Driver pleads no contest to felony charges in Morro Bay crash that killed passenger

The man behind the wheel in a fatal Morro Bay car crash that killed a 27-year-old Cayucos woman in April has entered a no-contest plea.

Michael Alan Kessler, 36, entered his plea Monday to two felony charges in San Luis Obispo Superior Court — vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated with gross negligence and driving under the influence causing injury, as well as related enhancements that could strengthen the penalty.

The agreement could keep him in state prison up to 15 years, but he could be released in about 13 years with good conduct, according to San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office spokesman Jerret Gran.

Kessler is scheduled for sentencing at 8:30 a.m. Aug. 13 before Judge Jacquelyn Duffy.

Kessler caused a hit-and-run crash on Highway 1, killing his passenger, Ashley Elizabeth Malmen, early on the morning of April 18.

Malmen’s mother, Cyndi Malmen, told The Tribune she was glad Kessler entered a plea, saying a trial wasn’t necessary.

“We all pretty much know what happened and who is responsible,” Cyndi Malmen said. “All the family just feels it’s just so sad, such a stupid tragedy that cost us all so very much.”

Malmen said she’s surrounded by memories of her daughter, a Cayucos native who graduated from Coast Union High School in Cambria in 2003 and later opened a Morro Bay coffee shop with her father, Jeffrey Malmen.

The couple’s home is filled with photos of their daughter, and they frequently find notes that she wrote to them.

Cyndi Malmen said the “love, affection and prayers” of the Cayucos and Morro Bay communities have comforted them.

“I don’t think you ever get over it,” she said. “You just get better at living with it.”

The California Highway Patrol determined that Kessler was under the influence of drugs while driving north in a 2012 Toyota when he drifted off the roadway, struck a road marker and veered to the left across the northbound lanes of the highway.

The vehicle struck a concrete wall and began to roll, ejecting Ashley Malmen. She was not wearing a seatbelt, CHP officials said.

Malmen was pronounced dead at the scene. Kessler fled and was later found on the frontage road off Highway 1.

Kessler admitted to using heroin, according to court records.

Tribune staff writer Cynthia Lambert contributed to this staff report.