UC hit-and-run driver sentenced to 9 years

October 25, 2006 No Comments

by Neil Putnam

A hit-and-run driver who killed a taxi driver in Pacific Beach was sentenced Oct. 25 to nine years in state prison, and the judge added six months consecutively because the driver was on probation for drunk driving.

University City resident Anthony Michael Valanos, 26, a mortgage loan officer, had been free on $1 million bond, but he was handcuffed and taken into custody by sheriff’s deputies immediately after being sentenced by San Diego Superior Court Judge Michael Wellington in front of a packed courtroom.

Valanos pleaded guilty Aug. 30 to vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and hit and run in the March 25 death of Zeki Mohammed Tovi, 38, of Spring Valley, after Valanos ran a stop sign while speeding at the intersection of Haines and Thomas streets. A murder charge was dropped.

A restitution hearing follows (see below). Valanos and his parents are trying to come up with money to help Tovi’s family, since the cab driver was the sole support of a wife and four children. The Tovi family attended the sentencing, but Medhi Tovi, 17, told reporters it was even more painful because they were observing the end of the holy month of Ramadan, a Muslim holiday.

“Our father is gone forever. I miss everything about him,” said Medhi, the eldest son.

He said afterward he wished Valanos had received the maximum term of 11 years in prison. Tovi moved his family from his Kurdish community in Iraq in 1988, and came to America in 1993.

“He fled opposition and persecution in his homeland,” said Deputy District Attorney Sophia Roach.

Roach sought the 11 years, saying “he committed this violation while he was on probation” for drunk driving. She said Valanos consumed “more than three drinks in a four-hour period” at a bar in Pacific Beach.

Kevin Hooker, a Pacific Beach resident who lived near the accident scene, told the judge the crash sounded like “two trains colliding.” He said he came outside and asked Valanos and two passengers what happened, but he said they only “hung their heads” before leaving the scene.

“Our neighborhood is outraged. They showed a complete disregard for human life,” Hooker said.

Valanos’ blood-alcohol level couldn’t be tested because he fled the scene and the next day filed a stolen car report with San Diego Police. Valanos initially claimed he parked his BMW at a parking lot and when he left the restaurant, it was gone.

He went home with one of his passengers, Adam Combs, 25, of Loma Portal. Combs pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact, and was ordered to perform 150 volunteer hours with a nonprofit organization on two years of misdemeanor probation. Combs testified against Valanos, saying he cautioned him about going so fast on Pacific Beach streets before the crash. Combs also said Valanos drank beforehand.

Myles Berman, Valanos’ attorney, said his client fled the scene due to “panic and disorientation.”

Berman claimed “alcohol did not cause the accident,” describing the intersection where the cars collided as a blind intersection and adding, “it is true he could not see the stop sign” or the cab.

The judge said Valanos may not have seen the stop sign “because he was going so fast … consciously going so fast.” Wellington also cited Combs’ testimony about warning Valonos he was speeding. He said that “while we may never know how much he drank, (it came) after a long night where there was considerable drinking.”

The judge fined Valanos $400, and said he kept the fine low so Valanos and his parents could use their money toward a settlement with the victim’s family, who has not yet filed a wrongful death suit.

Valanos said “the only true justice is if I could exchange lives” with Tovi, but added that can’t be done. He apologized to the family, and described the incident as “a tragic event unplanned and unexpected.”

Valanos’ former pastor David White asked the judge “to show mercy on him,” and added, “He wants to move on and take care of his responsibilities.”

Roach said while it was good that Valanos’ parents wanted to help the victim’s family, she noted they had to pay nearly $100,000 for his bond to release him from jail. Some of those proceeds could have gone to the victim’s family, she said. Wellington gave Valanos credit for spending 29 days in jail before his bail was posted.

RESTITUTION

On Nov. 2, San Diego Superior Court Judge Michael Wellington ordered Anthony Michael Valanos, 26, to pay $210,600 to the widow of the taxi driver he killed in Pacific Beach last March for funeral costs, loss of income and support to the family’s four children.

Wellington crafted the restitution order after hearing from the family’s attorney, who has not yet filed a wrongful death suit against Valanos.

Wellington expressed difficulty in finding a dollar amount that represented the loss of life and future earnings that Zeki Mohammed Tovi could have made over the next 20 years.

“I’ve struggled to find something objective,” he said.

The restitution order has a 10 percent interest rate on it.

Valanos, who worked as a loan officer at a bank, attended the hearing, but did not say anything. His lawyer, Richard Berkon, said Valanos will be “very employable” after his parole. Valanos could have waived his personal presence and not attended the hearing, but Berkon said he wanted to be there because of his background in finance.

At his sentencing, he and his family talked about helping the victim’s family. His father also attended the Nov. 2 hearing. Valanos’ parents paid almost $100,000 to a bail bond agency that allowed him to be free on $1 million bond until his sentencing.

Valanos’ attorney said he owns a house in Idaho and said Valanos has considered selling it and giving the proceeds to the victim’s family. The house is listed at $470,000, said Berkon, but Valanos currently owes $405,000 in payments on it.

The funeral costs by themselves came to $35,708 because Tovi’s body was flown to his Kurdish homeland in Iraq in keeping with Muslim tradition. The amount also included the airfare for several people to accompany the body, said attorney Barbara Savaglio, who represents the Tovi family, some of whom attended the hearing.

The $210,600 figure also includes the cost of replacing the taxi, which overturned and was a complete loss for the taxi’s owner.

There will be no appeal of Valanos’ sentence, said his attorney. Valanos pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and hit and run, so he can’t appeal a guilty plea. Berkon said Valanos could have appealed the nine-year, six-month sentence, but chose not to.

Source: Link

Bars and Restaurants, Crime and Safety, Drunk Drivers

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