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Hearing postponed for Sebastopol vintner ready to admit guilt for killing man while driving drunk

Last-minute changes to allegations against a Sebastopol vintner accused of vehicular manslaughter while driving drunk could endanger a possible resolution to the tragic crash that killed a man and maimed a boy earlier this year.

On Wednesday in Sonoma County Superior Court, Ulises Valdez. Jr. intended to plead guilty to killing Mark Graham Osborne and seriously injuring 12-year-old Eric Tailon McDonell on May 12 in Sebastopol.

But the court proceedings were postponed to January because prosecutors filed an amended complaint against Valdez on Wednesday morning that is meant to comply with a new law taking effect Jan. 1. The amended complaint changes Valdez’s charges and potentially lengthens any future prison sentence.

“We have been waiting to plead guilty,” Valdez’s defense attorney Steve Gallenson said following Wednesday’s appearance. “Now, there’s a possibility that he wouldn’t plead guilty and go to trial. ... We could have an adversarial hearing.”

The legislation guiding the changes relates to allegations called aggravating factors, which increase the severity of an accused crime. Beginning New Year’s Day, if prosecutors want the maximum sentence, they must prove aggravating factors to a judge or a jury, or the defendant must admit to them.

Previously, judges could decide whether to lengthen or reduce a sentence based on any aggravating or mitigating factors without a jury decision or admission of guilt.

Authorities accused Valdez of driving into Osborne and McDonell last spring as the pair rode their bikes on the shoulder of High School Road in Sebastopol.

California Highway Patrol said Valdez, whose father founded the Sebastopol-based company Valdez Family Winery, was driving his Ram Rebel pickup with a blood-alcohol content of 0.15%, nearly double the legal limit.

Osborne died in the hospital, and the boy lost his leg.

The 27-year-old faces up to 12 years, eight months in prison, according to Gallenson.

Appearing in the courtroom of Judge Dana Beernink Simonds Wednesday morning, Valdez was prepared to plead guilty to all charges related to the crash.

“My client just feels absolutely terrible about what happened. It’s just a real tragedy, he’s got incredible remorse about this and he’s ready to face the consequences that will come from this,” Gallenson said.

But the defense attorney said that he had not seen the new complaint against his client filed by Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Jason Rifkind, which alleged new aggravating factors and previously undisclosed details about what led up to the fatal crash.

The new allegations include that the victims were vulnerable and taken by surprise, that Valdez's truck could be considered a dangerous weapon, and that his acts were highly cruel and vicious.

The complaint now says that Valdez had a total of 19 drinks at two bars before getting behind the wheel, raced with a friend driving another car and lost control at the blind curve of the road with his accelerator “100% depressed” before he struck the two cyclists.

“When we informed defendant that pleading to all charges after this new law is in effect means also admitting the aggravated factors, my understanding was that he was not prepared to do that,” explained Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell.

Gallenson said he needs to review the additions before his client can enter a plea.

On first glance, he said, some seem reasonable. However, he challenged the alleged aggravating factor that "the manner in which the crime was carried out indicates planning, sophistication, or professionalism.“

The prosecutor contends Valdez “planned to go to a bar, and drink an unreasonable amount of alcohol, and drive” rather than hitching a ride with someone else.

“He didn’t plan anything. He didn’t plan to hurt anybody,” Gallenson said of his client.

The new allegations could mean that come January’s hearing, Valdez won’t plead like originally planned, Gallenson said, “or if there is a way to do it so that maybe we go to trial just on the alleged aggravating factors.”

Members of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition and family of the victims and defendant packed the gallery during Wednesday’s hearing, with Osborne’s Australia-based parents attending through Zoom.

While many didn’t understand the details of Wednesday’s legal wrangling, they said the crime and its effects on the community were clear.

Eric McDonell, the young victim’s father who came to court with his children and wife, said that he would like to see Valdez get the maximum sentence.

Tracy Hinman, Osborne’s girlfriend, said via text, “Nice people don’t have 10 drinks in one afternoon—during their workday even— and then get behind the wheel of a car and go 91 mph.”

“One person is dead and a boy lost his leg,” said Eris Weaver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, of which Osborne and McDonell were members.

“Besides all their family and friends who were so impacted, when one cyclist goes down, all the rest of us feel it. We think, ‘That could of been me,’ our spouses worry a little bit more when we’re not home on time, families worry about their kids biking to school.”

Weaver said the problem is bigger than a single individual’s actions.

“The resolution of the case is also about a message to the greater community, that we take driving under the influence seriously.”

Staff Writer Colin Atagi contributed to this report.

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

Emily Wilder

Criminal justice and public safety, The Press Democrat  

Criminal justice is one of the most stirring and consequential systems, both in the North Bay and nationwide. Crime, policing, prosecution and incarceration have ripples that reach many parts of our lives, and these issues are under increasingly powerful microscopes. My goal is to uncover untold stories and understand the unique impacts of criminal justice and public safety on Sonoma County.

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