A judge fought back tears Thursday as he sentenced a Fresno man to 60 years to life in prison for killing four people in a drunken head-on collision in 2014.
“You are a murderer,” Fresno County Superior Court Judge Jonathan Conklin told Rien Ban, 45.
The collision happened June 22, 2014, on Highway 180 near Sonoma Avenue. The California Highway Patrol said Ban was driving east when his Mercedes SUV smashed into a westbound Kia sedan.
Suyapa Rodriguez Quezada, 37, of Mendota, who was driving the Kia, was seriously injured. Her two sons – Lisandro Enriquez Rodriguez, 10, and Danny Enriquez Rodriguez, 7 – and her sister, Belkys Rodriguez Quezada, 25, and engaged to be married, died in the crash. (The family refers to the sister as Velkys). Also killed was Sinoeun Uong, 37, a passenger in Ban’s SUV.
Two hours after the collision, Ban’s blood-alcohol registered at .21, or nearly three times the .08 legal limit to drive, prosecutor William Terrence said.
In November, a jury deliberated less than two hours before finding him guilty of four counts of second-degree murder.
The sentencing of Ban ends a tragic chapter for the Rodriguez family, who packed Conklin’s courtroom and wore T-shirts honoring three of the victims.
Family and friends say Jose Enriquez, the father of the boys, works in the fields as a crew leader in Mendota. He and his family are Catholics who go to church every Sunday in their best clothes.
The Rodriguezes and Quezada were returning home after shopping in Kerman when they were killed.
Ban was also headed home. Uong and her husband, Ol Oeum, 37, had joined Ban that day to help him fix his stepdaughter’s car that had broken down near Los Banos. After the repairs, the group headed toward Firebaugh to catch crawdads.
Ban drank the entire day and knew it was dangerous to drive, Terrence said.
Many drunken drivers face felony manslaughter charges. But Ban was tried for second-degree murder under the legal theory of “implied malice.” To get a murder conviction, the prosecution had to prove he drove under the influence, knew driving while drunk was dangerous, and showed a conscious disregard for human life.
During the trial, Terrence pointed out that Ban knew the dangers of drinking and driving because he had convictions for drunken driving in 2000 and in 2006. After each conviction, Ban completed a court-mandated program that taught him the dangers of such behavior. And in his last conviction, Terrence said, the judge warned Ban that if he drove while under the influence of drugs or alcohol and killed someone, he could be charged with murder. Ban told the judge he understood the admonition, Terrence said.
In court Thursday, Jose Enriquez and Suyapa Quezada tearfully asked the judge to sentence Ban to life in prison.
“He took what I love the most,” Enriquez said.
He said his sons were respectful children who did well in school. Lisandro wanted to be a CHP officer. Danny wanted to be a fireman. “He took away their hopes,” Enriquez said as he wiped tears from his eyes.
A tearful Quezada also sought justice for her sons and her sister. “Every moment I think of my children and sister,” she told the judge. “Sometimes I can’t sleep, thinking about them.”
While the parents spoke, Ban showed no emotion. He later declined to made a statement. His lawyer, Marina Pincus of the Public Defender’s Office, however, tried to mitigate the tragic crash by saying Ban grew up in Cambodia during the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge. By age 4, he and his family were in forced labor camps. They worked nearly all day for a small bowl of rice, Pincus said. He was separated all day from his family, and they were not allowed to speak to each other, she said.
During this time, Ban saw death. Pincus said people were killed for simple violations, such as eating without permission. When Ban and his family finally escaped to a Thailand refugee camp, he was likely suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, she said.
It was in the refugee camp where Ban, at age 9 or 10, first began drinking alcohol to calm his fears, she said.
“It’s not an excuse. It’s doesn’t justify what happened that day,” said Pincus. But it might give a better understanding of why Ban did what he did, she said.
Terrence, however, said Ban had opportunity to change his life with court-ordered alcohol rehabilitation programs. Instead, Ban violated probation several times and refused to get counseling. “The conduct of the defendant is appalling,” Terrence said.
“Drinking and driving was his own decision. His issue to resolve,” the prosecutor said. “Instead, he chose to drink and drive and put the public in danger.”
Conklin agreed, saying Ban’s conduct was no different than a man with a gun who walked up to the Kia and shot the defenseless victims.
Pausing a few seconds to collect his thoughts, Conklin scolded Ban, saying “These two boys died in their chairs. The sister did the same and so did the passenger in your car.”
“But you didn’t care,” the judge said as he fought back tears. “You murdered four people.”