"Oh, no -- another DUI!"
Those fateful words were said by wrong-way driver Khushdeep Gill minutes after he plowed head-on into 48-year-old Sandra Kay Isbell's car on Highway 99, killing her.
More than seven months after saying those grave words in the presence of a CHP officer, on Friday the 20-year-old Atwater resident admitted in Merced County Court to causing the Feb. 11 crash that killed Isbell.
Wearing a striped orange and white jailhouse jumpsuit, the cleanshaven Gill pleaded no contest to one count of gross vehicular manslaughter with negligence.
The crime is Gill's second DUI conviction. This time, he faces a maximum of 10 years in prison. He was arrested for DUI as a juvenile at age 17 in July 2007, and convicted in February 2008, according to a CHP report.
Gill entered his plea Friday without making an agreement with prosecutors, which means Judge Marc Garcia will determine his prison sentence. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for Nov. 19.
Judge Garcia said he'll review a probation report and read statements from Isbell's family before making his decision. Isbell's family members say they've already collected a whopping 150-plus letters, seeking the maximum sentence for Gill.
When asked whether the Merced County District Attorney's Office will argue for the maximum sentence in the case, Deputy District Attorney Steven Slocum replied, "The sentencing will be left to the sound discretion of the court."
During the brief hearing, about a dozen friends and family members sat patiently in the courtroom, wearing T-shirts with a photograph of Isbell wearing sunglasses, waving. In red letters, the shirts carried a message that read, "Sandra Kay Isbell: In Loving Memory."
Meanwhile, Gill's father and uncle sat quietly on the other side of the courtroom.
Those who knew Isbell, an Atwater resident, said while they're relieved about Gill's no-contest plea, it's little consolation for a senseless loss. Stephanie DeMatteo, 26, who knew Isbell for 17 years and is friends with the victim's daughter, said she was like "a second mom."
"She was everybody's rock. She was the one that held everybody together," DeMatteo wept. "And she's not here anymore to do that. It just seems like a lot of things don't work out now that she's gone."
Even if Gill receives the maximum sentence, DeMatteo said he "still took somebody who meant a lot to everybody. She really was just a good all-around person, a good friend and a good mom."
Danielle Young, Isbell's 26-year-old daughter, called Gill's plea "bittersweet," saying he didn't only just kill a human being, he killed "a mother and a friend. He killed a good person that didn't deserve to die. And he should be punished for his actions."
When asked why his client decided to plead no contest, defense attorney John Garcia replied, "It's never been a question of whether he was going to plead, it's just been a matter of when." Garcia added he wanted a psychologist to evaluate Gill before the plea was entered.
Gill has expressed remorse for the crime, Garcia said. "This young man has privately told me he goes through torment every day," he said. "And obviously the hope is that it's supposed to have that kind of effect, to make him a more responsible person when he faces his future."
Garcia said the defendant was drinking to "self-medicate" severe depression and acute anxiety and doesn't even remember the crash or driving the wrong way on Highway 99. Garcia said he's requested Fresno psychologist Richard Blak to testify about Gill's mental state at the Nov. 19 sentencing hearing.
Garcia said his client is "technically" eligible for probation, although Gill's already aware "there's going to be some severe punishment in this thing. And I am trying to prepare him for that kind of blow, whatever it may be."
The crash was reported around 1:15 a.m. near Bradbury Road, according to the CHP. Gill was driving a 1999 Honda Accord southbound in the northbound lane of the highway at about 65 to 75 mph. Isbell was driving a 2003 Honda Civic northbound in the slow lane of the highway. The cars collided head-on and came to rest on the right shoulder of the highway. There were no passengers in either car.
After a CHP officer arrived at the scene, Gill was walking and "extremely distraught," holding his head. He began crying and said, "Oh, no -- another DUI," according to a CHP report.
Meanwhile, Isbell was pinned inside her car, unconscious. After being extricated from the car, she was pronounced dead at a hospital.
The CHP officer at the scene said Gill appeared disoriented and had the odor of an alcoholic beverage on his breath. Gill's blood alcohol concentration was 0.23 percent, nearly three times the state's 0.08 legal limit.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org