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Trial opens in crash off Coronado bridge that killed 4 in Chicano Park

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Richard Sepolio’s truck crashed off the San Diego-Coronado Bridge into Chicano Park, killing four people, in 2016.
(Hayne Palmour IV/San Diego Union-Tribune)

At 3:33 p.m. on a fall day in 2016, thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts and Barrio Logan residents were enjoying the sun, food and rockabilly music in Chicano Park.

Forty-four seconds later, a tan pickup soared off the San Diego-Coronado Bridge and slammed into the park, crushing two vendor booths, killing four people and seriously injuring seven.

The pickup driver, Richard Anthony Sepolio, appeared Monday in San Diego Superior Court for his first day of trial on 13 felony counts including four counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, DUI and reckless driving.

Cruz Contreras, 52, and his wife, Annamarie Contreras, 50, of Chandler, Ariz., were killed, as were Andre Banks, 49, and his wife, Francine Jimenez, 46, of Hacienda Heights.

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Sepolio, a 27-year-old Navy aviation technician and petty officer, faces decades in prison if convicted of all counts.

The courtroom of Judge Charles Rogers was packed with family and friends of Sepolio and of the crash victims.

Prosecution and defense lawyers gave a jury of six men and six women a preview of the testimony and evidence to come.

San Diego Deputy Dist. Atty. Cally Bright said the defendant had been drinking with a co-worker in South Park that afternoon and was speeding at more than 80 mph on northbound Interstate 5, leading to the bridge, when he lost control of his pickup.

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She said Sepolio had been talking on his cellphone to his girlfriend for 11 minutes while driving, and they got into an argument.

“Impatience, irritability, intoxication, impairment” all affected Sepolio’s driving, Bright said.

Defense attorney Paul Pfingst said at least one of Sepolio’s blood-alcohol tests showed he was under the .08% level at which California drivers are presumed to be under the influence.

Pfingst said Sepolio was on his phone hands-free and hung up as he entered the bridge lanes.

The defense attorney said, too, that a mere two seconds passed from the time Sepolio started to pass the other car until he hit the right-hand freeway barrier that sent his truck over the side.

“He has never had a traffic ticket in his life,” Pfingst said of his client, noting that since the crash Sepolio married his girlfriend and they have a baby.

On Oct. 15, 2016, Sepolio and Petty Officer Stephanie Ruiz had brunch at Eclipse Chocolate from about 12:20 p.m. to 2:15 p.m., according to a receipt that Pfingst displayed for jurors.

They ordered a cider for Sepolio, a cocktail for Ruiz and shared a bottle of wine with lunch and dessert, Pfinsgt said.

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They took an Uber ride from Ruiz’s home and back again, hanging out for about an hour until Sepolio left.

Sepolio was headed for Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado, taking northbound I-5 onto the bridge.

His attorney said he sped up to pass a slower car to his left, so he could merge into that lane. He lost control of his truck on a sweeping curve, hit a concrete barrier on the left, bounced across lanes and hit the right-hand barrier.

The pickup careen over the barrier and landed in the park, which was jammed with an estimated 3,000 people at festivities at the end of La Raza motorcycle run.

Sepolio’s pickup clipped the band stage and a light pole, then landed on two souvenir booths. Dozens of people rushed to roll the pickup off some of the injured and to pull Sepolio from the wreckage.

He suffered a fractured vertebra, sternum and hand, and bruised his lungs, his attorney told jurors.

The 2016 incident marked the fifth time a vehicle has plummeted off the iconic San Diego-Coronado Bridge since 1980, when a car plunged into the bay after a crash with another vehicle. The three sailors inside died.

More than a decade later, on Nov. 16, 1992, William Wylie Jr., 27, a Navy enlisted man being pursued by police, was fatally injured when he lost control of his Mazda and plunged 150 feet from the bridge into Chicano Park.

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On Christmas morning in 2003, a 19-year-old sailor struck a concrete barrier with her car and fell 50 feet from the bridge. The car caught fire near Chicano Park. She survived the crash.

Less than a month later, on Jan. 13, 2004, a tour bus making a lane change on the bridge hit a pickup and knocked it over the bridge railing. The vehicle landed more than 140 feet below, near Harbor Drive and Cesar E. Chavez Parkway, killing the driver, Orlando Casinio, 49, of San Marcos.

Repard writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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