Every seat of the Santa Barbara County courtroom was filled Tuesday as accused wrong-way driver Richard Rodriguez changed his plea from not guilty to guilty, virtually eliminating the possibility of a trial.
Rodriguez, who was 20 when arrested, was charged with committing felony gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated that resulted in the death of a human being, with additional special allegations of causing death or great bodily injury to other individuals.
The Nov. 8, 2009, collision occurred after Rodriguez was driving northbound on southbound Highway 101 and hit a car carrying four passengers head-on.
The front passengers — Macrina Ocampo, 58, and Marcos Arredondo, 18, both of Goleta — died, and the rear passengers, Karina and Yessika Arredondo, were severely injured.
Marcos Arredondo graduated from San Marcos High School in June 2009 and was a varsity football wide receiver for the Royals.
Nora Arzate, Ocampo’s only daughter of eight children, has told Noozhawk that Ocampo was best friends with Marcos’ mother, Marina Arredondo.
She and dozens of others attended court Tuesday expecting to read letters, but sentencing is scheduled for June 1.
With Rodriguez’s guilty plea and admissions to all special allegations, known as pleading straight up to the court, all that’s left is the sentencing.
Lee Carter, the senior deputy district attorney handling the case, said he plans to push for the maximum penalty of 19 years, even though the probation department put 11 years forward and Judge Rick Brown has discussed 13 years. Judges have great discretion in sentencing.
“Have I offered you anything in this case?” Carter asked Rodriguez while going over his forms waiving the right to a trial.
“No,” Rodriguez replied.
“I will be seeking the maximum possible sentence. Do you understand that?” Carter asked.
Rodriguez answered yes, then softly replied “I admit” to all of the special allegations Carter read along with the charges.
Rodriguez has waived his custody credits — for time he’s already spent in the County Jail — and a felony charge of this nature means he would serve at least 80 percent of the sentenced time.
Irvine-based criminal defense attorney Dyke Huish represents Rodriguez, and he said the plea change came about because it’s “just time to bring everyone’s discomfort to an end.”
“It’s a sad day for everyone,” he said before going to speak with members of Rodriguez’s family.
Brown said the court has a factual basis for the guilty plea and admissions of special allegations, and set a whole afternoon aside for sentencing so family members could speak their peace.
Although Rodriguez was arrested for misdemeanor driving under the influence just eight days before the wrong-way driving accident, it can’t be used to charge murder, Carter said.
Members of the Ocampo and Arredondo families gathered after the court session Tuesday to speak with Carter, and one woman said Rodriguez has a criminal history because of that incident.
“It doesn’t count,” Carter said. What are called Watson murders, DUI cases that result in causing death of a human being require criminal history and the knowledge that what one is doing is inherently dangerous.
Since Rodriguez’s other charge is pending and he’s never attended the DUI education class required for those convicted of drunken driving — and investigators determined any driver’s education he had “Every 15 Minutes” demonstrations aren’t enough — murder wasn’t an option, Carter said.
“I wanted it,” he said. “This family was devastated.”
It’s very unlikely for someone with no prior drunken driving convictions to get a murder charge even for causing death, he said. The Orange County case could use this conviction as a prior and tack perhaps a year onto his sentence.
The Orange County arrest occurred about 3:20 a.m. when Rodriguez was booked, held until he sobered up and released around noon.
Sentencing will take place June 1, and family members will be permitted to speak then.
Donations to the Macrina Ocampo/Marcos Arredondo Memorial Fund can be made through Santa Barbara Bank & Trust.