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Oakdale man pleads guilty in crash deaths

An Oakdale man who caused a crash that killed five nursery workers told a probation officer that he is full of remorse and grateful to be alive, but is worried about the time he will have to spend behind bars.

According to court records, Justin Chase Christensen remains free on $50,000 bail and is expected to receive a six-year sentence as part of a deal that was crafted Monday, when Christensen pleaded guilty to five counts of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.

A man who answered the phone at Christen-sen's home declined to comment. But Christen-sen, 27, told a probation officer that his life has been a shambles since he leaned down to pick up a cigarette, then found himself engulfed in a ball of fire, his truck teetering on top of a sedan.

"I know I'll spend the majority of my time thinking about what happened that day and I want all of the victims to know that," Christen-sen said, according to a report filed with Stanislaus County Superior Court.

Five men who were heading to work at Valley Crest Tree Co., northeast of Farmington, died at the crash at Lon-Dale and Valley Home roads shortly after 6 a.m. Dec. 7, 2006.

The bodies of Alberto Padilla, 35; Jose Miguel Lopez, 19; Daniel Gonzalez Lira, 23; Victor Manuel Reyes, 21; and Gerardo Quiroz, 23, were sent to Mexico for burial.

Padilla, who had worked at the tree company for 16 years, was a supervisor and was the breadwinner for his wife and three children. His cousins -- Lopez, Lira and Reyes -- had worked with him for about three years. Quiroz was a family friend.

Witnesses told authorities that Christensen's Dodge Ram pickup truck drifted into the northbound lane on Valley Home Road and hit Padilla's Mazda Protege head-on. The weather was mild, with no rain and light winds.

Christensen crawled out of his truck and a passer-by dragged him to safety. He was hospitalized with broken legs, a broken arm and a broken foot, then spent seven days in custody before being released on bail.

He told authorities that he had a longstanding struggle with heroin and was taking prescription pain medications, court records say. According to toxicology reports, blood tests showed the presence of eight drugs in Christensen's system, including morphine.

He had been working as a truck driver, court records said.

Ten months after the fatal wreck, a car driven by Christensen's wife spun out of control only 200 feet south of five crosses that mark the spot where the men died.

Police said Falisha Abreu was rushed to Memorial Medical Center and treated for serious injuries after she drifted off Valley Home Road, hitting a telephone pole and two trees. Days later, she was cited on suspicion of driving on a suspended license and driving without insurance, according to court records.

Each of Christensen's five counts carries a possible sentence of four, six or 10 years in prison.

Deputy District Attorney Jeffrey Mangar said Christensen likely will receive the middle sentence of six years as well as five strikes on his record, though nothing is set until the judge decides. The strikes would make Christensen eligible for a sentence of 25 years to life if he were convicted of another felony later.

According to court records, Christensen had no serious felonies on his record, though he had been arrested on suspicion of drug possession and driving without a license.

Judge John G. Whiteside is expected to set a sentencing date when Christensen returns to court April 7.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

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