He lost his father to a drunken driver at this bridge
On a recent February morning, Sergio Sanchez searched for answers about his father’s violent death caused by a drunken driver three years ago.
Standing along the road where his father was killed, Sanchez, 38, said he couldn’t understand how Michael Coffman was sentenced in Tulare County Superior Court to only a year in jail and probation for killing Jose De Jesus Sanchez, 65, of Visalia.
Because of good time credits, Coffman, 25, served only six months in jail, court records show.
“How is that fair?” Sanchez said.
Visalia police say Coffman was drunk and speeding at more than 110 miles an hour when he slammed into the rear of Jose Sanchez’s car on the St. John’s River bridge on McAuliff Road just north of Golden West High School around 3:15 a.m. April 14, 2015. Sanchez died at the scene. Coffman was not seriously hurt, police said.
Those facts alone, Sanchez said, should require a prison sentence. Instead, a judge gave Coffman “a slap on the wrist,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said his father was coming home from work and “was two blocks away from our house when he was killed.” He was killed near the high school where Sergio and his brother, Jesus, and many relatives attended. The Sanchez family has lived in Visalia since the late 1990s, and lived in Woodlake and Ivanhoe earlier.
Sanchez’s quest to find answers is not unusual for victims of crime, Assistant Tulare County District Attorney David Alavezos said. Many victims don’t understand how the system works and become frustrated, he said.
“What happened to him and his family is awful,” Alavezos said. “I feel bad for him.”
Alavezos said Coffman pleaded no contest to a felony charge of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and the prosecution sought to put him in prison. But Judge Kathryn Montejano decided on May 18, 2017 that the appropriate sentence was a year in jail and eight years of probation, court documents say.
Typically, a felony charge of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. Montejano did not respond to an email from The Bee asking her to explain why Coffman didn’t go to prison.
Presiding Judge Bret Hillman, who did respond, said Montejano was on vacation and unavailable to comment. Hillman said it would be inappropriate for him to talk about Coffman’s jail sentence, but he did say Montenjano is one of Tulare County’s more experienced judges. “I want to be sensitive to the (Sanchez) family. “I respect the fact that they are still grieving and dealing with their loss.”
Sanchez, however, said his family was not seeking vengeance. He said three years in prison for Coffman would have been sufficient punishment.
His family’s frustration with the legal system, he said, is compounded by their grief for his father, who was just a few months away from retiring from Klink Citrus, a packinghouse in Ivanhoe. Once Coffman took the plea deal, they started questioning the legal system that denied his family justice.
“We grew up believing in the justice system,” Sanchez said. “This has caused us to doubt it.”
Coffman could not be reached to comment, but his attorney, Sara Bratsch, said on Thursday that “he is extremely remorseful” for what happened. “He did it and he took responsibility for his actions,” Bratsch said, noting that Coffman has completed his jail sentence and has stayed out of trouble.
“It’s such a tragedy,” Bratsch said. “I hope the (Sanchez) family can one day find peace.”
The police reports say Coffman, then 22, was headed to a convenience store to purchase cigarettes. The speed limit is 55 mph on the bridge and north of it, police say. The speed limit lowers to 45 mph south of the bridge. Police reports say Coffman was speeding south on McAuliff Road at more than 110 mph. But he contends he was traveling 60 mph on cruise control.
Coffman also denied being drunk. He told police he had drunk one beer the day before around noon. But 90 minutes after the collision, Coffman had a blood-alcohol level of .12, the police reports say. The law says that anyone who tests at .08 or above is considered legally drunk.
Police also found a marijuana pipe in Coffman’s car. He said it belonged to him and that a doctor had recommended marijuana for him.
Sanchez said he’s upset that Coffman didn’t call 911. Instead, Coffman told police he called his grandparents, who raised him. Coffman said he didn’t call 911 because a passerby did.
Bratsch, who was a Tulare County prosecutor before she became a defense lawyer, said Montejano – who also is a former Tulare County prosecutor – is considered a tough but fair judge. She said the prosecution wanted Coffman to get the maximum prison sentence, but she couldn’t let that happen because Coffman was taking care of his pregnant girlfriend who has three children. “Are we going to throw this kid’s life away in prison where he would get no help?” Bratsch said, noting that Coffman had no prior criminal record.
If the case had gone to trial, Bratsch said, she had lined up a mechanical engineer expert who would have testified that Coffman’s 1999 Honda Accord was incapable of traveling 110 miles per hour. She said the expert also would have testified that Sanchez’s 1999 Hyundai Accent had mechanical problems and had stalled on the bridge. Bratsch said she planned to argue that “it was pitch dark” and Sanchez’s car had no lights.
The police reports, however, say Coffman told officers that once he got near or on the bridge “he observed what appeared to be brake lights at close range and he attempted to brake and swerve” but was unable to avoid the collision. Bratsch dismissed the report, saying the brake lights could have been a reflection from Coffman’s headlights.
In the end, Bratsch said, she advised Coffman to plead no contest because he had alcohol in his system and was driving faster than the posted speed limit. She and Coffman then agreed to have an independent evaluation by the Probation Department, which Bratsch said recommended jail and probation with strict conditions, such as wearing an ankle monitor, submitting to drug testing and mental health evaluations, and staying away from places that primarily sell alcohol.
If Coffman violates probation, he faces six years in prison, Bratsch said.
Despite the conditions, Sanchez said Coffman’s sentence is unfair. “This is a fight for my father’s honor and dignity,” he said.
Sergio Sanchez, a high school social science teacher, was teaching in Bolivia when he learned that his father had been killed. He immediately took a flight home.
“My father wasn’t prominent among the power elite of Visalia nor politically connected. If he was, would the punishment been different?” Sanchez said.
He and his family attended every court hearing. But even with the facts from the police investigation, Sanchez said, the judge sided with the defendant.
Sanchez also said Coffman has never told his family that he was sorry for what he did. Bratsch said she advised Coffman not to talk to the family.
Sanchez said he might never forgive Coffman or the justice system that he feels failed his father.
“He was in good health and never got in trouble. He worked six days a week in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley, usually eight to 12 hours a day, before getting a job at Klink Citrus,” Sanchez said.
“Only on Sundays, would he rest and have quality time to see a Chivas de Guadalajara soccer game on television,” his son said.
Because of his upbringing, Sanchez said, he has been fortunate enough to travel to 80 countries and teach in such places as Nicaragua, Guatemala and Bolivia. He said his father seldom traveled because he thought it was his duty to work hard and support his family. But later in life his father had talked of traveling, perhaps to Machu Picchu in Peru, his son said, fighting back tears.
“He lived the American dream,” Sanchez said. “But it was all taken away from him by a drunk driver who got a slap on the wrist.”