Trampus Tefertiller didn't look past the ambulance lights and police barricades blocking the Modesto street as he drove home from a friend's house one evening.
Tefertiller wished he did, just to say goodbye.
His family got a call at 1 a.m. It was Tefertiller's father, 51-year-old Irvin Tefertiller, who was the casualty of the crash Trampus passed the evening of May 5.
A woman driving a black sport utility vehicle, who police say was drunk, hit and dragged Irvin Tefertiller's motorcycle at Haddon and El Vista avenues.
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"There are no words to explain. We basically feel someone was ripped away," said Trampus' wife, Michelle.
Jennifer Cowgill, 23, tried to walk away from the scene. She was arrested and charged not with manslaughter — meaning an accidental killing, as is typical in drunken driving fatalities — but with the more severe charge of murder.
That's rare. In Stanislaus County Superior Court, there are two other such cases pending: Authorities said Craig Kyle Nelson, 27, was under the influence of prescription medications when he hit Michael Richey, who was riding a bicycle on a rural road east of Modesto. Elder Yupe, 23, killed a 56-year-old Modesto woman after hitting her from behind and causing her sports utility vehicle to careen down a highway embankment, according to the California Highway Patrol.
The three were driving on suspended or revoked licenses and had past DUI offenses, according to the charges.
Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley said the three cases don't represent a tougher stance from the district attorney's office.
"We're not looking to charge murder, but if we have cases that happen to provide the evidence and the facts then that's what we do," Shipley said.
To prove murder, prosecutors must show the person had a "reckless disregard for human life."
The distinction could mean as much as life in prison for a murder conviction to as little as probation for manslaughter.
"The notion has never been 'You killed someone, have a lollipop,' " said Ruth Jones, a professor of law at the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law. "But there is a difference in potential sentencing that can be great."
Jones said she's seen a trend toward the stiffer charge.
"Often the argument is ... drunk drivers, they were incredibly stupid, but that's what they were," Jones said. "We have seen over the last few years several jurisdictions pushing to use murder rather than manslaughter. Often, these cases occur when (prosecutors are) confronted with some horrendous facts."
Next month, a judge will decide if there is enough evidence to send Craig Kyle Nelson — the first of the three defendants to have a preliminary hearing — to trial for murder.
Defense attorney Mary Lynn Belsher said Nelson is a former football player, under constant pain from two dislocated shoulders and a degenerative disease in his knees. He was prescribed oxycodone for the pain.
"Craig Nelson does not deserve to go to prison for the rest of his life for an accident," Belsher said.
Belsher said other local cases where people drove under the influence and killed someone have been punished by as little as a year in jail.
"I find it fundamentally unfair," Belsher said. "Craig Nelson is being treated differently than everyone else."
For a victim's family, such as Tefertiller's, a murder charge can feel like justice.
Michelle Tefertiller said anything less than a murder charge would have felt like a "slap on the wrist."
"She didn't stab somebody or shoot somebody but she still killed him," Tefertiller said of Jennifer Cowgill. "When you take someone's life, it's murder."
But it will be up to a jury to decide that.
A 2004 wreck in which a couple from Delhi were killed led to second-degree murder charges against Charlyn Wood, 44, of Turlock, who had been convicted of misdemeanor drunken driving nine years earlier.
A jury opted for a lesser charge, saying Wood was guilty of two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.
Wood was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.