Authorities will pursue murder charges against a 28-year-old Lodi man accused of causing a horrific traffic crash that killed six members of a Lodi family and left a 9-year-old boy orphaned and hospitalized.
During a press conference at Hutchins Street Square, Lodi Police Chief Mark Helms said Ryan Christopher Morales, who is suspected of driving while intoxicated during last Tuesday’s crash that involved six vehicles and left 12 people either killed or injured, could face a maximum charge of second-degree murder for each person killed, which carries a penalty of 15 years to life in prison.
“I want to begin by making it very clear, this horrific event was not an accident,” Helms said. “In my view, it was a heinous act by one person that resulted in six senseless deaths, including an unborn child, and critical injuries to a 9-year-old boy who is fighting for his life.”
Authorities are waiting to arrest Morales until his medical condition improves.
Morales, who is on probation following a prison sentence for recklessly evading police last year, is in critical condition following several surgeries at an area hospital. Investigators haven’t be able to interview Morales because he’s incapacitated, said Helms, who was accompanied Monday by representatives from California Highway Patrol, San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office, Lodi Unified School District, Lodi Fire Department and Mayor Alan Nakanishi.
It’s unlikely Morales will be released from the hospital and returned to San Joaquin County anytime soon, Helms said, though he added that officers are watching him around the clock.
The investigation will take several months. Once completed, authorities will determine what charges will be filed.
“There are a host of different charges that you could file, and we have to find what are the appropriate charges based on the facts that we’re giving and that we could prove,” said San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Robert Himelblau.
Last week, search warrant documents revealed that the suspect’s father told investigators that he and his son drank an entire 750 mL bottle of apple-flavored vodka around 4 p.m. on Oct. 22, the day of the crash.
Police said that at 5:21 p.m., after taking a 2002 GMC Yukon that belonged to an elderly man his mother cared for, Morales plowed into several vehicles, including a Ford F-150 pickup carrying a Lodi family, at the corner of Ham Lane and Vine Street.
Irving Miranda, 11, and sister Stephanie Miranda, 4, died at the scene. Jose Luis Miranda, 5, and parents Luis Miranda Ochoa, 32, and Vivian Rodriguez Salgado, 31, who was seven months pregnant, were transported to area hospitals where they later died.
Nine-year-old Eden Miranda, the lone survivor from that vehicle, is being treated at UC Davis Medical Center, where he was upgraded from critical to stable condition last week.
Helms said Rodriguez Salgado was wearing a seatbelt, but investigators haven’t been able to determine if the other victims were wearing seatbelts as well.
Others who were injured included Antonio Vasquez Romero, 59, of Lodi, as well as three juvenile passengers in his 2001 Suzuki XL-7. All were treated and released for minor injuries. Anthony Fuso, 54, of Lodi, who was driving a 1988 Chevrolet 2500 pickup, complained of minor pain.
Maria Sosa, 54, of Lodi, who was driving a 2003 Ford Windstar, was uninjured.
Officers found Morales pinned inside the vehicle and smelling of alcohol, according to a police report released last week.
Helms said investigators haven’t determined how fast Morales was driving, but eyewitnesses estimate his speed was around 80 miles per hour when he collided with several vehicles in the intersection of Ham Lane and Vine Street while driving south on Ham. Helms also confirmed that phone records show Morales was talking on his cellphone at the time of the crash.
Investigators are still determining his blood-alcohol level.
Lodi police have served three search warrants, and Helms said they’re expecting to request more.
Helms added that Morales is on post-release community supervision after serving 16 months in prison for recklessly evading police in Alameda County.
“This has been a very difficult time on the community of Lodi,” Helms said. “This is a very, very important investigation to us. We want to make sure we get it right and we bring this person to justice.”
Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.