The pain of two families filled the courtroom where Raymond Morua was sentenced Wednesday to 20 years to life in prison for driving drunk and fatally hitting Mallory Dies last December. Morua, who addressed the court, his relatives, and the Dies family in a final statement, will be eligible for parole after 10 years. He had accepted a plea deal and admitted to felony charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and fleeing the scene of an accident.
The late night incident and its aftermath deeply affected the Santa Barbara community as both victim and perpetrator were well-liked in their respective circles. Dies, 27, was a UCSB graduate and a downtown bartender remembered for her warmth and wit. An outpouring of grief and support following the collision reverberated throughout the South Coast with notable intensity. Morua, 32, is an Iraq war veteran who was employed at the time of the crash by Congresswoman Lois Capps as one of her district representatives. His effectiveness in that role and as a supporter of local veterans has been cited by friends and former colleagues as part of the good reputation he enjoyed.
Before Judge James Voysey handed down the sentence, Mallory’s father, Matt, addressed the court. He showed pictures of Mallory’s life and talked about how much she adored her dollies before she started gymnastics and eventually became a cheerleader. Mallory loved reading, Matt said, and as a little girl would memorize entire books of nursery rhymes. She later won a school spelling bee but lost on “ostensible” in the district final. “That word became infamous in our house,” he remembered with a smile. Matt said he and Mallory’s mom enjoyed having her friends over, and that while she spent a lot of time “working on being cool,” she was also a confident and competitive student who earned her way to UCSB, her dream school.
Mallory’s mother said she’s lived many days in shock since her daughter was killed, explaining a nurse told her that shock is the brain’s defense from going insane. When she’s not numb she’s in unimaginable pain with the thought that Mallory will never become the history teacher she wanted to be. Ryan Todey, one of Mallory’s close friends, explained he was with her the night she died. He remembered they were crossing Anacapa Street on their way to EOS Lounge when Mallory looked back at him and smiled. “But when was she not smiling?” he asked. Moments later they heard the sound of a revving engine, and before anyone could move, Morua’s SUV had slammed into Mallory. She suffered severe head trauma and was taken off life support five days later, but her donated organs saved the lives of five different people, Todey said.
In the days that followed, thousands of gestures of support came to the Dies family, which has since formed an anti-drunk driving campaign called Vow4Mal. “She was a light,” Todey said of Mallory, “and I just want to say that even though Mallory passed, and I never get to receive another Mal hug, the miracles I have witnessed over the last five months have shown me that Mallory Rae lives.”
Morua’s fiance, Teresa Montoya, then spoke to Judge Voysey and the court. In her own words and through a letter written by one of Morua’s fellow veterans, she explained how Morua struggled to reintegrate back into civilian life after he left the Army. He had seen fierce and violent combat overseas, she said, and was often subjected to mortar bombardments that injured many of his friends. Morua would talk about helping hurt soldiers, Montoya said, remembering how he tended to one man whose eye was hanging out of his skull. Morua received little support from the government when he returned home, and turned to heavy drinking to cope with his diagnosed PTSD, Montoya said. He even dropped out of college for a time because his inner struggles and addiction became unbearable.
“I feel that we should have more transitional resources for veterans,” Montoya said. “I don’t want us to forget Mallory, and this is just an example of so many problems that are facing our society. But I think that understanding this event and being able to help soldiers when they return is a start.”
Ron Dexter, well known in the Santa Barbara veteran community and a member of six of its organizations, spoke next. “We are failing our veterans,” he said, noting that many men come back from combat with problems that prevent them from reintegrating into the real world once again. Morua’s mother, Dexter said, noticed a difference in her son when he came home. While Morua pleaded guilty for what he did, “and he must pay,” Dexter went on, sending him to prison forever “won’t solve anything and it won’t bring Mallory back to her family and friends.”
After Morua’s sister asked the court to have compassion for a devoted veteran who made a horrible mistake, her husband, Juan Jimenez, addressed Matt Dies directly. Commending Matt for his strength in the face of such tragedy, he said, “You have shown what a true man leads his family to be.” As Matt nodded in thanks, Jimenez explained that he too came back broken from war and began to self-medicate. “You leave for war a complete man,” he said. “You see things. You see lifeless bodies. You smell bodies. To this day, I still wake up in cold sweats and smell those bodies from my bedroom. I fight demons every day.”
Jimenez said he’s been sober for two months and looks to the Dies family as inspiration. “You were correct,” he said. “Mallory has changed lives. She’s also changed mine.” Nevertheless, he went on, too many soldiers are suffering with no relief in sight. “It’s a viscous cycle. We leave as men, we’re turned into beasts, but we don’t know how to transition out of it.” Jimenez said Morua never used his PTSD as an excuse for what he did, and that he never tried to distance himself from his responsibility.
As he quietly sobbed, Morua read a statement that began, “Mr. and Mrs. Dies — I humbly stand before you today ashamed and disgraced. My heart and soul drown from the sorrow and pain that I have brought upon you and your family. Not a day goes by that I don’t pray or wish the accident never happened. Not a day goes by that I don’t hate myself for what happened to Mallory. I wish that I could bring Mallory back. If I could I would. I would trade places with her at a moment’s notice.”
Calling his actions the night of the incident “reckless and cowardly,” Morua said he was sorry from the bottom of his heart. “I am sorry that your daughter was taken from you. I am sorry for all the suffering and anguish I have put you through. I’m not worthy to ask for your forgiveness.” He said if the Dies family ever wants him to help in their anti-drunk driving efforts, they should not hesitate to reach out. “If my assistance is welcome, I want you to know that I am ready to aid in any and all efforts to bring awareness to the dangers and perils of drunk driving,” he said. “I am ready accept any and all duties you might have for me.”
Morua’s tone and message shifted when he addressed Capps and her office. Capps has maintained that Morua was not working for her the night of the collision and has sought to cut all ties with the former district representative. (Morua was fired shortly after the incident.) The Dies family has sued Congress in a wrongful death complaint, alleging Morua was a ticking time bomb with two prior DUI convictions and should never have been put into the position where he could drink and drive on the clock. Before he hit Mallory, Morua had attended an annual holiday party hosted by The Santa Barbara Independent earlier in the evening. The civil lawsuit remains in its early stages.
“I am disappointed in [Capps and her office’s] slanderous attempts to assassinate my character and to deny the fact that I was on the job the night of the accident,” Morua said. “The lengths they are willing to go to distance themselves from me and the truth are appalling. The fact that they are behaving so in an attempt to avoid compensating the Dies family is just as, if not more, cowardly than my actions were the night I was under the influence.”
Morua also apologized to the Santa Barbara community at large, saying he betrayed its trust when he drove drunk. He also apologized to his friends and family. “I’m sorry to have contaminated all of your lives with my dishonor.” Morua said he prays for Mallory and her family every night, and asks God for mercy and forgiveness.
Prosecutor Arnis Tolks, in his argument to Judge Voysey that he impose the terms of the plea deal, said that while Morua may be diagnosed with PTSD, “it in no way excuses his terrible decisions” that night. “This wasn’t an accident,” Tolks went on, “it was inevitable. Did he intend to do it? No, but he certainly should have known better that his actions were going to lead to this.” Tolks said Morua’s two prior DUIs played heavily into the charges and ultimate sentence.
As he handed down the 20 years to life term, Voysey offered his own thoughts on the case and its tragic consequences. “I think everybody in this room has been greatly affected by what Mr. Morua did, and I don’t think anyone is going to walk out of this courtroom today and not remember this for the rest of their lives,” he said. “I see the only positive coming out of this situation is that Mr. Morua do what he can to stop this senseless slaughter. Driving under the influence creates such tragedies in this community and in every community.”
After Morua was led away in handcuffs, Matt Dies said he thought Morua’s words were “heartfelt.” Matt said Morua was likely terrorized and traumatized by his acts that night. “I don’t think he’s a horrible person by any means. I think he’s actually a good person who did a horrible thing, and he’ll be full of regret for this for the rest of this life.” Matt said he feels for Morua’s family as they too have lost a child.
Of Morua’s statements about Capps, Matt said, “It was good to hear those words. I think you’re hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth. He knows why he was [at the holiday party.] All the denials from the Mollie Culvers and the Chris Meaghers and the Lois Cappses don’t change reality. … Saying something a million times doesn’t change the truth.” Culver serves as Capps’s district director and has also said that Morua was not on the clock when he killed Dies.
Capps press secretary Chris Meagher issued a statement to The Independent after Wednesday’s hearing. “Raymond attended the Santa Barbara Independent’s annual holiday party of his own volition,” Meagher wrote. “He was not directed, required or even asked to attend by the Congresswoman or any of his superiors. Raymond had no official role on her behalf at the annual holiday party, a social event held after working hours.”
“Regardless,” Meagher continues, “no one should ever get behind the wheel of a car while under the influence. The Congresswoman knows this all too well, as she and her husband were nearly killed by a drunk driver near San Marcos Pass almost 20 years ago. Indeed, in her congressional career she has supported tougher drunk driving laws to address the carnage caused by drunk driving.”
Capps also issued a statement: “I know today was an emotional day for all involved and I will continue to keep everyone affected by Mallory’s death in my prayers as our community continues to heal from this tragedy.”