MOAPA, Nev. (AP) – An 18-year-old was cleared Wednesday of charges the he was driving drunk in a Nevada crash that killed five California family members, after a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper testified that DNA evidence showed his friend was the one driving the SUV that caused the wreck.
A judge dismissed all charges against Jean Ervin Soriano, who had told troopers he was the driver of the SUV that rear-ended a van carrying seven people home to the Los Angeles area early March 30 after an Easter weekend visit to a sick relative in Denver.
Blood tests showed Soriano had a blood-alcohol percentage of 0.12 at the time of the crash.
Soriano’s lawyer, Frank Cofer, said Wednesday that Soriano was intimidated by the other man, Alfred Gomez, 23, of St. George, Utah, into saying he was the driver.
Gomez, who was injured in the crash and hospitalized, wasn’t tested for blood alcohol. It was not immediately clear if he will face arrest or charges.
Prosecutor Brian Rutledge said outside court that the investigation was ongoing and it was possible the driver could still face felony vehicular manslaughter or the more serious DUI causing serious bodily injury or death charge.
But Gomez wasn’t in custody, and Rutledge said he didn’t know if he was still living in St. George, had returned to Southern California, or had moved somewhere else.
Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson was out of town Wednesday and unavailable for comment.
Three relatives of the five people killed and two people injured in the crash stood stunned in the rural courtroom 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas after Justice of the Peace Ruth Kolhoss ordered Soriano freed.
Pablo Fernandez, 19, of Lynwood, Calif., declined immediate comment on their behalf.
Trooper Robert Lynn, the lead investigator in the case, also declined comment.
Soriano, who had been jailed on $3.5 million bail, wasn’t released immediately but remained in custody for the 50-mile trip back to Las Vegas for processing and release from the Clark County jail.
He kept his head bowed and said nothing as he sat in chains at the defense table. His parents and an aunt were in the courtroom and expressed relief afterward.
“We’re really happy. Finally he’s not guilty,” said the aunt, Nelly Ciprian, 28, of St. George, Utah. “The lawyers provided the proof and the evidence.”
The crash killed Genaro Fernandez, 42, of Norwalk; Maria Belen Fernandez, 53, of Lynwood; and Raudel Fernandez-Avila, 49, Angela Sandoval, 13, and Leonardo Fernandez-Avila, 45, of East Los Angeles.
The driver of the van, Maria Rosario Cardanas, 40, and a 15-year-old passenger, Eddie Sandoval, were the only survivors.
Soriano had faced seven felony charges of driving under the influence causing death or substantial injury in the pre-dawn crash March 30 on Interstate 15 about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas. If convicted, he would have faced a mandatory two to 20 years in state prison without probation on each charge.
Under questioning by Rutledge, Lynn testified that DNA evidence, a footprint on the driver’s door and blood drops on the passenger window showed that Soriano couldn’t have been behind the wheel of the Dodge Durango SUV, which ended up on its roof after the 3 a.m. crash.
The NHP crash report said the Durango was traveling faster than 105 mph on the two-lane, 75 mph freeway before it veered sharply and collided with the slower-moving van just before 3 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Troopers found open and unopened beer bottles in the vehicle, which came to rest on its roof.
Soriano told troopers at the scene that he had “too many” beers before the crash. Rutledge said it was unlikely that Soriano would face an obstruction charge in the case.
After his arrest, authorities in Orange County, Calif., said that Soriano fled March 1 from a juvenile guidance center in Santa Ana that treats drug and alcohol abusers.
Cofer and Rutledge said it wasn’t immediately clear if authorities there would seek his return.
Soriano’s lawyer said his client will be glad to be freed from jail after more than three months, and said it wasn’t likely that Soriano would seek civil damages based on the arrest.
“I think he’s been punished quite enough,” Cofer said.
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