A Los Osos woman who struck and killed a Morro Bay pastor while driving drunk was sentenced to more than six years in prison Monday during an emotional hearing before a packed San Luis Obispo courtroom.
In exchange for her no contest plea, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office dismissed two charges related to DUI causing death and a count of hit and run resulting in injury.
Noting that the felony charge carries a five-year sentencing enhancement for fleeing the scene, Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen on Monday sentenced Bales to a total of six years and four months in state prison.
Under state law, Bales, 25, will be eligible to go before a state parole board in roughly one year, according to the DA’s Office.
Paulsen had been walking along Ramona Avenue, east of Pine Avenue, when he was struck and killed by Bales on Nov. 18, 2018.
Bales was text messaging while driving a 2015 Toyota Tacoma pickup after consuming five beers, in addition to a beer sample, at Baywood Tavern in Los Osos over the course of about four hours before the collision took place, a California Highway Patrol Officer testified at a preliminary hearing in May.
The impact of the truck launched Paulsen’s body on top of a 5-foot-tall row of shrubs; a medical examiner previously testified that his spine was severed. He died at the scene.
After driving away from the scene, Bales was pulled over by a sheriff’s deputy on South Bay Boulevard about 35 minutes after the collision and told the deputy she was planning to turn herself in, he previously testified.
The hourlong sentencing hearing Monday included a victim impact statement from one of Paulsen’s sons, Andrew Paulsen, as well as Paulsen’s youngest sister, Lynne Paulsen.
The family said that they have forgiven Bales, whom defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu said met privately with Paulsen’s widow on Friday.
A civil wrongful death lawsuit filed against Bales by Paulsen’s spouse has settled out of court for an undisclosed amount Aug. 15, according to court records.
Paulsen, who had been pastor at the Morro Bay Presbyterian Church for 23 years, had just announced his retirement from the church shortly before his death, according to members of his congregation.
He is survived by his wife, three sons, and seven grandchildren, his family said in a statement.
‘A sad statistic’
Bales, who has been out of County Jail on $100,000 bail since her arrest, sat in the courtroom listening attentively, at times nodding in acknowledgment, as Paulsen’s family members described how his loss has affected them.
Andrew Paulsen, one of Dale’s three sons, read a statement questioning what sentence would “reflect what (his) father’s life was worth.”
“Justice is a heavy word. For something that is so fundamental to society, it’s complicated,” he said, according to a written copy of the statement provided by the Paulsen family. “My family understands it’s not vengeance. It’s not revenge.”
Andrew Paulsen said his father’s death “wasn’t murder in cold blood,” and that “no amount of sentencing would bring my dad back.”
Andrew said his father’s death “wasn’t just an isolated incident, but part of a trend both in our county and our state of people being irresponsible with recreational substances.”
“Our family has also resided on the Central Coast long enough to see all kinds of distress that has been related to the consumption of alcohol by young adults in our community,” Andrew Paulsen said.
Noting that pedestrian deaths nationwide in 2018 were at their highest frequency in about 30 years, Andrew Paulsen said his father is “part of a sad statistic.”
Lynne Paulsen, Dale’s youngest sister, said before the courtroom that “coming to grips with what a stranger has done” to her family has challenged her faith and trust in others.
Ultimately, she said, the family chose to forgive Bales, noting that “some of our mistakes are more visible than others.”
She added that her life “is now bizarrely intertwined with (Bales),” and she hoped the young woman would turn “this catastrophe” into something positive.
Deputy District Attorney Danielle Baker, however, said in a prepared statement that Bales’ crimes were not just the result of “a terrible mistake,” but rather the result of a series of mistakes.
“She chose to leave Dale Paulsen dead on the side of the road like an animal,” Baker said.
Funke-Bilu said that while the Paulsens’ statements were the most powerful he’s seen in a courtroom, he took issue with Baker’s assessment and told van Rooyen that Bales has never made any excuses for her actions.
Van Rooyen told the courtroom that vehicular manslaughter cases involving alcohol and young people without any prior criminal histories are “the hardest cases to deal with as a judge.”
To the Paulsen family, van Rooyen said: “I’ve heard your statements, and I am so very sorry for your loss. ... You have lost a good man.”
Saying he didn’t want the family “to think that the sentence somehow means your father’s life wasn’t worth something,” he said the court has to move forward in accordance with the law.
To Bales, van Rooyen said: “I understand your remorse. I believe you are truly sorry. I believe that there are people that intentionally set out to hurt others’ lives, and I don’t believe you are one of those people.”
“When you get out of prison, you’re still going to be a young woman,” he told Bales.
Immediately following the sentencing, Bales was placed in handcuffs and taken to San Luis Obispo County Jail, where she will be transferred to the custody of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for prison placement.
Bales is scheduled for a restitution hearing back in San Luis Obispo Superior Court Jan. 27.