A Clovis woman admitted in court Wednesday that her drinking led to a crash on Highway 168 in Fresno that killed a family man three years ago.
Perla Ibeth Vazquez, 27, decided to tell her story in Fresno County Superior Court because prosecutor Steve Wright has charged her with murder in the death of Frank Winslow. Authorities say Vazquez ran Winslow off the highway during the early hours of Oct. 21, 2011, on Highway 168 near the Ashlan Avenue exit, just a few miles from his home.
If convicted, she faces a minimum of 15 years to life in prison. The jury will begin deliberations Thursday after closing arguments.
On the witness stand, Vasquez said she never intended to hurt anyone. But in hindsight she said: "I should have known better, but I didn't."
Her attorney, Alan DeOcampo of the Public Defender's Office, contends Vazquez is guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter while intoxicated. In many cases, the lesser charge is an option for the jury. But Wright, in filing the criminal complaint, has taken that option away.
For Vazquez's testimony Wednesday, the courtroom was filled with her family and friends, as well as friends and family of Winslow.
For four hours, she repeatedly admitted that she is an alcoholic who began drinking at age 15. She also confessed to being arrested four times for drunken driving and convicted twice of the charge -- in 2006 and 2010.
After being prodded by Wright, she also admitted that she frequently drove without a license, lied to a car insurance agent and drank several beers at Rainbow Ballroom in downtown Fresno before she got behind the wheel of a car the night of the fatal crash.
But when Wright asked her whether she thought drinking and driving is dangerous, she declined to say it was.
"When you drink, you don't think about that," she said. "I didn't think it could happen to me."
Her answer flustered Wright, who said, "Would you answer the question?" Soon, Judge Hilary Chittick told Wright to stop and take a drink of water. To get a murder conviction, Wright must prove that Vazquez showed a conscious disregard for human life when she crashed into Winslow.
In addition to murder, Vazquez is charged with felony hit and run causing death and driving on a suspended license, a misdemeanor.
She also is charged with drunken driving, hit and run and driving on a suspended license for an incident that happened July 9, 2011, three months before the Winslow collision.
But the focus Wednesday was on the fatal crash.
"I was drinking and driving and caused an accident that led to his death," Vazquez admitted.
Both sides agreed that Vazquez had a blood-alcohol of .13 -- which is over the .08 legal limit to drive -- when she rear-ended Winslow's Jeep Wrangler. The Jeep ran down an embankment and rolled several times. Vazquez left the scene before she was caught near the Shaw Avenue exit.
On the witness stand, Vazquez admitted to signing court documents after her two drunken driving convictions that warned her that if she got drunk and killed someone, she could be charged with murder. But she testified that her lawyer never explained the warning in detail to her, nor did she understand what it meant.
She also testified that she attended drunken-driving classes, but she said they never talked about the murder advisement. Instead, the teacher focused on how many drinks it takes to get drunk, she said.
In addition, she admitted that 11 days after she pleaded guilty to her second DUI, a California Highway Patrol officer caught her speeding on Highway 168 near the Ashlan Avenue exit. Wright said she was driving 120 mph and her breath smelled of alcohol, her speech was slurred, and she did poorly on a sobriety test, so the officer arrested her. But she was never charged.
In defending Vazquez, DeOcampo has told the jury that his client had a job and was a hard worker, but she wrestled daily with an addiction to alcohol that stems from her being molested as a child by a baby-sitter and a feeling of being unloved by a stepfather.
Vazquez testified that she drinks to numb those feelings.
Hours before the fatal crash, Vazquez testified she went to the Rainbow Ballroom for a concert and friends were giving her cups of beer. "I don't know how to say 'no' once I start," she told the jury.
Vazquez said that because she felt "kind of buzzed," a friend drove her to Denny's, where they shared a meal and drank coffee. They stayed at the restaurant for about an hour before the friend drove her back to the Rainbow Ballroom to get his car. She said she and her friend then talked for awhile before she decided to drive home.
She said she never thought of asking her friend for a ride home or calling a taxi. "I really thought I was sober enough and OK to drive," she testified. Besides, she said, her friend would never allow her to drive drunk.
She recalled taking Highway 41 to Highway 180, but did not remember much after that. "I remember seeing the Jeep in front of me and I was almost about to hit it," she said.
Vazquez said she swerved left from the slow lane to the middle lane to avoid hitting the Jeep. "I remember the impact and the airbag deployed," she said. "I looked around to see if I hit anyone, anything. But I didn't see any cars. I was scared so I kept driving."
She recalled the CHP pulling her over and questioning her. She said she cooperated with officers, telling them that she thought she had hit a white Jeep. "I thought it was a simple bumper to bumper thing and (the other driver) could have went home."
A CHP officer told her that a man was killed in the collision. At first, Vazquez thought the officer was either kidding her or lying, she said. When she realized the officer was serious, she testified she fell to her knees and cried hysterically.
"I was in shock," she said. "I could not believe what I had caused. I knew after that I had to go to jail."