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First Such Case in Orange County : Man Gets 15 Years to Life in Auto Crash Fatal to 4

September 13, 1986|JERRY HICKS | Times Staff Writer

A drunk driver convicted of second-degree murder for the deaths of a Fullerton woman and her three children was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison Friday by an Orange County judge who rebuffed arguments that the driver was a "sacrificial lamb" being used to send a message.

Michael W. Reding, 28, of Fullerton was the first drunk driver in Orange County to be convicted of murder since the state Supreme Court ruled four years ago that prosecutors could seek such convictions. Until then, drunk drivers had been convicted of vehicular manslaughter at most.

But Superior Court Judge James L. Smith took strong exception to suggestions by Reding's attorneys and to what the judge said he perceived as Reding's attitude in a probation report--that prosecutors had singled Reding out as a warning to the public.

"He is not a whipping boy who has been selected to make a point . . . he is not a sacrifice on an altar of justice," Smith said from the bench. "His conduct was grossly reprehensible. . . . He killed four people."

Before the sentencing Friday, the judge heard from Robert F. Trueblood, 39, who lost his entire family in the crash, Reding's father and mother, and three jurors who asked for leniency.

Killed in the Oct. 23, 1984, crash on State College Boulevard near Bastanchury Road in Fullerton were Pamela Trueblood, 36, Eric, 11, Kerry, 9, and Scott, 8. Two other children in the car, Brian Rector, 12, and Shawn Ratcliff, 2, were injured but survived.

The crash occurred after Reding tried to pass a car by driving onto a right-hand, dirt shoulder at a high rate of speed, police said. When he tried to return to the road, he lost control and veered across three lanes into the oncoming car driven by Mrs. Trueblood.

A police test two hours after the incident registered Reding's blood-alcohol level at 0.108, slightly above the 0.10 level that is the minimum for a California drunk-driving conviction. A minor amount of cocaine also was found in his system.

Drank Beer and Vodka

According to testimony, Reding had consumed five beers and four vodka drinks at a Brea bar just before the fatal collision. He left after the bartender refused to serve him again and suggested that he go home.

Reding, who at the time was an engineer at Northrop Corp. in Hawthorne, said in interviews before his conviction in June that he felt remorse but considered the murder charges too harsh because he had not meant to hurt anyone.

On Friday, Robert Trueblood quietly talked to the judge about the family he lost.

Pamela Trueblood was active in church, Little League, Brownies, the PTA and children's soccer, and she had managed to get a degree in archeology, he said. The children enjoyed school and family camping trips.

Trueblood's brother had married his wife's sister, and that couple had three children in the same age group as Robert and Pamela Trueblood's children. For birthdays alone, including those of four grandparents, the family gathered 14 times a year, he said.

The courtroom was quiet except for the clicking of news cameras as Trueblood told about his life after the collision.

"I would go home to an empty, quiet house," he said. "I would sit down alone and read the letters from people in the community who had learned about what happened. Sometimes there would be 50 or 60 of them. I would read the letters until I fell asleep in a chair."

Has a New Family

Trueblood has since remarried and has a stepdaughter and a 4-month-old son. But his new family, he said, is not a replacement for his old one.

Trueblood said that if his wife and children had lived to the age of 65, their life spans would have totaled 196 years. Therefore, he said, a 15-to-life sentence was not too much to ask for Reding.

"I don't think I'm asking for blood," Trueblood said. "I'm asking for a chance to have my newborn son grow up" without Michael Reding around.

Trueblood was surrounded by friends from his church, the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, other family members, and the parents of the two children who survived the crash.

On the other side of the courtroom sat Reding's family and three of the jurors who convicted him.

Each of the jurors cited Reding's lack of a prior record and asked for leniency for him. Reding's parents, Charles and Kathleen Reding, both said their son was devastated by the deaths.

Judge Smith said he did not doubt Reding's remorse and he recognized that Reding had no criminal past. But Smith said he was less impressed by arguments in letters he received from Reding supporters that Reding had been depressed before the crash because a girlfriend had left him and that he had been having difficulties at work.

"I can't help but compare that to another man here in this courtroom today," Smith said. "A man who lost his wife and three children in a car crash. What did he do? He didn't go out and get drunk. He didn't go out and use cocaine. He went home from work, sat down alone and read those letters until he fell asleep. Then he finally put his life back together again."

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