An Oxnard trucker with a history of vehicle code infractions has been charged with three counts of felony vehicular manslaughter, the District Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday morning. Three people died on August 24 after a big rig truck driven by 61-year-old Joaquin Garcia Morales crashed into their home at 4111 State Street. He was apparently unable to stop his truck as it descended down Highway 154. Morales, if found guilty, could face anywhere to probation with jail time to a maximum penalty of eight years, eight months in state prison.
According to CHP officials after the crash, Morales had picked up 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.
Morales told investigators he was experiencing brake issues before getting on the highway, but thought he had fixed the problem. Descending down the 154, Morales said he was unable to stop, and tried everything he could, deploying the foot, hand, and engine brakes, but to no avail. Witnesses described smoke coming from the area of the tires.
He failed to stop at the Highway 154/State Street intersection, but maneuvered the vehicle into the parking lot between Hope Ranch Inn and Palapa restaurant. After hitting two parked cars, the rig slammed into a house located at the end of the lot and spilled most of its contents onto the structure. Leon Leonel, 22, Lorena Tellez Pacheco, 26, and 8-year-old Jaciel Tellez, were inside, and died when the truck crashed into the tiny dwelling.
Morales, who has been cited 17 times for vehicle code infractions since 2001 including twice for brake maintenance, is expected to appear in court for arraignment on March 14. The DA’s Office will be asking that bail be set at $50,000. Camarillo-based attorney Mark Pachowicz is defending Morales, but was unavailable when contacted by The Independent Wednesday afternoon. Prosecuting the case for the DA’s Office is Senior Deputy DA Arnie Tolks.
Tolks said it took some time for CHP officials to investigate the case, from looking at the mechanics of the vehicle to interviewing witnesses and Morales, bringing in specialists, and running their reports through Sacramento. The DA’s Office received reports over the months of the investigation, returning them to the CHP for further information. “It was a pretty extensive process done by the CHP,” explained Tolks, who will be assisted in the prosecution by Stephen Wagner, a traffic safety resource prosecutor with the California District Attorneys Association.
The crash spurred conversation by many local officials, looking at a way to make the narrow, windy Highway 154 safer. Most recently, Assemblymember Das Williams introduced legislation last week that would ban trucks with three or more axles, or trucks with a combined gross weight of 9,000 pounds or more.
Additionally, the CHP has increased enforcement on the highway, specifically focusing on truck safety. Officials have also been working with GPS providers to make map routes clear that Highway 154 is likely not an appropriate shortcut for big haulers. A hazardous materials ban is also being looked at.