One month after Gavilan basketball player and beloved Gilroy teenager Andrel Gaines would have celebrated his 20th birthday, the man who was involved in the car crash that killed him last November walked free.
Dennis Leffew, a 43-year-old San Jose resident, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for driving under the influence on July 25 in the San Mateo County Superior Court.
In March, Leffew was facing charges of vehicular manslaughter on top of driving under the influence and driving with a 0.08 or greater blood alcohol content – but in the months that followed, prosecutors were unable to prove that it was Leffew's drunkenness that caused the car crash that killed Gaines – and all charges except one misdemeanor were dropped.
“We received information from experts and ultimately we determined there was insufficient evidence to prove the defendant did something in addition to driving under the influence,” said Marie Montesano, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case.
The California Highway Patrol told prosecutors that five out of five sober drivers would have hit the victim's car, with four out of five attempting some type of maneuver to avoid hitting the car, and one out of five doing exactly what Leffew did in his situation, Montesano said.
In recreating the car crash, the CHP said that the driver of the car Gaines was in crashed into the center divide on Highway 101, leaving their vehicle stopped in the fast lane when Leffew crashed his car into theirs.
Prosecutors were also unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Leffew had been driving at an unsafe speed, like they originally thought.
“The conclusion was that this car crash was essentially unavoidable,” Montesano said.
In a somber moment in the courtroom the morning of July 25, Montesano said Andrel Gaines' mother, Juliana Avila, stood before Leffew, holding up a picture of her son, asking him to remember Andrel's face the next time he thinks about driving drunk. Leffew maintained eye contact with Avila the whole time.
Montesano described Leffew’s demeanor as “somber” and “remorseful” during the entire criminal process. Because Leffew served more than 122 days in custody with good behavior prior to pleading guilty, he worked off his entire six-month sentencing, as well as most of the fees associated with a misdemeanor.
As of July 25, Leffew walked free (under a one-year probation and suspended driver license) with $231 in fees owed to the court, Montesano said. The criminal process isn't over, however, until restitution between Gaines' family and Leffew is decided – which probably won’t conclude until sometime in December.
It could be determined by the court that Leffew owes Gaines' family anywhere between nothing and “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Montesano said.
Gaines and four others – Denise Bravo, 18, of San Juan Bautista; Razelyn Ambrocio, 21, of Santa Cruz and Gaines' Gavilan College basketball teammates Davontea Johnson and Billy Heard, who was driving – were heading south to Gilroy after an evening at an 18-and-over San Francisco club called City Nights. Heard reportedly swerved to avoid a tire in the roadway, causing the black Cadillac sedan to collide with the center median.
As the vehicle rested in the fast lane, a red Nissan 300ZX driven by Leffew crashed into the Cadillac, the CHP said.
Heard and Leffew were arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, but toxicology reports showed that Heard, 22, was not drunk.
Gaines, who suffered severe brain trauma, was put into a medically induced coma following the accident.
Gaines' friends and family flooded Twitter and Facebook, inciting thousands of responses through the “#PrayForAndrel” movement and an online prayer chain that grew to almost 8,000 members. Some celebrities and professional athletes even re-tweeted the emotional pleas.
He died 12 days later Nov. 18 at San Francisco General Hospital.
Today, Gaines' loved ones continue to post messages on the Pray for Andrel Gaines Facebook page, posting pictures of the tattoos they had done in his honor, reliving happy memories they had with him, sharing how much they looked up to him as an athlete, student, friend, son, and grandson, and how much they still love him.
When asked if she was disappointed with Leffew's sentencing, Montesano sighed.
“It's my duty to uphold the law, and given the evidence of this case, this is what the law demanded,” she said. “Of course, this was a tragic case all around. There were no easy decisions made.”