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Unlicensed driver pleads guilty in fatal Santa Rosa crosswalk hit-and-run crash


A Santa Rosa man pleaded guilty Thursday to a crosswalk hit-and-run crash that killed a 4-year-old boy and rekindled the debate about unlicensed drivers.

Marcos Lopez Garcia, 24, admitted guilt for the three charges against him in the Aug. 18 death of Christopher "Buddy" Rowe near Santa Rosa's Jacobs Park.

Garcia, whose trial was scheduled to begin today, now faces a maximum 5-1/2 years in prison at his June 29 sentencing.

The boy's mother, Michelle Rowe, who was walking Buddy and his two sisters across West Ninth Street at the time of the crash, wiped her eyes with a tissue Thursday as Garcia admitted the charges.

After she left the courtroom with her husband, Jim Rowe, she expressed relief that Garcia took responsibility for his crimes.

But she was critical of the drawn-out negotiations in which the defense tried to bargain for reduced sentences — first offering 16 months, then two years, and finally, three years.

Rowe and her husband said no to all of the offers, preferring instead to take the case to trial.

"We will have to live with this … for the rest of our lives," Michelle Rowe said. "You never get over this."

Garcia's lawyer, Walter Rubenstein, said Garcia felt remorse for what happened and wanted to avoid a trial to limit the family's suffering.

He will be deported after serving any prison time, his lawyer said.

"He had tears in his eyes every time I talked to him about it," Rubenstein said.

He said Garcia could be eligible for a sentence ranging from 5-1/2 years in jail or prison to probation.

Judge Kenneth Gnoss said he has made no promises for leniency in exchange for the plea. He has refused to meet in chambers with the prosecution and defense to discuss any deal.

"The court has made no decision as to what the sentence should be," Gnoss said.

Garcia pleaded guilty to felony hit-and-run, which carries a maximum sentence of four years; misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, which has a one-year top; and driving without a license, with a six-month jail exposure.

At his preliminary hearing, three officers and a witness testified that Garcia plowed into Buddy as he walked in the crosswalk.

Garcia fled and drove his Volvo to the Finley Park parking lot, where he was seen peeling a bright orange San Francisco Giants decal from his car.

One officer testified that Garcia asked his boss for money or a ride to Southern California so he could flee to Mexico.

He was caught with the help of a man who heard the crash on a police scanner and followed Garcia in his own car.

The crash reopened a community discussion about illegal immigrants who drive without licenses.

According to court records, Garcia was convicted in 2010 of driving without a license. He was fined and put on probation for a year.

Five days before the crash, Garcia, a pizzeria cook, was cited again for driving without a license. Police allowed him to park his vehicle at the scene rather than impounding it.

The decision came as immigrant rights advocates were pushing legislation to limit car seizures, saying they unfairly penalize a group of people who are denied licenses. In October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill co-authored by Assemblyman Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa, that would allow police to release cars to a representative of the owner rather than impounding them for 30 days.