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‘We’re trying not to make it about him’: Family of Windsor mom killed by repeat DUI driver ready for sentencing

Rosa Lua was the third of four children. The fun one. The sometimes carefree one. The one who loved birthdays, holidays and creating elaborate decorations and costumes.

A successful environmental sustainability expert, she bungee jumped, skydived, surfed and even tried the trapeze. She also wanted children. That she was single and older didn’t matter. In July 2015, after weathering a difficult pregnancy at age 42, Lua gave birth to twins Zara and Zane, who became her life’s joy.

“When she had these babies, it was a big deal. And for them – (for their mother) to be taken away…,” Lua’s older sister, Elena Elliot said Monday, her voice trailing off.

On March 20, 2019, as her twins neared their fourth birthday, Lua was killed by Fernando Leon-Aguilera, a drunken driver, who had been convicted twice before of DUI.

Convicted in July of killing Lua, Leon-Aguilera will be sentenced Tuesday in Sonoma County Superior Court. Facing 15 years to life, he will turn 34 next month.

Leon-Aguilera was driving over 100 mph in his Ford Fusion when he crashed into the back of Lua’s Honda Civic, causing it to flip. The overturned Honda hit a fence and tree before it came to a stop on the road’s shoulder.

Lua was pronounced dead at the scene.

Her relatives said Tuesday’s hearing has been a long time coming. They believe the entire criminal justice process – from the night of the wreck to the jury verdict – has been about Leon-Aguilera: his driving 100 mph at 11 p.m. on Highway 101, his blood-alcohol content of 0.156 — nearly twice the legal limit — his prior DUI convictions.

Finally, Elliott said, this day will be about her sister.

“We’re working through our anger,” the Windsor resident said of herself and the rest of Lua’s relatives. “We’re trying not to make it about him.”

The horrific crash left the children suddenly orphaned at an age too young to comprehend that Mommy is never coming home.

It also thrust Lua’s family into spasms of shock, grief, anger and fear. They’ve had to adapt to an entirely new family dynamic as three generations do their part to heal while looking after Zane and Zara.

“I told her if you want to be a mom, science is wonderful these days. Even if you don’t have Mr. Perfect, you can figure it out,” Elliot said she told her sister before she got pregnant. “And she did. We told her, ‘We will be your village.’”

A family speaks

By law, those affected by crimes are allowed to give victim impact statements to the court. Leon-Aguilera will be present as a video summarizing Lua’s life plays and at least four family members will tell him, and the rest of the world, what Lua meant to them and what trauma his actions have unleashed on an extended family that stretches from Windsor to San Francisco to Piedmont in the East Bay.

Elliott, their brother Carlos, Lua’s niece and her goddaughter may make statements to be heard by the sentencing judge.

They will tell the court about Lua as a child, how she tested her mother by always asking why and questioning authority. They’ll share how she was born in Placerville and grew up in Sonoma County, graduating in 1991 from El Molino High School. She then earned a psychology degree from UCLA.

She loved to be creative, whether cooking, sewing, baking, making soaps or decorating cookies, her sister said.

Lua adored holidays and was the chief decorator and costumer for family parties. Some of her favorite photos were those of her kids in elaborate Halloween costumes or Christmas outfits. When she was pregnant, Elliott wrote S and P on her sister’s belly for “salt” and “pepper,” which the kids were for their first Halloween.

“We miss her crazy,” Elliott said.

‘It’s catch and release’

The night she was killed, Lua had been doing laundry and decorating Easter cookies with her kids at her mother’s house in Windsor.

“She was folding a pink shirt,” Elliott said. “I said, ‘Don’t stay up too late, just put Zane and Zara to bed and get going.’ She yearned for those kids. People said she was crazy, but she said ‘I’m going to prove to the world that I can do it.’”

Elliott said she will not lash out at Leon-Aguilera during the sentencing hearing, though she said she hopes he is remorseful. She’s just as angry at society and the criminal justice system that allowed a two-time drunken driver to remain on the roads.

“When I first was told about his history, I was in disbelief,” she said. “How could someone with two DUIs be driving with a valid driver’s license? They let you go through the system until you hurt someone.

“It’s catch and release. I don’t think anyone is looking at the system as a whole. Something tragic has to happen to look at the system.”

The vast majority of DUI arrests are misdemeanors, where no one is killed, according to state and national traffic statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

In California in 2019, the most recent data available, there were 3,606 traffic fatalities, 949 (26%) of which were alcohol-related. California had the largest decrease of DUI deaths, with 167 fewer fatalities in alcohol-impaired crashes than the year before.

When there are no injuries, these cases are classified as misdemeanors. In some instances, years-old convictions have fallen off the justice system’s radar and were not treated as priors.

Elliott said she believes drunken driving has given way to other “buzzwords” or issues and is not taken as seriously as it was years ago when the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving was a more visible force.

‘A legal fiction’

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch has been on the forefront of charging DUI fatalities as murders when the defendant has prior DUIs. As a prosecutor in 2002, she won one of the first DUI murder convictions ever in the county.

Fatal DUI crashes can be charged in California as second-degree murder when someone with a prior DUI conviction kills someone while driving under the influence. They’re called “Watson murders” after a 1981 state Supreme Court case in which the court held that a DUI driver can be guilty of murder if he acted with “implied malice.”

Those convicted of DUIs are read a “Watson admonishment” in DUI school, which warns them of the dangers of drunken driving and the consequences should they kill someone while driving drunk again.

Leon-Aguilera was convicted of misdemeanor DUI in Sonoma County in 2009, for which he spent two days in jail. Two years later, court records show, he was sentenced to two months in jail and four years of probation.

Winning a second-degree murder case is no sure thing, as Elliott learned during Leon-Aguilera’s prosecution. Prosecutors warned her that a jury may be sympathetic to Leon-Aguilera.

“He was drunk. We had a body. What more do we need?” Elliott said. “I lost my sister. I’m taking care of her twins. What more could I lose? So now, maybe we can do this to help someone else.”

Leon-Aguilera’s attorney, Joe Stogner, argued that his client did not hold a “conscious disregard for human life,” necessary for the murder charge. He said after a long day at work, Leon-Aguilera didn’t believe he was impaired.

“He has been very, very sorry and he has been looking forward to expressing that, which I think he will at some length,“ Stogner said Monday. ”Even good people make tragic mistakes.“

Elliott said she doesn’t buy it. Leon-Aguilera had been through the DUI system twice.

“I hope he’s sorry,” she said. “But why couldn’t you have thought about that before? When he signed the (Watson admonishment) did he just not think it would happen to him?”

Since 2012, Ravitch’s office has charged 11 DUI defendants with second-degree murder, including Leon-Aguilera, according to records her office provided.

Two pleaded guilty and four were convicted of murder by juries.

Two others entered pleas – one guilty and one no contest – to vehicular manslaughter. Three were convicted of vehicular manslaughter by juries.

Stogner said appellate courts may, in the future, narrow what qualifies as “conscious disregard for human life,” thus changing how DUI murders can be charged.

“To charge a tragic error in judgment as murder is, in my opinion, to engage in a legal fiction,” he said.

Even as she discusses her family’s tragedy in public settings, Elliott said her sister was very private and she finds herself wanting to respect that.

“But in order to share (and) spread the message that drinking and driving causes so much pain, I need to share a little,” she said. “I sure hope that she forgives me and will understand.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

Lori A. Carter

 Sonoma County courts and Rohnert Park, The Press Democrat

Local journalism is vital to a community's wellbeing, and that means keeping an eye on what happens in our justice system and our communities. I cover Sonoma County courts, as well as the city of Rohnert Park. In my work, I want to share the stories that affect our daily lives and, yes, maybe even rile us up. 

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