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History Replayed for Drunk Driver

Sentencing: Man faces the same judge who 10 years ago gave him four years for crushing a 12-year-old girl's legs with his car.

July 13, 2002|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BAKERSFIELD — James Kidwell, the most incorrigible drunk driver in the history of this neighborly oil and "ag" community, was sent off to prison Friday--again.

And Anajean Zamudio, who bears the scars from 26 surgeries she suffered after her encounter with Kidwell years ago, was there to see him off.

A strong sense of deja vu added to the drama that unfolded in the courtroom of Judge Roger Randall. A decade ago, Kidwell had faced the same judge, on much the same charge, while the public clamored for a tough sentence to show him and other repeat offenders that they wouldn't be tolerated.

Not only had that case marked Kidwell's 10th arrest, worse, it had nearly claimed the life of Zamudio, then 12 years old, whose legs had been crushed when she was hit by Kidwell while pushing her mother's stalled car. Randall had sent him to prison for four years, but that wasn't enough for the public and law enforcement authorities. People were so angry that they pushed for a new law toughening the penalties against drivers who continue to drive drunk.

Yet there was Kidwell Friday, back in court, being sentenced to three more years with the public asking the same questions.

"I never felt justice had been served," said Zamudio, standing outside the courtroom. She had known the likely sentence would be three years, the maximum under the circumstances, but she felt she had to be there anyway. As she spoke, her balance was unsteady. When she raises her long black skirt a little, the scarred and furrowed tissues left after $4 million worth of surgical work become visible.

"I still have a lot of physical problems," she said.

Kidwell, a balding, unmarried 57-year-old mechanic, was arrested for the 11th time on a charge of driving under the influence in March. His white Ford pickup was stopped at 11:37 p.m. after officers saw it weaving along Chester Avenue in downtown Bakersfield. He had been out drinking with his girlfriend, he said. Though his blood alcohol level was tested variously at .08 and .09--just enough to put him legally under the influence--his long record exposed him to prison time.

On Friday, the judge praised Kidwell, who stood slump-shouldered in court, for pleading guilty rather than going to trial. He had done the same thing 10 years earlier, and for the same reason, to spare Zamudio and her family the pain of going through the events of March 29, 1992 all over again.

"To his credit, he pled up," said Randall from the bench. "I'm sure he must feel some remorse. The problem is, my primary duty is to protect the public."

Kidwell's first drunk-driving arrest, according to his probation report, was in January 1972, when he was 26. He was given two years' probation. In years following, he began piling up arrests as though he wanted to be caught. He was arrested again in 1974, 1976, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1985, and twice in 1987. He served a total of about 1,100 days in jail. Luckily, no one was injured until the 1992 accident.

Zamudio said her family had been going out to a McDonald's after church that day, when their new Mustang convertible stopped running. She got out to push from the back, while her mother and 14-year-old sister pushed from the side doors.

"I looked behind me and saw some headlights," she said. She didn't think much about it. The next thing she knew she was on her back, looking up at the stars. "I didn't feel the impact," she said.

She remembers seeing Kidwell look at her lying in a pool of blood. Then he went back to his truck and pounded on the steering wheel. His blood alcohol level was .20, more than twice the legal limit.

Zamudio almost died. She received 29 units of blood. Doctors in Bakersfield considered amputating her legs, but she was flown to Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles, where surgeons managed to save them.

She was hospitalized six months and lost so much weight that she was down to 72 pounds, 10 pounds of which were the metal pins holding her legs together. "Words cannot describe" the pain she went through, she said.

Despite all of Kidwell's previous arrests, the maximum sentence at the time for the accident was four years in prison, which Randall imposed. But the case became a call to arms for local law enforcement and the legions of people who followed Zamudio's progress. There was a time, she said, when she could not go out in public without being recognized.

"I got letters from inmates offering to kill him for me," she said.

She didn't want that, but she wanted something more. She agreed to testify in Sacramento for legislation that ultimately passed, toughening penalties on repeat drunk drivers. Although she found it intimidating, she emerged from her ordeal stronger and tougher. She is now married, has a 2-year-old daughter and handles herself in public with ease.

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