Man Given 9 Years-Plus in Traffic Death : Had 5 Previous Convictions for Driving Under the Influence

Times Staff Writer

A Downey man who had been convicted five times for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol received a sentence of nine years and eight months Wednesday after pleading guilty to vehicular manslaughter in the death of a Placentia woman.

Ronald W. Colley, 29, who said he pleaded guilty to spare the victims the ordeal of a trial, has admitted being under the influence of PCP, a hallucinogenic drug, on March 9 when his car rear-ended another car at a stoplight in La Habra.

Misdemeanor Convictions

Sheila Zehner, a passenger in the car Colley struck, was killed. Seriously injured were her husband, Michael Zehner, the driver, and Kathy Tippett, a passenger in Colley's car.

Colley had previously been convicted twice for driving under the influence of PCP and three times for driving under the influence of alcohol. A sixth arrest, also alcohol-related, was dismissed. All of the convictions were misdemeanors.

Diana N, Polos, Colley's attorney, argued before Superior Court Judge James O. Perez that the judicial system was partly at fault for not having previously ordered Colley into some kind of treatment program. She also suggested that Colley deserved some consideration for sparing the victims the pain of a trial.

But Perez agreed with Deputy Dist. Atty. Carl H. Ilg that Colley was aware, because of his previous record, that he should not have been driving after taking drugs.

Tippett and Colley both made statements to police that they had smoked a cigarette laced with PCP before the accident. Tippett had been driving the car, but Colley took over when it appeared the cigarette was having an effect on her, according to Polos.

"Apparently, the PCP did not have an effect on him until later, at the time of the accident," Polos said.

The Zehners were halted at a stoplight on Imperial Highway at the Euclid Street intersection when Colley's car failed to stop at the light and hit the Zehner vehicle.

Colley pleaded guilty last month to vehicular manslaughter and causing the injuries to Tippett and Michael Zehner, before a scheduled preliminary hearing.

Prosecutor Ilg said the guilty plea may have been prompted when Polos became aware that he was still considering filing second-degree murder charges against Colley. But Polos said Colley pleaded guilty because "it was the right thing to do. He wanted to spare the victims going through a trial."

Prior Record Hurt Him

Without his prior driving record, Ilg said, Colley probably would have received no more than the minimum sentence of four years, and that probably would have been suspended.

Immediately after the sentencing, Perez presided over a marriage ceremony for Colley and his girlfriend, Virginia Duke.

"I know this is going to sound like a sob story, but he (Colley) had a very difficult childhood," Polos said. "He took drugs to ease his own pain, and never got any help."

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