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Model Sentenced in Case That Fueled Bill on Drunk Drivers

Times Staff Writer

A former fashion model who killed five people while driving drunk on Interstate 5 two years ago was sentenced Friday to five years and eight months in state prison.

San Fernando Superior Court Judge Robert D. Fratianne, noting that he did so “reluctantly” because of the short prison time, sentenced Phyllis Hall, 28, of Monrovia to the maximum term recommended under a plea-bargain arranged last month. She will be eligible for parole in about 16 months.

Hall, who sobbed quietly during much of Friday’s emotionally charged proceedings, originally faced second-degree murder charges. She was allowed to plead guilty to reduced charges of five counts of vehicular manslaughter and one count of felony drunk driving after prosecutors decided they could not prove she had demonstrated malice before the crash, which would have been necessary to win the murder convictions.

Helped Prompt Bill

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John Lovell, special counsel to Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, said Hall’s case was one of more than a dozen throughout the state that prompted the introduction in April of a “vehicular murder” bill that could provide even longer prison terms for drunk drivers who kill people.

If passed, the bill would require prosecutors to prove only that a driver demonstrated gross negligence--not malice, which is more difficult--in order to win second-degree murder convictions, which carry a penalty of 15 years to life.

Hall was arrested on June 4, 1983, after the borrowed Mercedes-Benz she was driving north on Interstate 5 in Valencia broke through a freeway divider at a curve and became airborne. Her car landed on the hood of a southbound sedan carrying six people. Although medical tests showed several of the victims, including the driver, also were drunk, their intoxication was not a factor in the crash, attorneys on both sides agreed.

Defense attorney Ralph Courtney said he believed the victims’ intoxication might have been a factor in the jury’s decision had the case gone to trial. However, Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan Speer, who prosecuted the case, said she believed it would have had no bearing.

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Investigators said Hall was traveling 100 m.p.h. at the time of the crash. According to court documents, tests conducted almost two hours after the accident showed that Hall had a blood-alcohol level of 0.25%, more than double the 0.10% level considered legally drunk.

Killed in the accident were Ronald Baker, 23, the driver; Karin Paige, 19, and her sister, Loretta, 18, all of Canyon Country, and Kevin Johnson, 19, and John Thompson, 20, of Valencia. The only survivor of the crash was 21-year-old Diana Notroberta of New York.

Date of Crash Crucial

Under manslaughter laws in effect at the time of the crash, Hall could not be sentenced to more than the five years and eight months she was given.

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If Hall had committed the crime a few months later, when stiffer vehicular manslaughter penalties went into effect, she could have been sentenced to as much as 16 years in prison, Speer said.

Speer, who negotiated the plea bargain, said she does not believe the sentence is sufficient penalty for killing “even one person, let alone five. But that was the state of our law and we have to live by what the law said in 1983.”

Without the plea agreement, Speer said, Hall might have won an acquittal or a lesser sentence by taking her case to trial.

As Fratianne imposed sentence on Hall, he told her that he now walks with a crutch because of an injury he received 25 years ago in an accident caused by a drunk driver.

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“You and I have had second chances,” Fratianne told Hall. “Ronald Baker, Kevin Johnson, Karin Paige, Loretta Paige, John Thompson--they don’t have a second chance. You know why? Because you killed them.”

An attorney for the victims’ families, who have filed a civil suit against Hall, told the court before sentencing that Hall was “extremely lucky that her slaughter of these children occurred before the sentencing statutes were raised.

“I do not believe that these expressions of remorse seen in this court today are true expressions of remorse,” attorney Andrew Kaufman said as Hall wept nearby. “I believe they are expressions of relief because she was fortunate enough not to be tried for second-degree murder.”

Pledged to ‘Crusade’

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Hall has pledged to devote her life after she is released from prison to conducting a “crusade for the prevention of drunk driving,” by lecturing to children and young adults about her experience and the dangers of driving intoxicated, defense attorney Courtney said.

“I’ve wanted the parents to know how sorry I really am, but I feel that there is no way to express it verbally,” Hall wrote in a letter to the court. “The word ‘sorry’ is just not big enough, nor could it ever express what I feel when I think of the devastation I’ve caused in these people’s lives.”

Attached to a probation report were letters from administrators of five alcoholism programs who said Hall had sent them outlines of her proposed “crusade,” which they planned to include as part of their campaigns against drunk driving.

According to the probation report, Hall was convicted in 1978 of driving under the influence and received a probationary sentence.

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About a dozen members of the victims’ families watched the proceedings and gathered outside the courtroom afterward, hugging one another and crying.

‘Too Short a Term’

“It’s just too short of a term for something this tragic,” said Milton Johnson, father of one of the victims.

“She deserves life in prison for taking five lives,” said Johnson’s 18-year-old daughter, Nanette. “The one thing that I think about the most is they were kids my age who never had a chance to live their own lives, to get married, have children, make something of themselves.”

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Ruth Hanzlik, a representative of Mothers Against Drunk Driving who accompanied the family members to the proceedings, said the proposed vehicular-murder legislation would “help victims believe that there is some justice for the suffering that has been caused them.”

“What Phyllis Hall did was totally gross, gross negligence,” Hanzlik said. “Justice would have been that she would have gone to trial on the murder charges . . . Vehicular murder legislation would have allowed that.”

Forcing Stiffer Terms

State MADD director Pat Ramirez said in a telephone interview after the sentencing that the vehicular-murder bill, which is now in the Public Safety Committee of the state Assembly, would force judges to impose stiffer sentences.

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“They’re really not willing to give the high-term sentence of eight years for vehicular manslaughter for a whole variety of reasons,” Ramirez said. “We’re hearing that jails are overcrowded as it is. Many of the judges do not view drunk driving as a violent crime in the same way in which you take a gun and go out and slaughter everyone . . . It’s as if a drunk driver has to go kill a carload of five people like this woman did before they get any attention.

“But I think it’s time we start calling drunk driving what it is--murder,” she said.

Prosecutor Speer, however, said she is not convinced that vehicular-murder legislation would improve anything.

“I would think it would be better just to raise the penalty for vehicular manslaughter again,” Speer said. “We’ve already got the right law. We should be looking at the penalties it allows.”

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