VISTA — A motorist received a two-year prison sentence on Sept. 12 for leaving the scene of a deadly accident after his truck struck and killed a cyclist who was riding near Leucadia State Beach on April 10.
Joseph Ricardo Fernandez, 46, of Fort Bragg, N.C., was convicted in July of a hit and run causing the death of James Steven Swarzman, 47, of Encino.
But there were no allegations against Fernandez that related to fault, and the maximum time he faced was four years in prison for the charge of leaving the scene of an accident, according to the judge.
He was sentenced by Vista Superior Court Judge K. Michael Kirkman.
“In the end, I believe very much so that the defendant knew he struck Swarzman, and he left the area because he didn’t want to take responsibility. Did he panic? Did he leave because he had alcohol?” Kirkman said at the sentencing.
Swarzman, a passionate randonneur, was riding with his fiancée and a friend in the San Diego 600K when he was struck from behind about 1 a.m. at the 1200 block of North Coast Highway 101.
The trio were cycling in their final qualifying event for an upcoming long distance riding event in France, the Paris-Brest-Paris, where the couple planned to honeymoon.
“We had full reflective gear on our bodies, and bikes had multiple lights on the front and back. It would have been impossible to miss us,” said Nicole Honda at an earlier court date.
Honda, Swarzman’s fiancée, had said they were riding in a line with Swarzman in the center position when the impact happened.
She said it sounded like an explosion.
Prosecutor Karl Husoe read a statement at the sentencing from Honda, who was too distressed to attend.
Part of her letter was a question to Fernandez.
“Why? What were you doing that night? You should have seen him. Were you drunk? Playing with your radio or cell phone?”
The defendant didn’t contact police until the next afternoon and said he had thought he was possibly involved in the collision when he saw the scene on the news, according to testimony.
An investigation ensued, which eventually determined there was evidence that proved Fernandez was involved by recovered automobile pieces from the scene that belonged to his vehicle.
Though prosecutors and authorities previously said that alcohol might have been a factor, they had insufficient evidence to charge Fernandez with DUI or manslaughter.
Fernandez’ attorney, James Dicks, said that during the bench trial it was presented that witnesses saw Fernandez leave a bar with friends the night of the accident, and that he had been sober.
He said Fernandez was staying in the San Diego area while working on a job out here, but that he lives in Fort Bragg.
He had dropped off some friends at their places before the deadly crash.
“If he could change places with Mr. Swarzman, he would do it in a minute,” Dicks said as he spoke for Fernandez.
He said that in the taped police interview Fernandez told police that if he had killed somebody then they should lock him up and throw away the key.
Linda Swarzman, the victim’s mother, was one of several people who addressed the court and pleaded, as they all did for the judge to hand the maximum sentence.
She described her son as a multi-talented individual who was an extreme competitor and a successful business owner who had just purchased a home with Nicole, in which escrow had just been closed only hours before his death.
“Your honor, I urge you to impose the maximum sentence on Joseph Fernandez so he and the community understand it is not acceptable to hit someone and leave them by the roadside to die,” she said.
Judd Swarzman, James’ father, asked to face Fernandez while he read his statement, and told him that he personally forgives him and that he knows the accident was not intentional.
Fernandez had stood somber, with his eyes closed throughout most of the hearing.
Judge Kirkman said before handing down the sentence that the punishment would reflect only the charge of leaving the scene of the accident without tending to the victim or leaving one’s name.
“As I balance the rules of the California court, I can’t speak from the heart,” he said.
He denied probation and gave Fernandez the lower term of two years in prison, with credit for 40 days of time served.
Kirkman said that the defendant had no prior criminal history and that ultimately he did turn himself in – although in the people’s perspective, he did it too late.
Linda Swarzman said the sentence was a disappointment.
“He will probably be out of prison in 10 months, that’s the sad thing,” she said.
Judd Swarzman said he echoes his wife’s sentiments, but that he is not disappointed in the two-year sentence because the judge had to work within the constitution of the law.