Archie Ingersoll, Grand Forks Herald, Published June 08 2010
Driver involved in fatal DUI crash apologizes in court
“I just want to say I’m sorry about everything,” said Celso Garza, who appeared from the Grand Forks County jail via video.
Garza, 24, of East Grand Forks, is charged with two counts of homicide while fleeing an officer and two counts of assault while fleeing an officer, along with charges of driving under the influ-ence, possessing marijuana, possessing drug paraphernalia, driving with his license revoked and fleeing. He was ticketed for running a red light and having an open alcoholic beverage in his vehi-cle.
Over the weekend, prosecutors said Garza would be charged with manslaughter and reckless en-dangerment, but Assistant State’s Attorney Thomas Falck said out of court Monday that state law allowed for stiffer charges, namely homicide while fleeing an officer – a Class A felony with a maximum prison sentence of 20 years – and assault while fleeing an officer – a Class B felony with a maximum of 10 years.
Because those charges are considered “violent offenses,” Garza, if convicted, would have to serve 85 percent of his time in prison before he became eligible for parole, Judge Debbie Kleven said. If convicted on all charges, Garza would face a maximum prison sentence of 63 years and two months.
Garza appeared in court Monday without an attorney. The mother of Garza’s 18-month-old son, Dina Diamanti, sat in the courtroom gallery and told the judge she and Garza are trying to hire a private attorney. “Right now, he’s obviously not working, and he has a baby on the way, so I don’t know if he can afford it,” she said.
Garza told the judge that up until last week he had worked in the packaging department at Phila-delphia Macaroni in Grand Forks. His girlfriend spoke up to say he has lost his job and that she’s supporting their family.
The judge approved Garza for a public defender in case he can’t retain an attorney. She set Garza’s bail at $105,000. He’s set for a preliminary hearing Aug. 2.
In 2004, Garza was convicted of two counts of aggravated robbery in Polk County and sentenced to four years with the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Garza was charged with underage drinking twice in 2003 in Polk County. He was charged with disorderly conduct in Cass County in 2009.
Police said Garza was stopped at the intersection of Columbia Road and University Avenue for running a red light early Saturday morning. As an officer approached Garza’s vehicle, he sped south on Columbia, reaching an estimated speed of 100 mph.
The officer considered ending the chase seconds before Garza’s 1995 Chevrolet Lumina broad-sided a 2009 Pontiac G6 in the intersection of Columbia and 17th Avenue South, about a mile from where Garza was pulled over. The Pontiac had the green light, police said.
Katie Olson, 22, was driving the Pontiac; Michael Badurek, 18, was the front-seat passenger; Ta-sha Brenno, 19, and James Freestone, 21, were in the backseat. The four, who worked at the Hugo’s grocery store across from Altru Hospital, had just attended Relay for Life, a late-night cancer bene-fit in University Park.
Brenno and Freestone were killed in the crash. Olson remains hospitalized at Altru with injuries, which include a broken jaw and fractured bones in her neck. Badurek was treated for his injuries and released Saturday morning.
After the crash, a small amount of marijuana, a pipe and an open 40-ounce bottle of booze were found in Garza’s car, police said.
Garza was taken to Altru and treated for minor injuries. There, police said, authorities took a sample of his blood, which will be analyzed for the presence of drugs and alcohol.
The Grand Forks Police Department and the state Highway Patrol are investigating the crash.
‘Heal in time’
When the judge announced Garza’s case Monday, Freestone’s sister, Carol Bjarnason, took the hand of her husband as they sat on a bench behind prosecutors.
They watched as Garza looked down at the documents charging him. Several times throughout the hearing, Garza wiped his eyes.
Outside of court, Bjarnason said she felt sorry for Garza’s relatives. “His family is hurting just as much as ours is right now,” she said.
Minutes before, Garza’s girlfriend had passed through a crowd of family members and friends of the crash victims. When she did, someone in the crowd said: “Your boyfriend ain’t going to see daylight.”
Diamanti heard this, stopped and turned angrily toward the group, as prosecutor Falck stood in front of her, trying to usher her away.
“My boyfriend has heart,” Diamanti said before walking off. “You know what? They’re not God. Let God judge him.”
Bjarnason’s husband, Justin, disapproved of the display.
“She immediately jumps on the defensive. However, she could have walked out here and gave every single one of these people a hug and said she was sorry. That’s what should have happened,” he said. “We had no reason to be angry with her.”
Sandy Olson said her daughter, Katie, is fine but will have a long road to recovery.
“They will all heal in time,” Sandy Olson said of her daughter’s injuries.
“The emotional part is going to be worse,” said Beth Melby, a Hugo’s manager who supervised the four crash victims.
Melby said Brenno “was a very nice girl. She would have given her heart. We were so proud of her at work because she got her (high school) diploma.”
“She just started softball with us. She was our pitcher,” Melby said. “She was just well liked.”
Olson’s mom said many Hugo’s employees have gone to visit her daughter at Altru. “It’s her sec-ond family,” she said.
Freestone’s mother, Yolanda Price, said she felt numb during the hearing. She said she wanted to stand up and ask Garza, “Why did you run?”
“My heart is just broken, just don’t know what to do,” she said. “I’m angry, but I think I can for-give eventually. I’m sure he didn’t mean to go ahead and do this. But, you know – don’t drink and drive.”
Ingersoll is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald