Crime

Driver facing murder charge in fatal Nipomo crash had two prior DUIs, officer testifies

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Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities increased in California in 2016, according to an Office of Traffic Safety report.
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Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities increased in California in 2016, according to an Office of Traffic Safety report.

A Nipomo man with two prior DUIs was driving on a suspended license in December when he allegedly crossed into oncoming traffic and crashed into a car, killing an 82-year-old woman.

Edgar Morales was more than three times over the legal limit to drive when he collided with a car carrying two people heading home from a quinceañera, according to testimony presented in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Thursday.

Maria Medina of Santa Maria was pronounced dead at the scene on Thompson Road at about 11 p.m. Dec. 1, 2018.

Morales, 23, is facing a charge of second-degree murder for Medina’s death due to his prior criminal history and his past acknowledgment of what’s called a Watson advisement, which means he can be charged with murder should he ever drink and drive again and someone dies as a result.

He’s additionally charged with felony counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, driving under the influence causing injury, driving on a suspended license and driving without insurance. He’s pleaded not guilty.

On the murder charge alone, he faces 15 years to life in state prison.

‘I thought I was passed away’

Morales was in court Thursday for a preliminary hearing in which Superior Court Judge Jesse Marino heard testimony from prosecution witnesses. Though the hearing did not conclude, Marino will take all testimony into consideration when ruling whether enough probable cause exists to proceed each charge toward trial.

Morales sat silently in the courtroom, with his family members and members of Medina’s family present in the audience, occasionally glancing at his attorney while listening to testimony.

Marino heard from Maricela Marquez, Medina’s daughter, who was driving her mother home in a 2006 BMW X5 southbound on Thompson Road after they both attended a family celebration at St. Joseph’s Parish.

Marquez testified under direct questioning by Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagner that though she had perhaps one-and-a-half beers over several hours at the event, she was not feeling intoxicated when she left.

The BMW was approaching East Knotts Street at about 10:30 p.m. when Marquez said she saw the headlights of Morales’ black Honda Accord coming straight at them in the dark in what appeared to be their southbound lane.

“I was talking to my mom about the party, and I saw the lights,” she said. “I said, ‘This pendejo’s going to crash.’”

She said a roughly 4-foot embankment prevented her from swerving right off the road, so she swerved left toward the northbound lane to avoid getting hit.

It was unclear from Thursday’s testimony whether Morales also swerved or continued straight, but the impact was to both cars’ front passenger sides, crushing Medina’s legs. Both vehicles came to rest in the roadway.

“When I feel the hit, everything went black. I thought I was passed away,” Marquez said. “Once I realized I was alive, I checked on my mom.”

Though she couldn’t see well when she asked her mother if she was OK, she said Medina replied: “No, mija. My neck is hurting me.”

A passerby called 911, and Marquez — who missed the brunt of the impact and only suffered minor injuries to her chest and ankle —found her cell phone to call her husband. During that time, her mother continued to ask for help for injuries to her neck, legs and a broken thumb.

“I said, ‘Mom, it’s just a finger — we are alive,’” Marquez said, choking back tears.

Her mother had to be extricated from the car, and arriving medical personnel immediately began CPR when she became unresponsive. Marquez waited near the ambulance.

“When I was there, an officer came and said, ‘Sorry, your mom didn’t make it,’” she said.

Daniel Fry, a Cal Fire emergency medical technician who had arrived to aid Medina, testified that he was immediately told Medina was a “red tag,” or in critical condition.

After she was pulled from the BMW, Fry said that he saw she had severe injuries to her legs. They were deformed below her knees, he said, and the bones were no longer intact.

“They were serious injuries,” Fry said.

Empty beer bottle found

When the prosecution’s main investigator in the case, CHP Officer Rachelle Fouts, arrived at the scene, Morales had already been taken via ambulance to Marian Regional Medical Center, where he was being treated in the critical care unit.

Fouts testified that an empty Corona beer bottle was found on or near the driver’s seat of Morales’ Honda.

Morales underwent two blood draws at the hospital. One of those came back with a 0.276 blood alcohol content, Fouts testified; it was not clear from the testimony what the results from the other test were.

She also revealed that Morales had two prior DUI convictions, and that he had sustained a brain injury requiring three weeks of hospitalization when he fractured his skull in April 2018 after falling from a second-floor balcony while drinking.

She testified that Morales was cooperative and agreed to talk to her without an attorney when she interviewed him two days after the crash. Fouts testified that Morales told her he had spent the night at a quinceañera himself with a friend and consumed about four 12-ounce beers over about two hours. There was some disagreement with the hosts of the party, and the two left to go to the friend’s house.

The friend gave Morales coffee and told him not to drive, according to Fouts’ testimony.

“I asked him, ‘Do you think you should have been out there driving?’” Fouts recalled of their interview. “He said ‘no.’”

She said Morales told her he was driving about 65 mph before the crash (the speed limit was 45 mph), and that he flashed his high beams when he saw the BMW to alert them and tried to swerve at the last minute.

During cross examination, defense attorney Adrian Andrade asked Fouts if Medina was heavily medicated when he consented to talking with her. Fouts replied that though she didn’t know, Morales “had a clear mind.”

Due to witness scheduling issues, the preliminary hearing did not conclude Thursday and is scheduled to resume May 24.

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