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Reding Guilty of Murder in 4 Drunk-Driving Deaths

Times Staff Writer

In a decision viewed by prosecutors as a “clear-cut” message to drunk drivers, an Orange County jury Thursday convicted Michael W. Reding, a 27-year-old engineer, of second-degree murder in the 1984 deaths of a Fullerton mother and her three children.

It marked the first time that a murder conviction has been handed down in an Orange County drunk-driving case since the state Supreme Court ruled four years ago that prosecutors could seek such convictions.

Reding was found guilty on four counts of murder, 20 months after his car rammed into a small auto driven by Pamela Trueblood, 36, as she returned from a gymnastics class at Cal State Fullerton. The nighttime collision killed Mrs. Trueblood and her three children, Eric, 11, Kerry, 9, and Scott, 8.

Reding, of Fullerton, faces a maximum sentence of 60 years to life imprisonment, but Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael A. Jacobs said he will recommend only 15 years to life because of Reding’s lack of prior arrests.

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As Superior Court Judge James L. Smith read the verdict, Reding interrupted him and exclaimed: “Are you serious?”

The judge, noting that Reding’s alleged suicidal tendencies and the seriousness of the murder convictions outweighed the defendant’s request to remain free on bail, immediately ordered that Reding be taken into custody. Then he answered:

“Yes. I’m deadly serious.”

Fewer than half a dozen motorists have been convicted of second-degree murder in drunk-driving cases since the Supreme Court decision. In Orange County, prosecutors have previously won drunk-driving convictions on lesser charges, such as vehicular manslaughter.

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Jacobs praised deputy district attorneys in Los Angeles and Riverside counties, who had offered assistance before the prosecution started its case against Reding. In addition to the four counts of murder, Reding was also found guilty of two counts of felony drunk-driving causing injury.

A six-man, six-woman jury took 2 1/2 days to reach a verdict that Robert Trueblood, the surviving family member, said was “just and reasonable” in view of the loss of human lives.

“I got my satisfaction from this,” said Trueblood, who has since remarried. “This (verdict) is a clear message that if you drink and drive and kill someone, being found guilty of murder in the second degree is a distinct possibility.”

Reding told reporters that he hopes the Trueblood family can now “let go” of their anger toward him. Asked whether he thought the penalty was too harsh since he had no prior drunk-driving arrests, Reding stared at the courtroom rug and said: “I was always expecting the worst from the very beginning.

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“What do you gain by lynching someone? Is it going to make Trueblood any happier now?”

The tragedy that brought Reding and Trueblood together in an Orange County courtroom began on the evening of Oct. 23, 1984. Reding, who said he had been trying to ease the pain of a leg injury suffered several weeks before, had consumed five beers and four kamikazes, a potent vodka drink, before the bartender at a Brea tavern refused to serve him anymore.

After making a phone call, Reding left the bar and got into his car. According to Jacobs, he was driving at 71 m.p.h. down State College Boulevard in Fullerton and lost control of his vehicle when he tried to pass a car on the right shoulder, then veered left across three lanes before colliding head-on with the Truebloods’ vehicle.

Three of the Truebloods were killed instantly and a fourth died later at UCI Medical Center in Orange. Two other children in the car, Brian Rector, 12, and Shawn Ratcliff, 2, were injured but survived.

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Reding, who was arrested at the scene, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.108, which is slightly higher than the 0.10 level that is the minimum for a drunk-driving conviction in California, according to court records.

His blood tests also showed a reading of 0.45 micrograms per milliliter of benzoyl acgonine, a substance described in court as metabolized cocaine. Although Jacobs tried to make an issue during the trial of Reding’s alleged use of the drug, Reding was never charged with being under its influence.

Asked by Jacobs whether his driving had been impaired by cocaine the night of the accident, Reding answered that he had not ingested cocaine “that day.”

Jury foreman Virginia Gregurek said jurors found the deliberations extremely difficult, spending most of the time arguing whether they should find Reding guilty of manslaughter or murder.

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“We had a difficult time deciding. All I can say right now is it was very emotional,” Gregurek said, declining any further comment. Other jurors also declined to comment.

Heidi Mueller, Reding’s attorney along with G. David Haigh, said that even a 15-years-to-life sentence was “much too severe.”

Mueller did not fault the jury but criticized Jacobs for seeking the murder convictions. She had argued that Reding’s crime was no more than gross negligence, a criterion for vehicular manslaughter, and not wanton disregard for human life, the basis for a second-degree murder charge.

“We would have pled him (Reding) guilty to manslaughter because that is the most severe punishment, given the evidence and circumstances,” she said. “He’s only 27 years old and he could be an old man when he comes out.”

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Rather than appeal, Haigh said he intends to ask the judge for a new trial before his client is sentenced.

“This way it gives the trial judge, the person who heard and observed everything, a chance to review all the evidence, and he could decide to reduce the convictions to manslaughter,” Haigh said.

Jacobs, however, said the prosecution had amply demonstrated the “implied malice” required by law for a second-degree murder conviction.

After Reding was refused service at the Brea bar, Jacobs explained, he knew that he was in poor condition to drive but still got into his car and later tried to pass a car by leaving the roadway and going onto the right shoulder of the road.

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Noting that Reding was traveling at high speed in this condition, Jacobs added: “He just should have known better.”


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