Navy man accused in crash off Coronado Bridge that killed four people pleads not guilty

DA: Driver lost control of vehicle at 81 MPH
Posted at 1:44 PM, Oct 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-19 21:47:06-04

SAN DIEGO - A Navy petty officer who was allegedly drunk when his pickup truck flew off a transition ramp to the Coronado Bay Bridge and crashed into a crowd in Chicano Park, killing four people, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to felony charges.

Richard Anthony Sepolio, 24, was arraigned from his hospital bed on four counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, one count of driving under the influence causing injury and one count of driving with measurable blood-alcohol causing injury. He faces nearly 24 years in prison if convicted and had his bail set at $2 million.

The crash that occurred shortly after 3:30 p.m. last Saturday killed Annamarie Contreras, 50, and Cruz Contreras, 52, a married couple from Chandler, Arizona, and Hacienda Heights residents Andre Banks, 49, and Francine Jimenez, 45.

Sepolio, a Navy aviation electronics technician assigned to Coronado-based Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 6, was badly injured when his GMC pickup truck fell more than 60 feet. Authorities said he lost control of his truck, which then traveled over the concrete railing on the north side of the bridge.

Following the arraignment, Deputy District Attorney Cally Bright alleged Sepolio had been drinking that day, having wine and some cocktails while at a restaurant with a friend. According to Bright, Sepolio and his friend used Uber to go back to her house, and despite her warnings to the defendant not to drive, he got in his truck and headed home toward Coronado, Bright told reporters.

The defendant told police that he was on Interstate 5 where it transitions onto the bridge in a 45 mph zone and was trying to move over to the left lane, Bright said.

According to Sepolio, another driver wouldn't let him move over, so he gunned his engine and was going about 81 mph when he hit the left guardrail and spun off the freeway and landed in Chicano Park, the prosecutor said.

Sepolio's blood was drawn an hour after the crash, and was measured at .08 percent, Bright said. She said the defendant's blood-alcohol content at the time of driving was estimated to be between .08 and .09 percent.

Drivers in California are considered under the influence if their blood-alcohol content is .08 percent or higher.

"This is seven new (DUI fatality) cases in seven weeks," Bright said. "It shocks me, is what it does."

Defense attorney Paul Pfingst told reporters that Sepolio was cut off in traffic and was not under the influence at the time of the crash.

The attorney said his client -- who has no prior record -- aspired to be a Navy Seal.

A bail review was set for Nov. 2 and a preliminary hearing for Jan. 25.

Sepolio suffered a broken hand, broken rib and fractured vertebrae in the crash, according to his attorney, and it's unclear when he'll be discharged from UCSD Medical Center.

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Eight other people who had attended a celebration at Chicano Park culminating the La Raza Run motorcycle ride suffered various non-life-threatening injuries in the wreck. The park has since become a growing memorial to the victims.

On Tuesday, Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, pledged to make improving safety on the iconic bridge a top priority. He said the Coronado Bridge has become synonymous with a loss of life from vehicle crashes and suicide. Hueso called on Gov. Jerry Brown for more resources to improve safety and prevent suicides, such as guardrails or higher sides.

"We have to make sure the bridge is safe for the people above and the people below," Hueso said.

Tommie Camarillo of the Chicano Park Steering Committee said Saturday's crash was not the first time the bridge has affected the safety of those at or near the park below. On separate occasions, a motorcycle and a vehicle fender had fallen off the bridge, he said.