Drunk driver gets 11 years after fleeing

By Reggie Ellis

A Visalia man was sentenced to 11 years in prison last week nearly a year after fleeing the country to avoid serving 8 years in prison for felony DUI in a vicious wreck that nearly killed an Exeter boy.

Ephraim Padilla, 21, of Visalia pled guilty on April 27, 2004 to one count of driving under the influence of alcohol causing injury, one count of leaving the scene of an accident which resulted in permanent injury, and to the special allegations of causing great bodily injury and causing great bodily injury resulting in brain injury.

The charges stemmed from a 2003 car wreck where Padilla's 1998 Chevy van ran a red light and smashed into the passenger side of a 2002 Dodge Intrepid where 12-year-old Daniel Lovik of Exeter was sitting. Daniel suffered a traumatic brain injury rendering him comatose for several weeks and he spent several months at Valley Children's Hospital. Previously a star athlete, Daniel had to relearn how to talk, walk, read and write. His father, Brian Lovik, suffered several broken ribs.

Padilla was supposed to appear for sentencing on May 25, 2004. He had posted bail and instead decided to flee the country, heading to Mexico to avoid punishment. The Tulare County District Attorney's Office said that Padilla was arrested in San Diego about a week ago and was returned to Tulare County for sentencing.

Daniel and his father had just finished a pancake breakfast and were on their way to a youth soccer game in Visalia. At about 6:50 a.m. on Sept. 6, 2003, the Lovik's car was passing through the intersection at Court and Murray when Padilla ran the red light traveling northbound on Court Street and his Chevy van T-boned the passenger side.

At a preliminary hearing on Nov. 7, 2004, Officer Duke Hettick, a 23-year-veteran with the Visalia Police Department, said it was one of the most violent collisions he had ever seen. There were no skid marks from either vehicle and the impact was so vicious that the van's license plate number were imprinted on the passenger side door of car.

After the collision, the van attempted to drive away but only made it across the street. After the vehicle stopped, a man described as "a Hispanic male, tall and thin" wearing a "striped shirt and beige pants" got out of the van and fled the scene.

Visalia Police Officer Dale Rush testified that en route to the accident he was told to go to Padilla's residence in the 1300 block of North Divisadero Street, three to four miles from the scene of the accident. Dispatch reported that Padilla was the registered owner of the van. When Rush arrived there was no one home. Sometime later, a white car pulled up into the driveway. The driver helped a man out of the passenger seat who was "bleeding from the back of his head and leg." Rush said the man's driver's license identified him as the driver of the van.

The driver of the car, Leo Perez, said he was Padilla's uncle. Perez said his nephew had called for a ride home shortly after the time of the accident. Officers had to hold Padilla up because he could not stand on his own. A set of keys that matched the ignition of the van were found in his pocket.

"He was incoherent and his eyes were nearly shut," said Hettick, who spent five years with VPD's DUI unit and the last six in the traffic unit. "He was basically passed out."

Padilla's blood alcohol content (BAC) was 0.11. The legal limit is 0.8. Padilla also tested positive for methamphetamine.

Doctors had told Brian that his son would probably never walk again and would require 24-hour nursing care. However, Daniel was released from Children's Hospital of Central California on Nov. 3, 2004 after a remarkable recovery and returned to school that same week. Brian gave a moving statement regarding how this terrible crime has impacted him and his son before Judge Ferguson explained the charges to the defendant and the seriousness of failing to appear for his original sentencing. Padilla will serve at least 85%, or about 9 years, of the 11-year sentence before he is eligible for parole.

"I wanted him to understand what happened to Daniel," Brian said. "This wasn't an act of malice but of disregard or foolishness. I'm not angry at him because what he did was stupid and unintentional. I hope he straightens himself out and turns his life around."

Brian said Daniel, now 14, is doing well. He just received straight As and recently formed a unicycle club at school. However, the accident will prevent Daniel from ever playing contact sports.

"He doing well but he really works harder to make it happen," Brian said. "There are no winners here. This whole thing is sad."

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