Driver Gets 7 Years in Campsite Deaths : Court: Bellflower man drove over two teen-agers inside a tent at San Onofre State Park. The judge voices hope that the sentence will deter others from drinking and driving.
Eleven months after he drove over and killed two teen-agers who were camping inside a dome tent at San Onofre State Park, a 24-year-old Bellflower man Monday received a maximum sentence of seven years, four months in state prison.
Vista Superior Court Judge Herbert Hoffman said he hoped word of the sentencing would deter others from drinking and driving “because, even though society is trying its best to educate, we’re not winning the war.”
With that, Douglas Freels--who admitted he began drinking beer at age 14--took off his light tan sport coat and tie, handed them to his attorney, and, without so much as a glance to his mother or sister sitting in the Vista courtroom, was escorted by a sheriff’s deputy through a back door to jail.
The parents of the two victims talked of justice--and pity.
“The maximum (sentence) is justifiable,” said Jake Grubb, the father of 18-year-old Graham Grubb of Laguna Niguel, who was camping that night last September with his girlfriend, 19-year-old Amanda Ciskowski of Coronado.
“I just don’t think that sitting and rotting (in prison) is a solution. I hope they can help him.”
Said Connie Ciskowski, the other victim’s mother: “There’s a sense of relief. Justice was done. But my heart goes out to the young man.”
Freels’ attorney, Tom Warwick, had asked the judge to sentence his client to two years in the County Jail, followed by five years of probation during which he could perform “thousands of hours” of community service work.
Custody in local jail versus state prison was needed, Warwick maintained, because his client--who is under anti-depressant medication--is so remorseful as to be suicidal, and a prison term might lead, he said, “to a third victim in this terrible tragedy.”
Freels, a warehouse for a snack food manufacturer in Paramount, said nothing at his sentencing and spent most of the time looking down.
Hoffman, saying his sympathy for the defendant as a first-time offender and otherwise stable young man was balanced by the cold reality of the crime, accepted the recommendation of the San Diego County Probation Department and prosecutor Greg Walden and sentenced Freels to the maximum for the charges allowed under the law.
In May, Freels had pleaded guilty in a plea bargain to two counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, and prosecutors dropped more serious charges as well as charges of hit-and-run and driving under the influence of alcohol. By accepting guilt to the lesser charge, Freels escaped a possible maximum sentence of 12 years in prison.
Freels and a friend had driven down the coast from their homes in Bellflower that night and ended up driving along Old Highway 101, which runs parallel to Interstate 5 and which serves as the main access through the popular campground just south of San Clemente.
During the night, Freels told his probation officer, he had consumed two or three beers and “a sip of whiskey.”
Several hours earlier, the two teen-agers had driven through the same campground and--discovering it filled to capacity--set up their small, two-man tent next to their truck at the extreme south end of the park, in an area not set aside for camping.
Freels told authorities at the time that he was trying to drive out of the park and onto I-5. However, he became confused by the directional signs and was driving on the wrong side of the road.
He came to a dead-end and made a U-turn.
He said he didn’t realize he was bearing down on the victims’ campsite until just a second or two before the collision. He believed he had simply struck a camper’s truck.
Freels, dazed if not momentarily unconscious from the collision, told authorities afterward that, when he and his companion got out of the car, they assumed the occupants of the campsite were at the beach.
They spent about 10 minutes at the scene, Freels said, trying unsuccessfully to check for damage beneath the hood of his car, which he couldn’t raise because it was crushed. After yelling unsuccessfully for help, he said, he and his friend walked about 5 miles south along I-5 to a rest stop--where he called for a taxicab for a ride back home to Bellflower, near Los Angeles.
Freels told authorities that, still not knowing the severity of what happened, he then tried to report the incident to the California Highway Patrol. By then, CHP officers already were en route to his house after other campers discovered Freels’ abandoned, wrecked Mustang--and limbs of the two victims protruding from beneath it.
Nine hours after the 2 a.m. crash, Freels’ blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.09, and investigators estimated his blood alcohol level at between 2.0 and 2.5 at the time of the incident.
Judge Hoffman said he simply couldn’t believe Freels’ contention that he didn’t realize he had driven over the tent, dragging the teen-agers’ bodies beneath his 1967 Ford Mustang before he crashed into the young couple’s Toyota Landcruiser.
At Monday’s sentencing hearing, Walden, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case scolded Freels for not seeking help among the occupants of the campsites just north of the scene, or for not going to an emergency phone call box along the freeway just a few yards away.
He argued that Freels, instead, had panicked and was trying to buy time by going home and calling authorities so he could try to sober up.
And he ridiculed Freels for trying to downplay the seriousness of what happened. “Look at the pictures (of the scene),” Walden told the judge. “It looked like an atomic bomb went off. There was debris everywhere. And he couldn’t have gotten out of the driver’s door without tripping over Graham Grubb’s leg.
“Why the hell didn’t he walk up to the full campground for help? No. They walked in the opposite direction,” Walden said incredulously.
“He’s remorseful, not just for what he did, but that he got caught and now he has to pay the consequences,” Walden said. “Drinking and driving continues to plague this community, and we’re not going to tolerate it anymore. Enough is enough.”