A 40-year-old Auberry woman who took responsibility for killing a couple on a motorcycle while driving under the influence of pain medication two years ago was sentenced Friday to nearly 5 1/2 years in prison instead of probation.
Denise Lago, a mother of two, was traveling south on Auberry Road near Millerton Road in a Chevy pickup on June 5, 2015 when she crossed the dividing line as she negotiated a curve.
The pickup collided with a Toyota Highlander heading north on Auberry before crashing into Kenneth and Jeannine Balderrama, both of Fresno, who were riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle. They were joining their children for a weekend camping trip.
Officers on the scene described Lago as lethargic with slurred speech. She was later found to be under the influence of a depressant and opioids. Lago was on medication for back pain, said her attorney, Ralph Torres.
Lago pleaded no contest and admitted to the charges – two counts of vehicular manslaughter and one count of driving under the influence causing injury. In May, the court sent Lago to Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla for a 90-day “diagnostic” evaluation to determine whether she should be eligible for probation or should go to prison.
In reports to the court, the warden and a counselor recommended that Lago get prison time, Judge Alvin Harrell III said. A psychologist wrote that Lago was no threat and should be recommended for probation.
Harrell asked Lago if she wanted to tell the court about her prison experience. It’s “very scary” said the softspoken woman. “It’s not something I would want to go back to.”
Harrell told the Balderrama and Lago families in court that the case was a difficult one. “I guarantee no one will be happy when you walk out these doors,” Harrell said.
While Lago had no criminal record, the severity of the accident led Harrell to order a prison sentence. “The court does not believe probation is appropriate … the court cannot allow people to drive under the influence when you have two lives taken.”
Jordan Balderrama, the victims’ oldest child, spoke about having nightmares since the crash. “I see my mom and dad in the distance and I scream for them but I don’t get a response.”
Lago, who said she is no longer driving and has stopped taking her medication, expressed remorse and apologized to the family.
“I’m sorry for causing the collision that took your mom and dad from you,” she said while crying. “I wish I could change what happened.”