Criminal charges against an 18-year-old man accused of drunk driving in a Nevada crash that killed five members of a California family were dropped Wednesday after additional evidence showed that another person was driving the vehicle.
Jean Ervin Soriano was charged with multiple counts that included DUI and causing death or great bodily injury in connection with the March 30 crash that killed the Los Angeles-area family members.
But DNA evidence from blood in the vehicle and a footprint showed that the SUV that rammed into the rear of the family's van was not driven by Soriano, according to his attorney Frank Cofer.
The only other person in the vehicle with Soriano was Alfred Gomez, 23. He was believed to be the passenger and was not tested for drugs or alcohol, according to authorities.
The findings were revealed Wednesday at a hearing in Clark County, Nev.
"Blood evidence on the passenger window and console did match Mr. Soriano," said Cofer of the law firm Cofer, Geller & Durham.
The shoe print on the drivers’ side, Cofer added, "did not match Soriano's shoes."
A family member contacted by The Times expressed shock and sadness when told that Soriano was not driving.
"This is really hard to believe," said Griselda Fernandez, 28, whose two parents died in the early morning crash on Interstate 15 about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
The five people who died were: Genaro Fernandez, 41, of Norwalk; Raudel Fernandez-Avila, 49, and Belen Fernandez, 53, of Lynwood; and Leonardo Fernandez-Avila, 45, and Angela Sandoval, 13, of Los Angeles.
They were headed home after visiting a dying relative in Denver.
Authorities said several empty beer bottles were found in the SUV. Soriano was asked by a Nevada Highway Patrol officer how many beers he had consumed before the crash. "Too many," Soriano responded, according to the arrest report reviewed by The Times.
Cofer said he believes that his client told authorities he was the driver after allegedly being "manipulated" and "intimidated" at the scene by Gomez.
A family member inside the van who survived testified that she heard two men arguing at the scene about who was the driver, according to Cofer.
At the time, Soriano had escaped from an Orange County youth probation center for people with substance abuse issues.
Gomez's whereabouts were not known, and it was not immediately clear Wednesday evening what type of case authorities would be able to pursue against him.
"What if they don't find him?" Fernandez said. "There needs to be justice. Something needs to be done."
Cofer said he hoped that authorities learn from the case.
"Police should never rely solely on a confession that's not corroborated by physical evidence," he said. "Physical evidence can't be intimidated, it can't be coerced."
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