Salinas couple forgives SLO man who killed their young son

SALINAS — The parents of a 4-year-old boy killed Aug. 9 by an intoxicated driver appeared in court this week to forgive the San Luis Obispo man responsible for the tragedy.

Dr. Christa Balch and her husband, David, a Monterey attorney, asked Superior Court Judge Terrance Duncan on Wednesday to recommend that 31-year-old Dion T. Gussner spend his mandatory 16-year sentence in “the least-restrictive facility possible” for causing the death of their son, Sebastian.

Gussner pleaded guilty Sept. 28 to gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, with enhancements for causing great bodily injury in the accident, in which Christa Balch sustained a head injury and paralysis to her hand.

The Balches’ 2-year-old daughter, Ava, was airlifted from the scene with her mother, but the girl’s injuries were minor.

Gussner’s blood-alcohol level at the time of the accident was 0.16 percent — twice the legal limit — and he admitted he was text messaging just before the crash.

Christa Balch and her children, both properly restrained in child seats, were stopped at a red light at River and Las Palmas roads south of Salinas when her 1998 Honda Accord was struck from behind at about 55 mph by Gussner’s 2006 Dodge Ram pickup. Sebastian died on impact.

“Sebastian was a special child. He was full of love and life and joy and was always looking forward to the next adventure. And we know he’s having a good one now,” Christa Balch said.

Then she addressed Gussner, seated 5 feet to her left.

“We want you to know that we all make mistakes. We’re all sinners. We all fall short of the glory of God,” she told him. “We forgive you, and we’re praying for you.”

Her husband was equally merciful, telling the judge that he and his wife do not believe in incarceration for incarceration’s sake, and that “we believe there’s a greater good that can still come from this.”

He quoted from a letter he received from a community member who asked the judicial system to “not lose sight of the tremendous asset that Dion presents to witness to others, both within and outside of our prison walls.”

Gussner’s parents, Tom and Maria Gussner, and his sister, Jamie, struggled to maintain their emotions as the Balches spoke and when Dion addressed the court without notes a few minutes later.

“I don’t have the words to apologize to the Balches. I don’t know how to say I’m sorry for taking the life of this little boy, who didn’t have a chance to have a life, the chance to play baseball, the chance to go to college ... all of the things we’ve all had the opportunity to do. I took his life by being very selfish,” Gussner said. “I thank the Balches for accepting my apology, but I don’t believe I deserve that.

“I hope you can somehow get through this tragedy and try to regain a life that once was normal,” he said.

Prosecutor Steve Somers said Gussner consumed five 1.5-ounce shots of whiskey and two 22-ounce beers over a three-hour period at a Salinas restaurant before he headed south on River Road that night.