Crime - Sacto 911

Fatal hit-and-run driver testifies, ‘I fell asleep at the wheel’

Paul William Walden had already defeated the worst of his withdrawal symptoms. Coming into Sacramento after his cross-country drive from Boone, N.C., he listed himself at a very manageable 3 on a misery scale of 10. It was way better than the 6 or 7 he had registered just a couple of weeks earlier, when he got busted in Kearney, Neb., and when the cops took his methadone away, and when the whips and jangles of his condition came down hard on him.

“They were almost gone,” he testified Tuesday of the hot and cold flashes and the muscle aches and shaky nausea that marked his withdrawal.

So why was it then, his lawyer, Michael Long, asked, if Walden was getting better, that as soon as he pulled off Interstate 80 onto Antelope Road, he burned up the cellphone in the search for heroin that propelled him on a collision course with a man he ran over and killed, a woman he seriously injured and four dogs he also slaughtered on a warm Carmichael night two years ago on Garfield Avenue at Engle Road?

Walden’s answer rang simple and true, even if unsatisfying, in explanation for the lost life of Harison Long-Randall and the terrible injuries suffered by Gemily West on the night of July 16, 2012.

“Because,” he told a Sacramento Superior Court jury, “I’m an addict.”

Telling his story for the first time in public, Walden, now 32, testified that even though he was and is an addict who was scouring Sacramento for heroin in his first hours back from western Carolina, he was not under the influence of that or any of the other drugs in the buffet of substances he had been abusing his entire adult life.

Walden, who is accused of second-degree murder in the case, answered, “Of course not,” when Long asked him if he intended to hurt anybody the night of the collision.

Asked what happened, Walden replied, “I know I said different things to different people, including law enforcement, but the truth is I fell asleep at the wheel.” The problem, he said, was that he’d been on the road three and a half days, straight. “I feel ashamed and sorry for the families,” Walden replied, when Long asked him how he felt about the tragedy.

The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office thinks there was a lot more to the fatal wreck than an exhausted motorist. The second-degree murder charge contains the implication of malice. Under the prosecution’s theory, violent death was a natural and probable consequence of a wanton addict’s single-minded pursuit of his drug at reckless disregard for any living thing that stood between him and it.

Deputy District Attorney Kari Reeve gets her shot at Walden on Wednesday, and she foreshadowed on Tuesday where she’ll be going with her cross-examination. Earlier in the day, she questioned a defense expert who testified about perception and reaction time and how far a car might travel once somebody who may have been asleep at the wheel woke up to the sound of his car smashing through a stop sign.

Accident reconstruction expert Larry Fink testified that Walden’s reaction time would have been between 1.5 and 1.6 seconds from the time he hit the stop sign at Garfield and Engle, as authorities said he did before he ran over the people and dogs in the crosswalk. In that time span, Walden’s car would have progressed anywhere from 79 feet to 198 feet, assuming speeds ranging from 35 to 90 miles per hour, according to Fink. Walden estimated in a jailhouse conversation with his mother that he was going 65, according to the prosecutor’s trial brief.

Reeve told Fink that California Highway Patrol investigators measured the debris field left in Walden’s wake at longer than the length of a football field, which is 300 feet. She told him that witnesses said he never hit his brakes and that there were no skid marks at the collision points, that nobody said they heard any skidding or screeching sounds. What, she asked, does all of that say about somebody’s reaction time?

“I’d be speculating,” testified Fink, a former CHP officer himself, “but it sounds like from what you’re saying that there would be no reaction at all.”

In his own testimony, Walden said he smoked pot at 17, moved on to acid and mushrooms at 18, dabbled in methamphetamine at 19 and had started on heroin at 20. Later on, he was prescribed Xanax to handle his anxiety. He said he occasionally tried to replace the heroin with methadone.

Walden testified that in July 2012, he set out for North Carolina to meet up with a girlfriend and maybe find a job. On the drive out, he got rousted for sleeping on private property. Officers found some methadone he said he had “stockpiled” for the trip east, as well as a cornucopia of other drugs in his car, and they took him to jail. That’s when he said the withdrawal symptoms were at their worst. His mother bailed him out and he continued on to Carolina, where he couldn’t find work or drugs, so he returned to California.

With his mother wiring him money, Walden on the way back stopped first in Tennessee, then somewhere just short of Nebraska and then somewhere in Wyoming on the morning of July 16. Then came the final push home to North Highlands. Even though his sickness had eased, he said he started thinking seriously about heroin about the time he made it to Auburn. He worried about a leaky radiator holding him up, but got over it as he came down the hill.

“When it seemed like my car was going to make it, I started phoning people to ask about heroin,” he said.

Walden called a couple of his heroin pals at 9 p.m., but they were out of pocket. He tried another connection at 9:12 – no luck. At 9:14, his mother called him, “something in regard to ‘when are you going to be home,’ ” he testified. At 9:39 p.m., he stopped at the Rite Aid on Manzanita Avenue at Cypress Avenue to go to the bathroom and make some more heroin calls.

“I wasn’t craving,” Walden testified. “But as an addict, I definitely wanted to get some. I hadn’t had any in a couple of weeks.”

He said it wasn’t a matter of desperation. “It was a want, not a need,” he told Long.

He topped off his water and his oil at the Rite Aid and got in his car and headed west on Cypress, toward Garfield, about a mile from where Harison Long-Randall and Gemily West were just about to cross the street.

Walden’s testimony resumes Wednesday in front of Judge Patrick Marlette.

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