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Alcoholic Sentenced to Prison

Times Staff Writer

A 38-year-old chronic alcoholic was ordered Monday to serve 15-years-to-life in prison for his third drunk-driving offense--this one resulting in a collision that killed an off-duty Huntington Beach police detective last year.

Richard G. Gonzales of Lake Forest, one of only a handful of drunk drivers in the county to be prosecuted on murder charges, was convicted in September of second-degree murder in the death of Detective Christopher Spurney.

In delivering the sentence Monday in Superior Court in Santa Ana, Judge Francisco P. Briseno rejected several emotional appeals for leniency from Gonzales’ family and the defendant himself. Gonzales’ supporters all urged alcoholism treatment, not incarceration, for a man they described as deeply remorseful.

Briseno, citing Gonzales’ habitual alcohol problems and drunken driving, ordered imprisonment “to ensure that at least for a substantial portion of your lifetime, this risk not be inflicted on other innocent people.”

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Defense attorney Lloyd Freeberg said in an interview that the ruling demonstrates the judicial system’s “refusal to acknowledge that alcoholics are severely diseased people.”

But county probation officers, in a pre-sentencing report reviewed by Briseno, described Gonzales as “cavalier,” selfish and cowardly in his attitude toward drinking and driving.

“He apparently could not or would not consider life without alcohol and refused to curtail his driving to accommodate his indulgence, thereby implicitly expecting the rest of society to live with the constant risk he presented,” the probation report said.

Moments after the sentence was ordered, Gonzales’ distraught mother approached Ruth Spurney, the mother of the detective killed in the crash, and embraced her.

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Nonetheless, Ruth Spurney remained bitter. She said that although she feels some sympathy for the Gonzales family, they still have their loved one--imprisoned or not.

Gonzales “got 15 years, but somehow it doesn’t help if you don’t have your son anymore,” said Spurney, of Fullerton. “At least he’ll have lots of time in prison to think about this, so maybe next time he won’t put another family through the hell that he’s put ours.”

Christopher Spurney was killed while off-duty about 10 p.m. on June 10, 1987, on the San Diego Freeway near Sand Canyon Avenue in Irvine.

His car was rammed head-on by a car driven by Gonzales, who crossed over the center divider and into northbound traffic at a speed of about 70 m.p.h., according to the prosecution. Spurney, 40, a divorced father of two and a former veteran of the California Highway Patrol, died instantly.

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Gonzales, an auto parts salesman, was found to have a .14 blood-alcohol level. Drivers with a .10 level are considered intoxicated under the law. Gonzales also told probation officers that he had consumed some cocaine and marijuana before getting into his car.

Prosecutors, aware of Gonzales’ previous drunk-driving offenses, charged him with second-degree murder.

Before a state Supreme Court ruling several years ago that enabled prosecutors to seek murder charges in such cases, Gonzales would probably have faced the less severe charge of vehicular manslaughter.

Gonzales was facing drunk-driving charges at the time of the fatal accident, and he has been been convicted of drunk driving twice before, prosecutors said.

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And in April, 1988--less than 2 months after he was released from jail on bail while facing murder charges in the Spurney accident--Gonzales was in trouble with the law again. He was cited and fined in San Diego on misdemeanor charges of drinking alcohol in a public park and possessing a small amount of marijuana.

But before the sentencing Monday, Gonzales and his family members made several personal and often tearful appeals to Judge Briseno for compassion for the defendant’s drinking problem.

His ex-wife, Linda Gonzales, said Richard Gonzales now finally realizes the depth of his prolonged alcohol addiction and needs professional help to overcome it.

“It wasn’t something that was done intentionally,” Linda Gonzales said of the June, 1987, accident, as she stared directly at Spurney’s survivors in the courtroom. “He was so consumed by this terrible thing that he couldn’t even perceive (his alcohol problem). He just had no idea.”

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Family members cited Gonzales’ compassionate nature, saying he had taken a battered child into his home as his own. Said Pearl Gonzales, the defendant’s mother: “Richard is not a bad person; he has a big problem.”

And Gonzales himself, his voice choked with emotion, added: “I just want to say that I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt anybody.”

But Ruth Spurney countered with a tearful appeal of her own to the judge for a severe prison sentence. “I am not a vengeful person . . . (but) Richard Gonzales has to pay for his crime,” she said.

Judge Briseno complied, refusing to reduce Gonzales’ second-degree murder conviction and ordering the 15-year-to-life sentence. He also denied Gonzales’ motion for a new trial.

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Kathy Perry, victim assistance director of the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said Gonzales’ stern sentence sends a strong signal of the court’s intolerance of drunk driving.

And the prosecutor in the case, Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas M. Goethals said he, too, was satisfied with the sentence against Gonzales. “He had every opportunity to change his conduct over a long period of time and never did,” Goethals said.


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