MODESTO -- Riverbank City Councilman Jesse James White on Friday was held to answer on every one of six counts with which he was charged in what authorities say was a hit-and-run drunken-driving crash in Oakdale earlier this year. Judge Dawna Reeves did, however, reduce from a felony to a misdemeanor one charge of hit-and-run causing injury to White's 4-year-old son.
The preliminary hearing in Stanislaus Superior Court included testimony from witnesses at the scene of the Feb. 20 crash and at times was contentious. It was prolonged by numerous objections from the district attorney and the defense and by admonishments from Reeves.
Witnesses said they heard tires squealing, followed by a loud crash just after 1 a.m.
Kayla Bernal, who was on the back porch of her aunt's apartment, said she went to the front of the complex at 529 W. F St. and saw White's Corvette smashed into the rear of her friend's Ford F-250.
She said White was in the driver's seat and attempted multiple times to start his car. When his efforts failed, he pushed his car backward slightly with one of his feet, she said.
Bernal heard a child coughing and went to the passenger side, where she found White's son, Jesse James White Jr., in a booster seat in the front seat. The car was smoky and "all I could see was his hands reaching out," Bernal said.
During testimony Friday, Bernal was warned by Reeves several times not to editorialize during her testimony after she made multiple comments such as, "he was trying to get away from his son."
Bernal took Jesse Jr. to her aunt's apartment, where there were several other people that evening. She gave him a Kit-Kat bar and asked one of her friends to watch him.
In the meantime, Bernal's boyfriend, Roger Smith, and her cousin Albert Freitas were outside with White. Smith said he told White to sit on the curb, and that Freitas was on the phone with a dispatcher. Smith said White temporarily complied and asked several times where his son was, but then he got up and started running toward the complex. Smith testified that he ran after White and tackled him to the ground.
Bernal said that's when she came back from inside the apartment and saw that "Roger had (White) in a choke hold with his legs wrapped around his pelvis."
Bernal said she punched White in the stomach twice and once in the ribs. Smith said he held White for nearly 10 minutes until Oakdale police arrived and handcuffed White.
Lt. Mike Nixon testified that after being handcuffed, White said, in slow, slurred speech, "Let me go, I'm Jesse James White. I'm a very important person. You are going to regret this."
Nixon kept an eye on White as he sat in a patrol car. He testified that on three occasions he bent over to check on White, who would respond by trying to "head butt" him.
White was taken to a hospital, where his blood was drawn. Test results show he had a blood alcohol content of 0.24, three times the legal limit to drive.
Throughout the testimony, Deputy District Attorney Anthony Colacito objected to defense attorney Mary Lynn Belsher's cross- examination of the witnesses at the scene, saying her questions were argumentative and irrelevant.
Belsher asked the witnesses repeatedly how much they had discussed the case leading up to Friday's proceedings and whether they had discussed it in the hallway. Reeves told Belsher she was wasting time repeating questions and to refine her cross-examination.
"I am tired of the disparaging remarks from the court," Belsher once countered.
In addition to the misdemeanor charge of hit-and-run causing injury, Belsher's client was held to answer on the charges of hit-and-run causing damage, felony driving under the influence, DUI causing injury and felony child endangerment.
The next scheduled court proceeding for White is Aug. 23 at 8:30 a.m.
White was elected to the Riverbank City Council in 2008. He has been arrested since then and there have been repeated failed efforts to kick him out of office. He has a record of substance abuse and was on probation for "wet and reckless" driving when he was elected to the Riverbank council.
In 2010, White was charged with felony possession of cocaine and misdemeanor drug counts after police said they found marijuana and cocaine in his home and marijuana in his vehicle. In May 2011, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor drug charge, letting him stay in office.
Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2366.