The surprise witness identified the defendant right away. “He sits in front of us at the Charger games,” said Sara Anderson. She had video and photographs of him at the game on the night of the fatal crash.
John Francis Sudac Jr. was accused of hitting a car on I-5 in Solana Beach, then fleeing while a woman lay dead on the pavement.
A smashed silver Nissan Altima abandoned at the scene was registered to Sudac, and investigators located him. But the other man in Sudac’s car was not identified, so Sudac’s defense attorney began building a case to raise reasonable doubt as to who was driving the Nissan at the time of the crash.
Anderson is not scary-looking, but she may have frightened Sudac when he saw her walk into the courtroom. It was more than two years after the crash when she entered the witness box. Anderson looked at Sudac, who was seated at the defense table, and said that she recognized him. “He has helped me and my mom take pictures of ourselves,” said Anderson, who likes to take a camera to Charger games. She and her mom are season ticketholders.
When the Bolts bested the Indianapolis Colts in a playoff game on Saturday night, January 3, 2009, Anderson panned the crowd with her camera.
The fans went to their feet at the end of the game. A photo showed the time on the scoreboard as 8:40 p.m. and the words “WE WIN!” One of the fans in the photo was Sudac. Anderson pointed him out. And standing next to Sudac was a man with a grin on his face looking straight at the camera. The man wore a black baseball cap. The cap looked just like the cap that investigators found in the smashed silver Nissan.
The Man Driving the Ford
There were five people in the 1998 Ford Explorer that was hit.
Vinicio Jimenez said he was driving from his home in Tijuana to visit relatives in Los Angeles. He borrowed the Explorer from his brother. Jimenez’s pregnant wife Yine was in the front passenger seat, and their five-year-old daughter Naomi was in the backseat with two relatives.
He was going about 55 miles an hour when he noticed lights coming up from behind. “All of a sudden they were very close. And they hit me,” Jimenez said.
“He flung me against the little wall. And then my car started turning over.”
Jimenez said the car that hit him became jammed under his vehicle. “He was in back of me, in the rear. He was stuck to me.” He said the cars did not disengage until his Ford smashed into the center divider and began tumbling down the freeway. “He hit me, and he was behind me until my car started to roll over.”
One of the passengers in the backseat, 56-year-old Josefa Barrigan Dunn, said the Ford “made many turns. I don’t know how many. Maybe I’m dead now, I thought.” When the SUV stopped rolling, she took hold of the crying five-year-old girl and passed her out the back window to a man who stopped to help.
A 25-year-old Marine named Zach Thomas was on his motorcycle heading home to Oceanside when he saw the crash. He said he pulled over on the side of Interstate 5. It was about 1:00 a.m., January 4, 2009.
“I helped the family get out of the Ford Explorer.” He took the little girl out of the back and handed her to her father, who was walking in circles and yelling out nearby. “My daughter had all her hair full of blood,” Jimenez remembered later.
The Good Samaritans
Another driver on the freeway that night, Timothy Ricker, said that when he came upon the crash, he parked so his headlights lit up the cars. The cars were near each other and alongside the center divider, the Nissan upright, the Ford lying on the passenger side. Ricker said he climbed up onto the Ford to look through a window, taking care to avoid a front tire spinning wildly in the air. He tried to open a door. “It was crunched closed,” he said, so he climbed through a window down inside, where he found a woman. He saw that part of her body was trapped under the vehicle.
Ricker and four Marines who had stopped — Solomon Huss, Thomas Harley, Sean Wax, and Zach Thomas — pushed the Explorer back onto its wheels to free the woman.
As the vehicle was righted, the woman fell through a window onto the pavement.
Jimenez said, “When they lifted the car, my wife was just lying there.” She was bleeding from her head. His wife was six months pregnant.
No one could find a pulse on 24-year-old Yine Erandy Gonzalez Angeles. She was declared dead later at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla. The medical team performed a Caesarean section to try to save the baby. The death of Baby Girl Gonzalez Angeles was declared at 1:55 a.m. by the county medical examiner. Jimenez was a widower at 26 years of age.
Out of the Nissan
The Marines helped two people get out of the Nissan.
Then-Marine Corporal Solomon Huss helped a dazed man out a rear door. Huss asked the man who the driver was. “He told me he was.” Huss said he advised this man to “Stand by on the side of the road and wait for a [California Highway Patrol] officer.” Corporal Huss was also an off-duty Los Angeles police officer.
Huss later identified Sudac in a photo lineup as the man who said he was the driver that night.
The dazed man told Huss that his friend was still in the car. Huss smashed a window with a golf club that someone handed to him. He reached in and pulled up on the door handle from inside. An evidence photo showed the head of a golf club resting on the rear seat of the Nissan surrounded by broken glass. On the floor of the front passenger side, wedged beneath the dashboard, Huss found an unconscious man and pulled him out. After the man regained consciousness, he stood next to Sudac on the side of the freeway.
Traffic began to back up behind the crash immediately. One witness stuck in the traffic jam told authorities he saw two men walking away on the shoulder of the road, headed south toward the Lomas Santa Fe exit. He said one man was wearing a blue Charger jersey and “One was on the cell phone.”
Records showed Sudac’s cell phone called his wife’s cell phone starting at 1:03 a.m. that night. Sudac made four more calls to her in quick succession, the last one at 1:14 a.m. His wife’s cell phone called him back at 1:05 a.m. and 1:09 a.m.
In court, prosecutor Natalie Villaflor said that Sudac’s wife came to pick him up in a blue Dodge pickup truck. The truck, registered in her father’s name, had blood spots on the passenger’s seat when investigators looked at it later. DNA from the five blood spots matched Sudac’s DNA.
DNA tests showed that the blood on the driver’s airbag in the Nissan belonged to Sudac.
Witnesses said that from where Sudac and his companion stood on the side of the freeway, they had a clear, unobstructed view of Yine, who lay facedown near the trunk of their car. Blood from her head ran under the Nissan. This was shown in many of the crime scene photos displayed in court.
Huss reported hearing Sudac yell into his cell phone before he disappeared, “There’s been a terrible accident. I need you to come pick me up right fucking now!”
About 20 witnesses were called to the stand who said they were on the freeway that night, and they all said that they did not see Sudac offer help or ask about anyone’s well-being or give his contact information.
Bad Memories All Around
Investigators found an address for John Francis Sudac Senior.
The elder Sudac told highway patrol officers that he did not know where his son lived, he did not know his son’s whereabouts that night, and he did not know his son’s cell phone number.
The lead investigator, Patrick Holt, said of the senior Sudac, “He was polite” and “He did not provide us any information.”
Highway patrol officer Michael Bush was more blunt, describing Sudac Sr. as “basically useless.” Bush said they contacted Sudac Sr. at about 3:45 a.m., almost three hours after the crash.
Cell phone records showed that the phone belonging to Sudac Sr. called his son’s cell phone three times that morning, at 3:18 a.m., 3:20 a.m., and 3:26 a.m., according to a Verizon Wireless analyst who testified.
Sudac Jr., accompanied by a defense attorney, turned himself in at 6:45 p.m. on January 4. Eighteen hours after the collision, his blood was taken, and the analysis showed no alcohol or drugs in his system at that time. Sudac was taken into custody. He posted $200,000 bail the next day.
The second man in the Nissan went unidentified for more than two years, until this March, one month before Sudac went on trial for hit-and-run manslaughter.
The Man in the Passenger Seat
At a preliminary hearing in January 2009, it appeared that defense attorney Herb Weston would build a defense based on the fact that the second person in the Nissan had not been identified and therefore reasonable doubt could be created as to who was driving the car.
But investigators had found shredded Charger tickets in Sudac’s apartment. In the ensuing months, they pieced the tickets together, and lead investigator Holt got a search warrant to obtain information about season ticketholders who sat near Sudac. When Holt found Sara Anderson, eventually she showed him the picture of Sudac and the man in the black cap. This January, investigators put a rush on a DNA test for the black cap they had removed from the Nissan. The DNA profile came back on March 15 as a match for Eliseo Jimenez, whose DNA was already on file because of a felony conviction.
It took an investigator for the district attorney’s office, Tom Morgans, two weeks to track down Eliseo Jimenez, who was said to live in the Bonsall-Fallbrook area. Jimenez said he was surprised when an investigator showed up and asked for a DNA swab of his mouth.
Eliseo Jimenez, who is no relation to Vinicio Jimenez, the driver of the Ford Explorer, said that Sudac had picked him up at his home in Fallbrook the Saturday of the playoff game. The time stamp on the parking-ticket stub showed they arrived at the stadium at 2:08 p.m. The game didn’t start until about 5:00.
Jimenez said he drank and partied before the game, but Sudac did not. “I never saw him drinking.” Jimenez could not remember Sudac drinking that afternoon, during the game, or after the game. “I didn’t see him drinking.” What time did they leave the parking lot that night? “I’m not sure.” Where did you all go for dinner that night, after the game? “I can’t remember.”
In sworn testimony during trial, Jimenez said that Sudac drove the Nissan as they headed for home after midnight. Do you remember the car crash? “No, I don’t.” You don’t remember the Nissan hitting the Ford? “I don’t remember anything from that car accident,” Jimenez said in the witness box. “I believe I was knocked unconscious.” Do you remember walking away from the crash scene on the shoulder of the highway? “I don’t remember anything.” Prosecutor Villaflor demanded to know the next thing that he did remember. “Pretty much, I remember waking up at John’s house,” Jimenez said. “My girlfriend, she came, picked me up from John’s house.”
So how did he learn that he had been in a car crash? Jimenez said it was Sudac’s wife Alexia who told him, “There was an accident with another vehicle.” Jimenez said days later he learned that a woman died in the crash. Didn’t he know police were looking for him, the other person who was in the Nissan? “Yeah, I heard about that,” Jimenez admitted. But he never tried to contact investigators because he said his pal Sudac “did the right thing” by turning himself in. Jimenez decided there was “not much more to say about anything.”
Jimenez said that he is on probation for possession of marijuana for sale. Investigators had recovered from the Nissan a plastic bag holding 4.7 grams of marijuana. Jimenez said the bag did not belong to him and he hadn’t given it to Sudac.
During the trial, defense attorney Herb Weston suggested that the driver of the Ford fell asleep or was “inattentive” or that “for whatever reason” he was the one who lost control of his vehicle and smashed into the center divider. Weston proposed that it was the Ford that careened back out into lanes and caused a collision with the Nissan driven by Sudac. The defense attorney vigorously questioned highway patrol investigators. Weston said there were no fragments of broken taillights photographed where the investigators claimed the collision occurred.
Weston suggested that statements made by the driver of the Ford were too influential on investigators. “Maybe your theory is wrong,” he suggested to officers who testified.
Investigators said that the trailer hitch on the back of the Ford had made an obvious indentation in the Nissan, visible in photos taken of the front of the Nissan. Investigators documented the tire marks, which progressed for hundreds of yards down the freeway, climbing up onto the center divider and then back down onto the pavement in more than one place.
Weston called to the stand his own forensic expert and traffic accident reconstructionist, Stephen Plourd, who found fault with the highway patrol’s investigation and conclusions.
Sudac turned 30 years old on April 20, 2011, a day when the jury was being selected.
The seven men and five women heard evidence for two weeks from more than 30 witnesses. They deliberated a full day before finding Sudac guilty of felony vehicular manslaughter and felony hit-and-run causing death.
Sudac had been free on bail, but on May 5, the day of the verdict, he was taken into custody.
Naomi, the daughter of the woman who was crushed to death, turned eight years old this month. On September 9, John Francis Sudac Jr. will be sentenced. He could get a maximum of 11 years in state prison, but he is eligible for good-conduct credits and could serve only half his sentence, according to the prosecutor. Villaflor said, “I’m pleased that the jury reached a just verdict and Sudac is being held accountable for what he did. But it’s never going to bring back Yine Gonzalez and her baby.”
Judge Runston Maino said at an earlier hearing, “Just for the record, I have heard some evidence that the woman who died was pregnant, and that appears to be six months pregnant. That, of course, means that you have another potential victim there. But whether the DA charges it is not up to me, but it’s there if you want to.”
The district attorney’s office did not bring charges for the unlawful killing of the unborn baby.