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Vellanoweth found guilty in crash that killed four

By Andy Furillo - afurillo@sacbee.com
Published 12:00 am PDT Friday, July 11, 2008

The gubernatorial appointments, the political connections, the 30-year history as a top-level California bureaucrat – none of it helped Roberto P. Vellanoweth on Thursday when he was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs.

An eight-man, four-woman jury found the longtime Sacramento insider and civic-minded activist guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and of two other drunken driving counts.

It took the jury only two hours and 33 minutes to arrive at the verdict in a case that gripped the city during the three-week trial like few before it in recent years.

"I can't recall a case of vehicular manslaughter in the last 20 years or more that has attracted the local public attention that this one has," said Assistant District Attorney Albert Locher.

In his closing arguments, Locher pounded Vellanoweth as a liar, a drunkard and, on March 26, 2007, a killer when he got behind the wheel of his Jeep Grand Cherokee with a blood-alcohol concentration later measured at 0.16 percent – twice the legal limit.

"I think the number of individuals who were killed, the fact that children were killed, the fact that we have a man who has a long life with no record, and then makes such a bad decision and winds up with so many people killed in one day – I think all of those come together to make it a case that just captures the public's eye," the prosecutor said.

Vellanoweth, when it was over, turned and nodded to his crying family members who filled three rows of seats in Department 19 of Sacramento Superior Court.

Then the bailiffs cuffed him and took him to jail, out back, through Judge Patrick Marlette's chambers.

Defense attorney Christopher Wing had asked the judge to let Vellanoweth remain free on the $250,000 bail that has kept him out of lockup for the past 16 months.

Marlette had none of it.

"You've been found guilty of killing four people," Marlette told Vellanoweth. "From the beginning of this case, you have attempted to avoid accepting responsibility for your actions. … I cannot say I have confidence you will willingly return."

Sentencing is set for Aug. 12.

Vellanoweth, 64 – a former member of the Youthful Offender Parole Board and a panelist on the state Board of Optometry, as well as a one-time career executive assistant in multiple agencies of state government – faces a maximum prison term of 17 years and eight months, according to the latest calculations.

April Rice, the mother of two of the four people killed in the collision and the grandmother of another, took joy in the verdict. She was especially gratified, she said, by the jury's rejection of the defense contention that her daughter, Brizchelle "Chelle" Rice-Nash, 21, who was driving the car that was destroyed by Vellanoweth's Jeep, somehow caused the wreck.

"So many emotions are going on inside me," Rice said in an interview after the verdict. "It's been very hard.

"It's been sad, listening to the lies, the stories. Some things I could deal with and sometimes I had to step outside the courtroom, just to take a breath."

The collision also killed Rice-Nash's 19-month-old son, Kamall Osby, as well as her sister, Brittanya "Tanya" Rice-Nash, 17, and their friend Shanice Patrice Carter, 18.

Another friend, Tanisha Jackson, suffered devastating injuries in the crash, but survived.

Rice thanked the jury for doing its job.

"They brought us justice," she said.

The Vellanoweth family, including the defendant's wife and a number of his children and other relatives, filed out of the courtroom, in tears, without comment.

Defense attorney Wing offered a defense that contended Vellanoweth wasn't drunk at the time of the wreck, despite an afternoon that included a three-martini lunch and at least one massive blast of what his client testified he thought was a kamikaze virgen.

Wing also sought to shift causation of the collision to the victims, saying their 1984 Chrysler LeBaron – estimated to be going 14 mph to Vellanoweth's 72 mph – crawled along in his lane and forced him to swerve to the wrong side of the road. When the Chrysler also moved over, the deadly collision thundered along rainy South Land Park Drive, the defense said.

"I really thought there was reasonable doubt in this case," Wing said. "That's why God made juries."

The lawyer said the tide of public opinion, of government, of the media rolled against his client from the moment of the crash and continued through Thursday's verdict.

"Everybody pretty much had made up their mind," Wing said. "That's difficult. It's what Albert said in his close: 'Obviously, this guy's a drunk, he was driving on the wrong side of the road.' I just don't think that's what the facts were."

Locher countered after the verdict that, "The evidence indicates that Mr. Vellanoweth was guilty and that's what the jury found."

"We thought all along the evidence was there," Locher said. "What made it a challenging case in a sense was, there were a lot of resources put into this case by the defense. Anytime you have to cross-examine four Ph.D.s, that presents a challenge."

Vellanoweth's defense paid $104,000, at least, to a team of experts to sow doubt in the jury's collective mind.

In the end, it didn't work. One juror, who gave her name only as Dolly, said the case was decided on one simple concept – "the facts."

"You can't change the facts," she said. "You can't change anything. The facts are there. That's what you go by. There are just so many of them."

Beyond the facts, there was the narrative of a story that served to grip Sacramento for nearly three weeks. Around water coolers and computer banks, people all over town talked about the case and posted hundreds of comments on Web sites like sacbee.com that carried the daily blow-by-blow.

California State University, Sacramento, communications professor Barbara O'Connor called the case "our version of O.J. Simpson."

Instead of a rich former football star accused of killing his beautiful wife, this one involved a powerful inside Sacramento political player in Vellanoweth, who started a business to help clients fix whatever problems they had with government.

It also had a working single mom on her way to school to pick up a kid, in a car with a baby, a friend and a sister. She and her sister and baby lived with their mom, who hasn't worked in two years because of an on-the-job injury, and another sister, in a tight family battling tough circumstances.

"People know the people involved," O'Connor said. "It was obviously a true drama, and those kinds of narratives, any kind of local drama, attracts people's attention. We learned about the people who were killed and about him. Many of us have driven the same roads. It's very personal."

April Rice and Shanice Carter's mother, Brenda Green, and their family and friends and supporters also filled several rows of courtroom seats. They kept their emotions in check and the judge thanked them as well as the Vellanoweths for maintaining their "discipline" through the proceedings.

The Rices and the Greens also have civil lawsuits pending, and there will be more court hearings in their future.

On Thursday, they were happy about a jury that saw the criminal case their way and a city that they said supported them through the worst time in their lives.

"I'm very thankful for that support," April Rice said. "The community was involved, and I didn't get to thank them for that. That's what kept me strong, and that's what's keeping me strong now, still knowing I have that support."


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