The gravel-truck driver who crashed into a home near the Hope Ranch Inn last summer, killing a family of three, appeared in Santa Barbara County Superior Court on Tuesday and pleaded no contest to three reduced misdemeanor counts of vehicular manslaughter.

Joaquin Garcia Morales, 62, of Oxnard was driving the tractor-trailer that crashed into the home on Aug. 24, 2010, killing Leon Leonel, 23; his wife, Lorena Guadalupe-Tellez Pacheco; and their son, Jaciel Tellez, 8, a Franklin Elementary School third-grader.

Morales previously pleaded not guilty to three felony charges and could have faced up to eight years in federal prison, but he accepted a plea agreement at the preliminary hearing’s conclusion and can receive up to three years in county jail when he is sentenced Sept. 23.

Morales told police he lost control of his brakes while traveling down Highway 154 from San Marcos Pass and crashed into 4119 State St. He made a right through the intersection of Highway 154 and State Street and steered the truck away from a restaurant and the inn into an alleyway. Morales hit two parked cars in a parking lot before smashing into the house.

The prosecution argued that Morales was in a hurry and did not examine his truck before the day began, neglected the condition of the truck’s brakes, accelerated improperly and did not take the necessary emergency measures to prevent the tragedy.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Arnie Tolks said that although the charges still maintain the label of gross negligence, the evidence demonstrated that it wasn’t a felony offense.

“The CHP chief, the district attorney herself, myself and Mr. (Steve) Wagner thought that after everything had been aired out in the preliminary hearing, we didn’t feel it justified felony conduct, and I would hope the victims felt the same way,” he said. “The bottom line is it’s not like he’s walking away from this saying, ‘I didn’t do anything’; he’s saying, ‘I did do something and it was gross negligence,’ but we’re going to treat it as a misdemeanor as opposed to a felony.”

Defense attorney Mark Pachowicz said Morales never violated a traffic law and that the prosecution relied on hindsight to prove their case.

“Mr. Morales is coming down 154 with a vehicle that is smoking, and he is doing all sorts of maneuvers down that road; he’s dealing with the situation in real time,” Pachowicz said. “It’s wonderful to think in hindsight, but the reality is he was dealing with it in real time and doing everything he could to avoid exactly what happened.”

Testimony in the preliminary trial indicated Morales prepared for the trip the night before, only one brake out of 10 was malfunctioning, the truck was traveling under the speed limit and he swerved to try to slow down.

“This is a tragic situation, period,” Pachowicz said. “Mr. Morales didn’t do anything to try to cause this to happen; unfortunately, accidents happen and this is categorized as a tragic accident.”

Morales has been stripped of his truck driving license and said he has no plans to ever drive a big rig again. He will be sentenced Sept. 23 in Santa Barbara County Superior Court.

“I don’t know that the family would be concerned if it’s labeled a misdemeanor or felony as opposed to whether there is accountability to the actions that occurred that day,” Tolks said.

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