During an emotional sentencing hearing Friday morning, Judge Clifford Anderson sat and listened to the pain of families whose lives were forever changed the morning of August 24, 2010. On one side, family members of Joaquin Morales — the driver whose out-of-control truck plowed into a home after descending Highway 154, killing three people — told of a man who no longer slept. Morales’s son said he has seen him “deteriorate as a person.”
On the other, family members of Leon Leonel, Lorena Tellez Pacheco, and 8-year-old Jaciel Tellez — the three who perished inside the small house — told of the devastating toll the incident had had on their life. “We would do anything to take this pain away,” Leonel’s family said in a statement read to the court.
Ultimately, Anderson took a sort of middle ground, sentencing Morales to 180 days in county jail — less than the 365 days prosecutor Arnie Tolks was asking for, but more than defense attorney Mark Pachowicz thought was appropriate. The judge also said Morales could seek electronic monitoring, and if he had intended to renew his license, he would’ve suspended it.
Morales had a history of traffic infractions, having been cited 17 times for vehicle code infractions since 2001, including twice for brake maintenance. “While he may not be an evil man,” Tolks told the court, “he’s careless, reckless, and he is not a good driver.”
According to officials, Morales had loaded his rig with two full loads of gravel at the Bee Rock Quarry in the Santa Ynez Valley shortly after 6 a.m. and headed eastbound on Highway 154. It was the first of three planned trips from the quarry to Santa Paula. He thought he had fixed the brake issues he had been having before getting on the highway. He didn’t do a thorough inspection, Tolks argued, or he might have caught the problems. “These deaths simply should not have occurred,” Tolks said.
As his truck made its way down 154, witnesses reported seeing smoke from underneath the vehicle. Morales somehow managed to navigate the truck through the Highway 101 intersection and into a parking lot off State Street past Palapa restaurant, before it eventually plunged into a the home that sat at the end of the parking lot.
Originally facing three felony vehicular manslaughter charges, Morales pleaded to three misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charges in July, after his preliminary hearing. There, officers testified the truck’s brakes were out of adjustment and had an undersized brake lining. As well, a compression release engine brake, known as a Jake brake system, was “at least faulty and maybe not in operation,” Tolks said.
“The pain that I’m feeling now will never be remedied,” Pacheco’s brother, Javier Vasquez, told the court Friday. “May God forgive him, because I won’t.”
Morales didn’t address the court Friday, but his family did. They told of an “exemplary” father and husband who has worked hard for his family. But the accident has changed him. “He cannot sleep, he just walks,” his wife told the court through an interpreter. “Your honor, the only thing I ask you is to be compassionate to this family. We have been in a depression.” His son said he has seen his father “deteriorate as a person” since the crash. His daughter told the court he has said that he wished it had been him who had died, and not the others. “His sentence began when he got pulled out of the truck and learned that three people had died,” she said.
Pachowicz, in asking the court to keep Morales out of jail, said Morales performed well under the circumstances. “He was in amazing control for what was going on,” Pachowicz said. Based on sentencing criteria — which includes protecting society and punishment — Pachowicz said Morales didn’t deserve jail time. “Mr. Morales doesn’t want to get in a car and is certainly never driving a truck again,” Pachowicz said. “That’s the only way he has ever hurt anyone.”
Since that tragic day, officials from local and state agencies have tried to make Highway 154 — a windy, twisty downhill route — safer. Assemblymember Das Williams has introduced legislation that would ban — with exemptions — the operation of commercial vehicles with three or more axles or weighing 9,000 pounds or more. That two-year bill is currently in the Assembly Committee on Transportation and is expected to be up for a hearing in early January.
Caltrans has installed signs asking large trucks to use Highway 101 rather than the 154, repaved the road, and put in rumble strips on the shoulders and between the yellow lines, spokesperson Jim Shivers said.
The California Highway Patrol has increased the number of regular officers present, said spokesperson Jeremy Wayland, and also the amount of enforcement coming from commercial vehicle officers.
Morales, meanwhile, still has a series of lawsuits to answer, from wrongful death claims by the family of the deceased to insurance claims for his truck driving. A civil attorney for the families called the judge’s decision “insulting.” “You can be a reckless driver and not be harshly punished,” said Jesus Arias, attorney for the families.