In what prosecutors believe is the first murder conviction in the country for boating under the influence, Justin Mark Ennis was sentenced Tuesday to 15 years to life in prison for a fatal 2010 crash he caused after spending the day smoking marijuana and drinking beer.
Ennis, 25, broke down in Kern County Superior Court as he tried to read a letter he'd written apologizing for what he'd done. He only made it through one sentence before sobbing, then said, "I'm sorry."
Mia Rodriguez, widow of victim Salvador Rodriguez, was pregnant with the couple's first child at the time of the crash at Lake Webb. She said they had experienced difficulty conceiving, and were so happy they were about to share their lives with a baby girl.
Now her daughter will never know her father, other than the stories Mia Rodriguez will tell her to keep his memory alive.
"Not a day goes by where I don't think of him," Mia Rodriguez said in court.
Michael C. Lukehart, attorney for Ennis, said afterward his client was deeply remorseful. The letter Ennis tried reading basically was an apology to everyone he impacted, and expressed his thankfulness that no one else was injured, Lukehart said.
He said he was very disappointed with the jury's Aug. 24 verdict, and he'd hoped they'd return with a lesser charge.
Prosecutor David Wolf said Ennis, who was convicted several years ago of a DUI in Marin County, deserved the 15-to-life sentence. In fact, Wolf said he wished Ennis' sentence for charges including second-degree murder was even lengthier.
He said Ennis, after his arrest, expressed remorse only about the damage done to his boat. He didn't even ask about Salvador Rodriguez, Wolf said.
"I don't think he's remorseful," Wolf said of Ennis' tears in court. "I think he's remorseful that he's going to prison."
Anyone convicted of a DUI can be tried for murder if they subsequently kill someone as a result of driving under the influence.
The prosecutor's trial brief filed in court lays out what happened Aug. 28, 2010, the day of Rodriguez's death.
While Rodriguez was at the lake celebrating a nephew's 10th birthday, Ennis spent the day smoking pot and drinking beer. After hanging out at the west end of the lake with some friends, Ennis and his group decided to drive to the marina for some food.
At the same time, Rodriguez and another man, Julio Camacho Sr., were taking four children, including the birthday boy, for one more trip around the lake. They stopped after rounding the last island and turning back east because one of the children had fallen off an inflatable inner tube the boat was pulling.
Rodriguez turned the engine off so the child could get safely on board. Then they saw Ennis' boat headed straight toward them.
Everyone on Rodriguez's boat jumped up and down and waved their arms, yelling for Ennis to stop. He kept coming.
Camacho grabbed his son, threw him to the floor of the boat and dove on top of him. Rodriguez tried frantically to start the boat to move it out of the way.
Before Rodriguez could push the throttle, Ennis' boat crashed up and over his. The bow of the boat crushed Rodriguez's head against the windshield.
Ennis, hearing the children yell for help, jumped onto Rodriguez's boat. But, upon seeing how badly Rodriguez was hurt, he went back into his own boat and started to leave.
Camacho begged Ennis not to go because he didn't know how to operate the boat. Ennis said he would pull their boat to shore, but he warned Camacho not to call police.
Ennis towed the boat and, once they were close to the dock, he set the other boat adrift and rushed to leave the area. Two girls in Rodriguez's boat swam to shore, yelling for help and telling bystanders not to let Ennis leave.
One bystander placed a board under the wheels of Ennis' truck. The girls ran into the concession store and found park rangers, one of whom ran to Ennis and stopped him from removing the board and leaving.
Rodriguez was alive when the rangers got to him, but his weak pulse soon slowed and then stopped.
The rangers noticed a strong odor of alcohol coming from Ennis. A breath test returned blood alcohol content results of .12 and .11, over the state's .08 legal limit for driving.
Ennis was read his Miranda rights, and then went ahead and told officers he'd been drinking and smoking pot. He also admitted to driving the boat at the time of the crash.
An April 2008 incident that resulted in Ennis' arrest shares some eerie parallels to the boating death. In both cases, Ennis was drunk and high at the time, and in both he tried to prevent people from calling for help, prosecutors said.
In the 2008 case, Ennis and James Arthur Wyatt were originally charged with second-degree murder in the death of Wyatt's girlfriend, Lora Louise Shine. She suffocated after she was bound and gagged in Wyatt's home in southwest Bakersfield.
Ennis told detectives he and Wyatt tied her up because she was being "disruptive," according to police.
Ennis told a Californian reporter at the time that he, Wyatt and a third man smoked marijuana and drank margaritas while they tried to figure out what to do after discovering Shine dead. They had left her alone in an upstairs bedroom for several hours before returning and finding she had suffocated, Ennis said.
Wolf, the prosecutor, said Ennis forcibly stopped Wyatt from calling authorities when they found the body.
Wyatt, 60 at the time of the incident, pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to four years in prison. Ennis pleaded no contest to felony assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury and received a two-year prison sentence.
Wyatt was in court Tuesday to watch as Ennis was sentenced. He declined comment afterward.
Heroism in tragedy
District Attorney Lisa Green, at a news conference held following the sentencing, said the day was "somewhat bittersweet" because although Ennis was convicted, a family lost a loved one.
"This was not an ordinary case," Green said of prosecuting Ennis.
She said she believes it the first conviction in the country where someone has been found guilty of murder in a DUI boating crash.
Green said she was proud of the work done by Wolf and investigators.
Wolf, who at times fought back tears, described the events of the day Rodriguez died and the lasting impact it's had on his family. He said Ennis tried to run, but others performed remarkable acts of heroism.
First, Camacho saved his son by pushing him to the bottom of the boat and jumping on top of him, Wolf said. Camacho suffered a bruise on his back where the bow of the boat struck him as it passed over them.
The next heroic act was committed by Rodriguez who, instead of jumping to safety, stayed on the boat trying to move it out of the way. He was responsible for the children on that boat, and there was no way he was going to leave them, Wolf said.
Neither Ennis nor his friends called 911 after the crash, and Ennis threatened to kill anyone who called the authorities, Wolf said. But a 13-year-old girl on Rodriguez's boat grabbed the cellphone of one of Ennis' friends and jumped into the water as they neared the shore so she could make the call.
Then there was the bystander from out of town who stood behind Ennis' truck and threw a board under its wheels to stop Ennis from leaving. Finally, Wolf said, there were the park rangers who stopped Ennis, performed CPR on Rodriguez and spent the past two years gathering evidence for the trial.
Wolf apologized for showing emotion, but he said he's become very close with the Rodriguez family and has seen the devastation Ennis brought to their lives. He said he's glad justice has been done, but it's a tragedy that Rodriguez's daughter will never know him.
"We are killing people and we are stealing fathers from daughters," Wolf said of those who drive while drunk. "Please stop drinking and driving."