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Tow Truck Driver Admits Violations

Paul Sassenberger gets six years in prison for an incident that ended in a Santa Ana man's death.

September 09, 2006|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

A tow truck driver pleaded guilty Friday in return for a six-year prison term for a predatory towing incident that resulted in the death of a Santa Ana man.

Paul Sassenberger, 30, will be formally sentenced Nov. 3 for felony vehicular manslaughter, using methamphetamine, illegally taking a vehicle and extortion, authorities said.

"It's hard to be happy when someone's dead," said Susan Kang Schroeder, a spokeswoman for the Orange County district attorney's office, "but we believe this will bring some relief and closure to the victim's family."

Sassenberger, while employed by Pepe's Tow Co. in Santa Ana from 2003 to 2005, refused to release vehicles to their owners on 11 occasions.

On June 12, 2005, prosecutors said, he towed a Chevy Suburban owned by Leoncio Flores, 42, who had parked the car illegally while briefly entering his condo in the 1000 block of South Mantle Lane. Returning as the car was being towed, Flores offered Sassenberger $50 to release it, but Sassenberger refused and continued driving.

Flores knocked on the window, then grabbed the side of the tow truck, but lost his grip and fell beneath its wheels.

California law requires tow truck drivers to release a vehicle if the owner arrives before it has left the premises.

It is also illegal for drivers to remove a vehicle from private property without the property owner's permission, which Sassenberger didn't have. A blood test revealed that he had methamphetamine in his system when the incident occurred.

Flores' family later filed a wrongful death suit that was eventually settled for $2 million.

"This is a perfect example of why predatory towing is a dangerous practice," Schroeder said Friday, "and one of the reasons our office is aggressive in going after people who do that."

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