Trial of DUI driver who allegedly killed Costa Mesa fire captain hinges on intent

Orange County Superior Court's Central Justice Center in Santa Ana, on Monday.
The jury trial for a Mission Viejo man accused of killing former Costa Mesa fire Capt. Mike Kreza in a DUI collision in November 2018 began Monday at Santa Ana’s Central Justice Center.
(Sara Cardine)

Stephen Taylor Scarpa hadn’t slept for two days and had multiple narcotics in his system on Nov. 3, 2018, when he drove home from a Westminster party and struck Costa Mesa fire Capt. Mike Kreza, a prosecutor told jurors Monday.

Orange County Senior Deputy District Atty. Daniel Feldman said the Mission Viejo resident had been working at a drug addiction and rehabilitation center, where part of his job duties involved administering medications, but lost the job because he “got loaded and couldn’t work.”

He’d been partying with some of his former co-workers until shortly before 8 a.m. that November morning, after having taken unprescribed “downers” lorazepam and benzodiazepines at the party, Feldman said. Scarpa had gotten in an altercation over a woman, was desperate to leave and wanted to get some sleep.

Stephen Taylor Scarpa faces a charge of second-degree murder in connection with death of Costa Mesa fire Capt. Mike Kreza.
(Courtesy of Orange County district attorney’s office)

So, he got behind the wheel and hit the 405 Freeway, headed for home.

That trip, however, ended in tragedy when just a short distance from the residence he shared with his grandparents, Scarpa reportedly lost control of the Ford Windstar van he’d been driving, traveled over a curb and sidewalk and up an embankment, striking Kreza, off duty at the time.

Kreza, 44, had been riding his bike on a sidewalk near the juncture of Alicia Parkway and Via Burgos at the time of the collision, training for a triathlon. He was expected at his daughter’s soccer game but never showed up, wife Shanna testified Monday in a Santa Ana courtroom where Scarpa faced one charge of second-degree murder.

After striking the van hard enough to shatter its windshield, the Rancho Santa Margarita father of three was thrown into the roadway where he lay with a visible head injury and a shattered right leg, according to witnesses who tended to him that morning and on Monday gave testimony in court.

Costa Mesa fire Capt. Mike Kreza, pictured with his family
Costa Mesa fire Capt. Mike Kreza, pictured with his family, died in November 2018 after being hit by a van while riding his bicycle in Mission Viejo.
(Courtesy of Costa Mesa Fire & Rescue Department)

Feldman argued the defendant’s history of narcotics abuse, in the face of repeated warnings and a previous DUI accident, constituted implied malice. In opening remarks, the prosecutor played audio of Scarpa admitting to sheriff’s deputies he’d known what he’d done was wrong.

“Mr. Scarpa knew the drugs, and combining them with driving, [were] dangerous to life. He was aware on that day that he was, in fact, intoxicated,” the prosecutor maintained. “Knowing what he felt like, he decided to drive anyway.”

Defense attorney Rudolph Loewenstein, however, took another view of the events of Nov. 3, 2018, and encouraged jurors to keep an open mind throughout the following days and weeks as they consider evidence and hear testimony.

He instead painted a picture of a man who thought he was OK to drive and had nearly made it home when sleep finally overtook him. In a fraction of a second, the attorney said, a perfect storm of terrible events unfolded.

“He thought even though he was tired he was going to be able to negotiate this route safely, and he did for 24.7 miles,” Loewenstein said, indicating his client did not speed or otherwise drive erratically. “What happened occurred in a split second of time. It’s a tragic accident — it’s not murder.”

After the collision, Scarpa remained on scene and cooperated with sheriff’s deputies. In subsequent interviews, he expressed remorse for his actions, Loewenstein told jurors. As terrible as the incident was, the defendant did not act with a conscious disregard for human life.

“There are two sides to this case,” he continued. “You’re going to have to consider whether Mr. Scarpa intentionally committed the act that caused the death of another person, that when he acted, he had this malice aforethought.”

Scarpa remained silent as witnesses and sheriff’s deputies gave their accounts from that day, occasionally hanging his head. A small group of family members sat immediately behind him, while Shanna Kreza sat on the jury side of the courtroom surrounded by loved ones.

Costa Mesa Fire & Rescue, where Kreza served 18 years, expressed its support for the fallen firefighter’s family in a post on Facebook.

“The entire Costa Mesa Fire Family wraps their arms around Shanna Kreza and the girls today and we send prayers, love and our support,” read the post, accompanied by the hashtag #belikeironmanmike.

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