospital and his blood was drawn twice. The CHP mistakenly stored one blood sample in a shed for more than a year before it was tested, an officer testified. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/courts/sd-me-sepolio-bridge-park-crash-20190129-story.html