Sebastopol vintner admits guilt for killing man, injuring boy while driving drunk
A Sebastopol vintner pleaded guilty in Sonoma County Superior Court Wednesday to vehicular manslaughter while driving drunk in connection with a 2021 crash that killed a Santa Rosa cyclist and seriously injured a 12-year-old boy.
Ulises Valdez Jr. appeared in court Wednesday morning, with family and friends of the victims in the gallery, watching attentively.
As Judge Mark Urioste read each count against him, he repeated a single response: “Guilty, your honor.”
The counts included gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, driving under the influence of alcohol causing serious injury, and driving with a blood alcohol content above the legal limit.
The charges stemmed from the deadly crash in Sebastopol last spring. Authorities accused Valdez of driving into Mark Graham Osborne, 53, and the 12-year-old boy as they rode their bikes on the shoulder of High School Road on May 12, 2021.
California Highway Patrol said Valdez, whose late 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, an Australian-born Santa Rosa resident who worked as an enologist with Gary Farrell Winery in Healdsburg, died in the hospital eight days after he was struck. His parents attended Wednesday’s court hearing via Zoom from Australia.
The boy, now 13, lost his leg as a result of the collision. The Press Democrat is not naming him because he is a juvenile victim of a crime.
The two did not know each other and just happened to be riding in the same area when they were hit.
“This is an absolutely horrific accident, and my client feels absolutely terrible about it,” said Steve Gallenson, Valdez’s attorney. “He has taken responsibility for it, and he’s been trying to take responsibility for it for a few months now.”
Valdez’s planned guilty plea in December was postponed due to last-minute changes to the court filings by the prosecutors.
The case galvanized support from fellow cyclists with the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, who knew Osborne and have hopes the conviction would be a message to the broader community about how drinking and driving endangers the community.
The complaint filed by prosecutors against Valdez indicated he drank 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.
Prosecutors said Valdez had ordered 19 drinks for himself and others.
Valdez also agreed to the enhancements and aggravating circumstances alleged by the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, including driving with a blood alcohol content twice the legal limit, causing gross bodily injury and acting in a violent and dangerous manner.
The maximum prison sentence Valdez faces in his sentencing hearing scheduled for the end of May is 12 years, eight months. At minimum, he could be released with time served.
"Or anything in between,“ Urioste added.
At the sentencing hearing just over a year after the crash on May 31, Urioste is scheduled to hear arguments from opposing counsel, as well as family of the victims, on Valdez’s appropriate punishment.
You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @vv1lder.
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.