Lodi police said Monday they plan to seek murder charges against suspected drunken driver Ryan Christopher Morales, the 28-year-old ex-con believed to have caused last week’s vehicle crash that wiped out five members of a local family and left a 9-year-old boy orphaned.
“I want to begin by making it very clear that this horrific event was not an accident,” Lodi Police Chief Mark Helms said at a news conference to discuss the crash, which involved six cars and injured eight people. “In my view, it was the heinous act of one person that resulted in six senseless deaths, including an unborn child, and critically injuring a 9-year-old boy who is fighting for his life.”
Helms said the investigation into the crash may take several months as teams of investigators reconstruct how the Oct. 22 accident near Lodi Middle School occurred, but he added that Morales is the target of the probe into the deaths of Luis Miranda Ochoa, 32; Vivianna Rodriguez Salgado, 31, who was seven months pregnant; and their children, 12-year-old Irvin, 6-year-old Jose and 5-year-old Stephanie. The sole survivor, 9-year-old Eden, was listed in critical condition after the crash, but Helms said he is improving.
Police say Morales, who is also hospitalized in critical condition, had been drinking at the time of the crash, and witnesses have reported him driving a 2002 GMC Yukon sport-utility vehicle erratically and at high speeds just before his SUV crashed into a Ford pickup driven by Miranda, as well as a Suzuki SUV driven by a 59-year-old man with three children onboard. Witnesses also have described Morales as clutching a cellphone to his ear.
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Helms said Morales’ conduct went far beyond the case of an accident “in the sense of a person who simply ran a red light.”
Instead, he said, from “the nature of the driving conduct and what we know, I would envision that you would see charges that exceed vehicular manslaughter.”
Morales could face manslaughter or even second-degree murder charges in each of the deaths, with each murder count exposing him to a possible sentence of 15 years to life, said Robert Himelblau, a San Joaquin County deputy district attorney.
“This is not a simple accident,” Himelblau said. “This involved higher conduct, and the minimal conduct for vehicular manslaughter is criminal negligence.
“The highest vehicular manslaughter is what’s called gross negligence with intoxication, and that carries a 10-year sentence per victim. The second area is murder. Murder in these types of cases indicates that the individual did an act, which is usually driving, and he did it in such a way that he acted with conscious disregard for human life.”
Second-degree murder charges in DUI cases are not uncommon and typically are pursued if there is evidence that a driver knew or should have known that such conduct could lead to someone being killed, said Steve Grippi, Sacramento’s assistant chief deputy district attorney.
Grippi, who noted that he was not commenting on the Lodi case, said he has overseen several DUI cases that resulted in second-degree murder convictions, including the 2010 conviction of Rebecca Vela for the death of motorcyclist Stanley Spaeth. Vela had four previous DUI convictions.
Sacramento prosecutors also have a murder case pending against Paul William Walden, who is accused in a 2012 hit-and-run in Carmichael that killed 21-year-old Harison Long-Randal, severely injured his girlfriend, Gemily West, and killed her four dogs.
Lodi police said they do not yet have a blood alcohol content for Morales, but they have said in search warrant documents filed in court last week that he showed up at his parents’ house the afternoon of the crash with a 750-milliliter bottle of apple-flavored vodka and that he and his father polished it off while playing pingpong in the garage.
Officers seized an empty bottle matching that description, as well as 10 other smaller empty vodka bottles, court documents indicated.
Morales was released from San Quentin State Prison last month after serving time for a conviction of evading police. Records show he does not have a current driver’s license, though Himelblau said preliminary information shows he does not have any criminal history of driving under the influence.
Helms said police do not know where Morales was heading the afternoon of the crash and added that they have not spoken to him because “he is incapacitated.”
Morales remains in critical condition at Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento, and Helms said he has not been arrested because of his medical condition. However, the chief added that Morales “is being monitored by an on-duty Lodi police officer around the clock.”
“It is our information that it is unlikely Mr. Morales will be released from the hospital anytime soon,” he said.
If Morales’ condition improves, authorities said, they want him returned to San Joaquin County, either to jail or a hospital until he is well enough to be jailed.
Police are still seeking witnesses to the crash, and are asking anyone with information to contact Sgt. Shad Canestrino at (209) 333-6861.
Authorities emphasized that they want to take the time to do a thorough investigation, and that there is no rush to charge Morales because of his injuries.
“Time is not pressuring us, based in part on Mr. Morales’ physical condition,” Himelblau said. “That’s why we’re not in a rush to have him arrested.”