A California Highway Patrol officer testified Monday that a man who plowed into the back of another car on Highway 101 north of Santa Rosa about three years ago, killing five of its occupants, failed a field sobriety test and displayed other physical signs that he was on drugs.
Although a breath test performed at the scene showed Ryan Karr, 28, of Windsor, had not been drinking, he was unable to keep his balance, did not count correctly, had "glossy eyes," and seemed preoccupied with damage to his car moments after the victims burned to death in their Honda Civic in front of him, Officer Heather Bushey said.
Her testimony detailing Karr's condition moments after the crash that killed a mother, grandmother, two aunts, a boy and severely burned another child opened the trial Monday to decide if Karr was impaired and negligent, allegations his attorney strongly denied.
Karr is charged with five felony and five misdemeanor counts each of vehicular manslaughter and a count of driving under the influence of drugs in the Jan. 19, 2007 crash that killed Windsor residents Maria Lopez Camacho, 54; Edith Carlos Medina, 23, her son, Fernando Carlos, 7; Almadelia Mendera-Basurto, 16; and Carmina Solorio, 23, of Mexico.
Medina's other son, then-4-year-old Christian Flores Carlos, survived with serious burns but lost an arm and leg.
The case hinges on whether Karr's driving was impaired by drugs. If jurors decide it was, he could be convicted of the felonies and receive more than 6 years in state prison. If not, Karr still faces the lesser misdemeanor charges which do not carry prison sentences.
Bushey said her suspicions during the field sobriety test were later confirmed by a blood test that showed Karr had trace amounts of cocaine and marijuana in his system.
"I felt he was showing signs of impairment," Bushey said. "His demeanor, his eyes ... and the way he performed under testing were as if he was under the influence."
Jurors began hearing the case Monday even as Sonoma County was reeling from another five-person fatality that happened Saturday night near Lakeville Highway and Highway 37.
In the latest crash, a family of four from Sonoma died when a 19-year-old Lakeport man struck their minivan in a sports car. He died later at a local hospital.
It also comes two days before a judge is expected to issue a new sentence for a Central Valley teenager convicted of killing one man and leaving another in a coma in a 2008 drunken driving crash near Cotati. Dylan Morse, 19, who was initially sentenced to 12 years in state prison, could receive a reduced penalty Wednesday.
In Karr's case, Deputy District Attorney Victoria Shanahan said the crash was "not an accident but an inevitability."
She described witness accounts of Karr speeding up to 70 mph through rush-hour traffic and slamming into the back of the family's stopped Honda. The car burst into flames, trapping at least four people inside.
As other drivers tried to rescue them, Karr, who received only minor injuries, stood beside his Mitsubishi Eclipse, fretting on a cell phone about damage to his car, Shanahan said.
When Officer Bushey arrived, Karr did poorly on a field sobriety test and gave a blood sample which showed he had consumed pot or coke within 4 to 8 hours of the crash, Shanahan said. A search of his car turned up a marijuana pipe, she said.