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Unlicensed driver sentenced to four years in prison in fatal Santa Rosa crosswalk crash


An unlicensed driver who struck and killed a 4-year-old Santa Rosa boy in a crosswalk and then drove away with plans to flee to Mexico was sentenced Friday to four years in prison.

Marcos Lopez Garcia, 23, of Santa Rosa, earlier admitted counts of felony hit-and-run, misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter and driving without a license in the Aug. 18 crash that killed Christopher "Buddy" Rowe.

Judge Ken Gnoss handed down his punishment during an emotional 90-minute hearing attended by dozens of friends and family, in which the child's parents described their devastating loss in heart-wrenching detail.

Michelle Rowe recounted the horror that ensued after the crash, which sent her son flying 80 feet through the air when he was struck by Lopez Garcia's car while crossing West Ninth Street with his mother, two sisters and another girl.

She stayed mostly at her son's side as he struggled to live through the next day, undergoing brain surgery, and hugged his body for five hours after he took his last breath. She asked the judge for a maximum 5 1/2-year sentence.

"This will stay with us for the rest of our lives," Michelle Rowe said with her husband Jim standing beside her in court.

Prosecutor Dan Cohan also sought a 5 1/2-year term based on consecutive sentences for the three charges.

Cohan told the judge he was "the gatekeeper" for what residents will tolerate and what they will not. He scolded Lopez Garcia for failing to face the family and make a formal apology.

Lopez Garcia, who maintained his vision was obscured the day of the crash by a truck and the setting sun, stared straight ahead and held his hands to his face for most of the hearing.

"He's a dangerous man who refuses to take responsibility for what he did," Cohan said.

Gnoss said as a parent himself, he sympathized with the family's request for a stiffer punishment. But he said he was bound by rules of the court, which prohibit consecutive sentencing in this case.

"I realize this is not what the family wanted," Gnoss said.

After the hearing Jim Rowe lamented the law, which he said puts thieves in prison for decades but allow people who take a child's life to get out in a few years. Still, Rowe said he has come to grips with the reality of the situation.

"They could give him a million years and it would never be enough," he said.

With credit for time already served, Lopez Garcia will be out of prison in about 18 months, said his attorney, Walter Rubenstein. He's expected to be deported to Mexico upon his release.

Buddy Rowe was hit as he walked with his mother, twin sister Julia, older sister Mimi, 6, and friend Ava to soccer tryouts at Jacobs Park.

As the group crossed West Ninth Street near Rockwell Place, Michelle Rowe noticed a flash out of the corner of her eye and yelled, "Run!" to Christopher, who was lagging behind.

She jumped out of the way in time to avoid being hit by Lopez Garcia's blue Honda, which blew through the crosswalk at up to 35 miles per hour, multiple witnesses said.

Christopher was hit by the front bumper and launched into the air, according to a Probation Department report.

He was taken first to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and then Oakland Children's hospital, where he died the next night.

Lopez Garcia, who six days earlier had been stopped for driving without a license, fled to Finley Park, where he began peeling an orange San Francisco Giants sticker off his back window.

A man who had been listening to reports of the crash on a police scanner spotted Lopez Garcia as he climbed into his girlfriend's Volvo and took off. He followed them briefly, relaying a license plate number to police.

Lopez Garcia was arrested later that night at a house on Sonoma Avenue. He told police he knew he hit someone but was afraid to stop.

"I was waiting for a little more courage but I was going to turn myself in," he told police, according to the Probation Department report.

Police later learned he was trying to raise money to flee to Mexico before he was found. He denied it.

Lopez Garcia pleaded guilty to the charges in May. In addition to his prison sentence, he was ordered to pay the Rowes nearly $85,000 to cover medical bills and funeral costs.

His case rekindled the debate about unlicensed drivers. A 1997 DMV study found those without a license were 4.9 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash.

Jim Rowe raised the issue several times in his comments to the court Friday.

"As we stand here today, the last thing I could ever imagine is to talk about my 4-year-old child in the past tense," Jim Rowe said. "Who could ever think a young life could be severed by an illegal, 24-year-old alien, driving without a license?"