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Drunk Driving Case Ends in Sentence, Shattered Lives

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard Ayares’ teen-age social life revolved around alcohol.

Before heading off for classes at Rolling Hills High School, he would down a shot or two to help him face the day. After school, he and his friends spent the afternoon drinking beer and watching television. By the time the weekend rolled around, they were ready for some serious partying.

On at least 30 or 40 occasions, Ayares admitted to a probation officer, he drove home drunk without being stopped by police.

“We all saw our drinking as a big game,” Ayares said in a letter to the judge preparing to sentence him in the drunk driving death of a friend. “I learned it wasn’t a game the hardest way of all.”

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Speeding away from police in a drunken panic one night last January, Ayares, 19, slammed the brand-new Acura he was driving into a parked car, killing one of his passengers, Rick Jackson, 19, and seriously injuring the other, Jean Paul Marnoni, 20. The three had graduated together in 1988 from Rolling Hills High School.

On Tuesday, Torrance Superior Court Judge William Hollingsworth ordered Ayares to state prison for four years and eight months.

Ayares must serve at least two years and four months before he becomes eligible for parole.

“I cannot think of any crime that calls out more for punishment than this does,” Hollingsworth said.

“I hope that by your sentence to state prison some of your drinking buddies will get the message that they cannot drink and drive without suffering the consequences.”

Ayares, who pleaded no contest in February to felony drunk driving and vehicular manslaughter, told the judge in his letter that he hopes so too.

“I know that many of the friends we used to drink with still go out partying on weekends. They still see it as a big game,” Ayares wrote. “I know that what I want to do with my life is to help kids understand how serious it is to drink and drive.”

His father, sister and counselors at the residential alcohol treatment program where he has been living since shortly after the accident told Hollingsworth the tragedy has turned Ayares’ life around.

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Diagnosed as dyslexic, Ayares was enrolled in special schools for learning disabled children and took a drug called Ritalin twice a day for more than six years to control hyperactivity, court documents show. Some doctors now believe Ritalin can contribute to alcohol and chemical dependency later in life.

Her voice cracking with emotion in court, 22-year-old Allison Ayares testified that her brother has been transformed from “a very closed person, very scared, very haunted,” to a remorseful young man who is sincerely trying to better himself.

“He wants to pay his debt to society. He realizes what he’s done,” she said. “He’s going to have to live with that debt for the rest of his life.”

Neither the prosecutor nor Jackson’s family were sympathetic.

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Deputy Dist. Atty. Keith Schwartz, who asked Hollingsworth to sentence Ayares to six years and eight months in state prison, argued that Ayares’ good intentions are too little and far too late.

“He’s going to have the rest of his life . . . to maybe make himself a better person. And I hope he does,” Schwartz said. “But Rick Jackson . . . had everything going for him, and now he’s never going to achieve his life’s dreams.”

Jackson’s family said the USC sophomore was a high achieving student who decided early on that he wanted to be a doctor. Rolling Hills High School athletic commissioner during his senior year there and Alpha Tau Omega pledge class president during his first year in college, Jackson volunteered at County-USC Hospital’s trauma center every Saturday night and worked with underprivileged children at Hoover Recreational Center in South-Central Los Angeles.

He was, his parents said, just the opposite of Ayares.

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Clay and Marsha Jackson said Ayares “drank excessively, lied to his friends and acquaintances, stole from his employers, drove without concern for safety, wrecked more than one vehicle and displayed a general disregard of authority,” according to Probation Officer Caroline Nakamura’s report to the court.

Ayares “would brag constantly about his escapades, from spitting in all the hamburgers he made when working at Burger King Palos Verdes to stealing liquor and selling to under-age minors while employed at Matador Liquors,” the Jacksons told Nakamura.

Managers at both businesses said they fired Ayares, according to the probation report.

The Jacksons had their lawyer serve a wrongful death lawsuit on Ayares moments before he was sentenced to state prison, and silently watched Tuesday’s courtroom proceedings. They left immediately afterward without comment.

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Jean Paul Marnoni, who nearly died as a result of serious back and internal injuries suffered during the January crash, did not go to the court.

“I have mixed feelings right now toward Rich (Ayares), in the sense that he was a good friend of mine, but Rick (Jackson) was my best friend . . . since fourth grade,” Marnoni said in a telephone interview from his Rancho Palos Verdes home.

Jackson usually was the one who stayed sober to drive everyone else home, Marnoni said.

On Jan. 7, however, Ayares, who attended Harbor College, offered to do the driving and both Marnoni and Jackson, exhausted from their week’s studies at USC and the night’s festivities, accepted.

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“Rich is a really big kid and he handles his alcohol well, I guess, because he didn’t seem all that drunk to me,” Marnoni said. “It was a stupid move on both our parts.”

Marnoni said he and Jackson fell asleep on the way home and did not awaken until police were chasing them, shortly before the crash.

“I woke up and I was kind of in a daze and I saw these flashing lights behind us . . . and I think I said, ‘Rich, what are you doing? Slow down! Pull over!’ ” Marnoni said.

“I don’t remember a whole lot . . . about that night.”

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Ayares, whose blood alcohol level of .19% was more than twice the legal limit, told counselors that he is tortured by vivid nightmares about that night.

“I wish it had been me instead (who died). . . . I’ve always felt that I wasn’t worth very much,” Ayares said in his letter to the judge.

Allison Ayares told counselors that she and her brother, both of whom were adopted, suffered through rocky childhoods.

Their mother “raised us with a lot of fear and stress,” a psychologist’s report filed with the court quotes Allison as saying. “She would scratch us with her nails and pull our hair.”

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In 1982, the childrens’ father, Howard Ayares, went bankrupt. Shortly afterward, the couple divorced. In 1984, he and the two children moved from their Miami home to Southern California.

By that time, Richard Ayares already was drinking heavily.

“I was overweight and had nothing going for me,” he told psychologists, according to court documents. “I really saw myself as a fat piece of garbage.”

Now determined to start over, Ayares said he is determined to build enough self-esteem to stay sober.

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“I wish more than anything that I could bring Rick back,” he wrote in his letter to Hollingsworth. “It’s really frightening to know that I’ll have to go on living with what I’ve done.”


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