For killing five people in a traffic collision, an unlicensed Riverdale driver was sentenced Tuesday to three years of probation, 89 days in a work program and 90 days of electronic monitoring.
When Juana Martinez Bejarano’s punishment was announced in Fresno County Superior Court, the family of the victims gasped in shock. Some shook their heads in bewilderment.
Outside court, one of them shouted that Bejarano got away with murder.
But Martinez Bejarano’s lawyer said the sentence was fair.
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She wasn’t speeding, texting or talking on a cell phone, Fresno attorney Sam Salhab said.
“She ran a stop sign,” he said. “It was an accident.”
Because Martinez Bejarano was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, she was allowed to plead no contest to a misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charge and to driving without a licence in connection with the fiery collison on Feb. 15, 2014, that killed Esmeralda Tafoya-Saucedo, 29, and her children: Isaac, 1; Nikko, 3; Jada, 6; and Breanna Reyes-Saucedo, 11.
Joe Saucedo, who was following his wife and children in another car, tried to rescue them, but the intense heat of the burning vehicle stopped him.
In court Tuesday, Martinez Bejarano, though a Spanish interpreter, told the family she was sorry: “Every day I re-live this. Every day I suffer. I ask this family to forgive me for causing this pain.”
But the family told Judge Brian Alvarez that Martinez Bejarano wasn’t sincere.
“I have seen her laughing and smiling around town,” said Esmeralda’s sister, Martha Moreno. “She’s going to get a slap on the hand, while we are given a life sentence.”
The collision happened around 7:05 p.m. Feb. 15 at Marks and Excelsior avenues, south of Riverdale near the Fresno-Kings county line.
The California Highway Patrol said Martinez Bejarano, driving a 2004 Nissan Quest minivan west on Excelsior, ran a stop sign and broadsided a southbound 2003 Ford Expedition SUV. The Ford burst into flames, trapping the family inside.
After spending one day in jail, Martinez Bejarano was freed on $10,100 bail.
“She’s saddened by what happened,” Salhab told the judge. “She’s devastated.”
If anyone is to blame, Salhab said, it would be the Ford Motor Co., which builds the Expedition that the victims were riding in. “Cars aren’t supposed to explode,” he said. And according to Salhab, the collision didn’t kill the victims, smoke inhalation from the fire did.
But his words only made it worse for the family.
Another of Esmeralda’s sisters, Maria Lopez, said many family members, including Joe Saucedo, live in despair, and no medication can ease the pain. “So many lives have been changed forever,” Lopez said. “I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, not even Bejarano.”
Sister-in-law Lizet Ybarra said Joe Saucedo wants to commit suicide, but the family won’t let him.
She then described how a night of fun turned into tragedy.
Martinez Bejarano had gone to Hanford to shop and and was returning home when the collision occurred. The victims were going to a birthday party in Fresno, but they first had to pick up some relatives. Because of the collision, they never made it to the relative’s home.
Ybarra told the judge they were heading to her home to pick up her children. She said she wouldn’t be able to live if her children had been killed.
The family knows Martinez Bejarano doesn’t care, Ybarra said, because on her Facebook page she talks about visting family and friends. Martinez Bejarano also talked about celebrating Valentine’s Day.
“You make plans to see your family,” Ybarra told Martinez Bejarano. “We make plans to see them in the cemetery.”
In announcing the sentence, Alvarez said his hands were tied by the misdemeanor plea, which only carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail for vehicular manslaughter and 180 days in jail for driving without a license. “Nothing this court can do can fill that void,” he said. “Nothing can bring the victims back. This is a tragedy that the court can’t imagine.”
Alvarez then sentenced Martinez Bejarano to the maximum penalty, but suspended most of it. He told her that she first must complete 89 days on the adult offender work program. Once that is done, she must do 90 days on electronic monitoring.
Outside court, Saucedo and his family fondly recalled his wife, whom they called “Lala,” as a mother who loved her children and whose smile could brighten the darkest times.
“We didn’t get justice,” Moreno said.
But they also knew they had to move on with their lives.
“We know we need to start healing,” Lopez said.
“Hopefully, we will get past it,” Saucedo said.