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Orange County

Manslaughter Plea Mystifies Family

Courts: Woman is unhappy over a deal that could result in a year in jail for a truck driver who killed her son in an Anaheim Hills crash.

September 18, 2002|KIMI YOSHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The evidence seemed stacked against him: The trucker was under the influence of methamphetamine and driving an overloaded big rig with bad brakes when he barreled through a red light, killing an Anaheim Hills optometrist.

But this week, in a deal that has left the victim's family surprised and disappointed, Anthony Saiz of Lakewood pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter while under the influence of drugs. He faces a one-year sentence in county jail. The charge might still be declared a misdemeanor.

"I don't think it's justice. I don't see how it could be," said Laverne Larkin of Rossmoor, the mother of victim Kenneth Michael Larkin, 53, who died instantly in the March 2001 crash in Anaheim Hills.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Jennifer Contini declined to discuss details of the case until the sentencing Nov. 21. She said there are still issues to be determined during sentencing, including the length and terms of probation. Saiz also has agreed to forfeit his commercial license, she said.

While there is no dispute that Saiz was under the influence of drugs, it is unclear whether it played a role in the accident.

In addition, the penal code does not define the level at which drug use impairs driving, as it does for alcohol.

Saiz saw the red light and tried to stop, but the brakes failed. He waved his arms to alert motorists and also hit the air horn to warn motorists to avoid the truck's path.

His attorney did not return phone calls Tuesday.

Saiz careened through a red light at the bottom of a steep hill March 8, setting off a 12-vehicle collision that killed Larkin and injured six others. The accident, near two schools, sparked rallies and outrage from neighbors who had long complained about speeding trucks.

Police immediately cracked down and cited truckers, but the 222-page report into the investigation found problems that had nothing to do with speed.

Seven of the eight brakes on Saiz's truck, owned by Peterson Brothers Construction, were found to be faulty. The truck's load weighed more than 2,000 pounds more than the acceptable limit.

Police said Saiz tested positive for both methamphetamine and morphine. Police did not seek charges against the construction company, but a civil lawsuit is pending against Saiz and the company.

Attorney Wylie Aitken, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Larkin's wife, said the family is "mystified" by the settlement.

Aitken said he knows it is difficult to prosecute a driver under the influence of drugs because the penal code does not define measurable limits of drug use. That was likely to be a major issue presented by Saiz's attorney.

Despite that, Aitken said he believes there was plenty of blame to go around, including against Saiz's employer, Peterson Brothers Construction.

After the accident, the company received an unsatisfactory rating from California Highway Patrol inspectors, and later said it was overhauling its truck safety and inspection programs.

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