Naramsen Edward Kalyana’s family carried with them to court a small plastic container holding a charred bracelet and a necklace with a crucifix. They say that’s all that was left of the 28-year-old Turlock man after he died in a fiery crash with a drunk driver last year.
“My precious baby boy was burned to ashes,” his mother, Florida Oraha, wrote in a statement. “How do we continue without one of our precious children?”
Her statement was read by Shammy Karim, Kalyana’s cousin, Wednesday afternoon in a Stanislaus County courtroom. His family was allowed to speak in court about the impact of his death before Alejandro Valdovinos was sentenced for crashing into Kalyana’s car.
Valdovinos, 19, of Hayward, on Oct. 1 pleaded guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and two counts of driving under the influence causing injury. The defendant entered the guilty plea to avoid trial, asking for leniency from the court during sentencing.
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The defendant and his family also spoke in court Wednesday. Valdovinos fought back tears as he told Kalyana’s family that he’s “deeply sorry” for his “horrible negligence.” He said he sometimes wishes he could reverse time or somehow switch places with Kalyana.
“There’s not a day that goes by that your family is not in my prayers,” Valdovinos told Kalyana’s family. “... I hope one day you will forgive me.”
The defendant has been free on $175,000 bail since a few days after the deadly crash. Valdovinos said he’s spent that time sharing his experience with his co-workers and at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, hoping to warn others about the dangers of drunk driving.
Kalyana’s family said he was a hardworking young man helping to support his family. He left war-torn Iraq in 2008 and Syria in 2013 to find a home in Turlock with hopes for a bright future.
Kalyana normally worked overnight shifts Tuesday through Friday at the Amazon distribution center in Patterson. But he decided to work a shift that Saturday to help his boss and make a little extra money. He was on his way home the following morning when the crash occurred.
His mother said Kalyana was supposed to buy his twin-sister’s wedding dress, but she refused to wear one after her brother’s death. His older brother, Nerary Kalyana, said he had hopes of ceremoniously carrying his brother at his own wedding.
“Instead, I was forced to carry him in his casket,” the brother wrote in a statement read in court. “I lost my best friend. This is my reality because of a drunk and irresponsible driver.”
The deadly crash occurred about 7 a.m. Oct. 22, 2017, at West Main Avenue and South Carpenter Road, several miles east of Patterson. A witness told the CHP that he spotted a Ford Mustang pass him at a high rate of speed heading east on West Main before the crash.
Valdovinos was driving the 2017 Mustang; it was the dream car he always wanted and bought with his earnings in construction work, his family said. Kalyana was driving a 2014 Chevrolet Cruze, heading home from his job packing shipments at the Amazon facility.
Both cars were heading in the same direction on West Main. The California Highway Patrol reported Kalyana’s car was stopped at a stop sign at South Carpenter or had stopped and just started to enter the intersection, when the Cruze was struck from behind.
The CHP said the force of the impact sent both vehicles across the intersection and down West Main before both cars spun. The cars came to rest on the south side of the road facing west. Both cars caught fire, but Valdovinos and his passenger, Enrique Valdovinos, were helped out of the burning wreck. Kalyana was pronounced dead at the scene.
Deputy District Attorney Bianca Yip told the judge that Valdovinos deserves prison time. She said he was driving at 80 to 90 mph, crossed a double yellow line and nearly crashed head-on with another vehicle before he rear-ended Kalyana’s car.
The prosecutor said Valdovinos’ series of bad decisions, including drinking alcohol and using cocaine before driving, killed Kalyana and seriously injured the defendant’s cousin. She said Enrique Valdovinos suffered a fractured back and required six months of treatment.
Yip argued that Valdovinos was at a house party and chose to drive instead of staying there, calling a relative for a ride or another sober driver. “This is not just one mistake,” the prosecutor told the judge while requesting prison time for Valdovinos.
Enrique Valdovinos told the judge that he insisted that his cousin drive them to Turlock that morning. He said he doesn’t blame his cousin for his injuries, and he apologized to Kalyana’s family for the “dumb mistake” he made.
Michael Moore, the defendant’s attorney, asked the court for leniency. He said his client has no prior criminal record, and he is not a reckless, selfish or uncaring young man.
“This is a boy at 19 years old. He is a child who made a very bad decision to drive,” Moore told the judge. “He will carry this forever; no matter what sentence is imposed.”
The defense attorney said it’s obvious the pain Kalyana’s family is feeling, but sending a genuinely remorseful teenager to prison with violent offenders is not the right thing to do.
“He’s scared. He’s very scared,” Moore said about his client. “He should be.”
Bernice Valdovinos, the defendant’s mother, told the judge that her son enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in July 2017 and was scheduled to begin his service in December 2017. She also asked Kalyana’s family for forgiveness, and she said in court her son is not the “monster” some might think he is.
“He’s not a menace to society, and he’s never gotten into trouble before,” the defendant’s mother said.
On Thursday afternoon, Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Ricardo Córdova sentenced Valdovinos to five years and eight months in prison. He said in court a shorter sentence wouldn’t be appropriate because of the defendant’s reckless driving and his blood alcohol content level of 0.14 percent, nearly twice the legal limit.
The judge said Kalyana’s manner of death also was a factor in his decision; he died from spinal injuries and burn injuries. Córdova said the photos of his death were some of the most gruesome he’s ever seen.
But Valdovino’s lack of criminal record before the crash kept the judge from handing down a harsher sentence. Córdova said he believes the defendant is a good young man who made a terrible mistake.
The judge apologized to Kalyana’s family, considering the hell the family went through to come to this country and see his life end in such a manner. But he said even a prison sentence of 1,000 years will not bring Kalyana back to life.
“This is the tough part of my job,” Córdova told the families sitting in his courtroom. “Bringing someone to life and forgiving someone is beyond my power.”