Trial under way in immigrants' deaths

November 15, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

CALEXICO — The trial of a man charged in the deaths of five undocumented immigrants has started in the Superior Court here, with the county District Attorney's Office seeking five second-degree murder convictions.

The accused, Alfonso Imperial Damas, 21, of Tijuana, listened to the proceedings Tuesday with the help of an interpreter.

The DA's Office is arguing Imperial was the driver of a 1990 Honda Civic involved in an accident while heading east on Interstate 8 just east of Mountain Springs Road on the grade leading into the Valley.

Imperial reportedly lost control of the car, causing it to flip several times. There were eight passengers in the car and five died in the crash.

As the judge read the names of the dead to the jury, Imperial — who has pleaded not guilty to the five counts — sat with his head lowered and eyes closed.


The accident occurred on Aug. 20, 2000, two days after Imperial, according to the DA's Office, attempted to smuggle that same group across the border. In that attempt, the group was caught by U.S. Border Patrol officers and processed back into Mexicali, according to court documents.

On Aug. 20, Imperial reportedly brought the group across the border and led it to the Honda Civic. The agreement was he would drive the immigrants to Los Angeles, where the five would pay him for that service, the DA's Office alleges in court records.

The DA's Office is arguing the car's rear suspension was "unsafely modified" with blocks of wood between the rear axle and leaf springs, "causing a very rigid and unsafe suspension."

The DA's Office is contending that by having nine people in the car — including himself — he overloaded the vehicle, making it difficult to control.

In addition, the DA is alleging Imperial has been arrested at least 15 times since Dec. 24, 1997 while trying to cross the border illegally.

On Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney Wayne Robinson called California Highway Patrol Officer Christina Wills to testify. Wills was the officer in charge of the accident scene.

Robinson asked Wills what she saw upon her arrival at the scene.

"I saw a vehicle on its side … there were people lying around injured," she said, adding, "I saw a group of four lying bunched together."

Wills said she determined Imperial was the driver based on her interview with him and one other passenger in the vehicle.

Wills pointed out that during her investigation it was determined there were blocks on the back end of the car attached to the suspension.

She further pointed out that the vehicle had five seat belts but there were nine people in the car.

Deputy Public Defender Tim Reilly, the court-appointed attorney for Imperial, asked Wills, "You are not saying this accident was caused exclusively by weight, are you?"

Wills responded, "No."

Robinson then asked if the Highway Patrol had determined a cause of the accident.

Wills responded, "Yes."

"What was that conclusion?" Robinson asked.

Reilly then objected, stating any such information was not prepared by Wills alone; therefore she could not comment on it.

Superior Court Judge Juan Ulloa sustained the objection.

Robinson asked what affect the overload had on the accident. Wills responded that she wasn't sure.

Robinson then called Alan Coulter of San Diego, a member of the CHP's of Multi-Disciplinary Traffic Accident Investigation Team, which was called in by the Highway Patrol to investigate the fatal accident.

Under questioning by Robinson, Coulter pointed out the team found blocks and spacers on the car's suspension.

Robinson asked if the blocks and spacers are used to keep a vehicle from "bottoming out."

Coulter responded, "Yes."

Coulter said while the blocks and spacers did not cause the accident, they could have been contributing factors.

Reilly asked if the overload might have helped maintain the stability of the vehicle.

Coulter said that was a possibility, but said the overload could have made the vehicle less safe by affecting the steering.

>> Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

Imperial Valley Press Online Articles