Driver Who Killed 3 Gets 14 Years

Times Staff Writer

During a two-hour hearing that brought a county prosecutor to tears, a drunk driver was sentenced Friday to 14 years in prison for killing three lifelong friends whose car he broadsided as they returned from an evening at a Huntington Beach coffeehouse.

James Bell, 28, bowed his head and said nothing during the hearing.

But family and friends of the young women who were killed took turns urging a harsh sentence, asking the defendant to apologize and share their pain.

“You ruined my whole life,” said Kristina Vecchione, who at the last minute canceled plans to join her friends at a Starbucks the night of March 20, 2002.


“It’s the worst pain in the world.”

Bell’s blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit when he sped through a Beach Boulevard intersection and hit the car in which the women were riding, according to court testimony.

Police said Bell, a part-time guitarist from Rowland Heights, spent the evening drinking in San Clemente and got into a fistfight before heading up the coast, running at least four red lights along the way.

“The way he was driving that night ... the girls never had a chance,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Kal Kaliban, who paused at one point as he wept.

Jillian Baedeker, 19; Nancy Le, 18 and Chelsea Toma, 19, had spent the day at the beach and had gone for coffee to map out a spring break trip to Rosarito in Baja California.

The teenagers attended Marina High School in Huntington Beach and were college freshmen. The three were inseparable, friends said.

Baedeker’s aunt described her niece as a kind and sensitive young woman who had an infectious gusto for life.


“Everyone liked her,” said Teri Baedeker Pohlson, holding up a photograph of her niece and staring at Bell.

“You would’ve liked her too.”

Bell nodded, as if in agreement.

Defense attorney Richard Herman said a prison sentence is an overly harsh penalty for his client.

He described Bell as having the social skills and mental outlook of a high school freshman.

“He’s not a monster,” said Herman, who argued for probation. “He’s a child, and that’s what happens.”

Superior Court Judge William Froeberg, who gave Bell the maximum sentence possible, said he was struck by what appeared to be Bell’s lack of remorse.

Bell, he said, seemed more concerned with his own injuries and the damage to his car than the fatalities.


“What surprises this court is that he didn’t kill more people,” Froeberg said.

In a letter filed with a county probation officer, Bell wrote that he was mournful and saddened by the accident, and found it difficult to discuss.

“I’m sorry that this has ever happened,” he wrote. “It’s a tragedy for everyone.”

While addressing the court, Pohlson turned to Bell and said that a simple apology would have helped.

“If you would’ve been truly sorry, that would’ve meant so much,” she said. “It would’ve lessened the blow.”

Bell’s attorney argued that Bell had the right of way at the intersection and disputed the blood-alcohol level.

He said he will appeal.

Froeberg denied a motion to let Bell serve his sentence at a county jail rather than state prison.