A commuter on his way home to Sonora saw the white sport utility vehicle swerve from lane to lane, kicking up dust from the unpaved shoulders off the country road east of Modesto.
The SUV blew through a stop sign, accelerating as it continued to swerve and nearly hitting a motorcyclist, according to testimony Tuesday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.
Then came the sound of metal against metal, the man testified.
Michael Richey, 46, was killed, thrown from his bicycle into the middle of Milnes Road on Sept. 30, 2008.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
Authorities arrested the alleged driver, Craig Kyle Nelson, 27. They charged him not with manslaughter -- meaning an accidental killing, as is typical in driving-under-the-influence-fatalities -- but with the more severe charge of murder.
That's rare. Nelson's is one of only three such murder cases pending in Stanislaus County. The distinction could mean life in prison for a murder conviction to as little as probation for manslaughter.
This week a judge will decide if there is enough evidence to send Nelson to trial for murder.
Prosecutors were able to charge Nelson with murder because he had a prior DUI offense. In addition to Richey's death, Nelson is charged with a DUI causing injury after a boy was hit while riding his bicycle across a Modesto street in March.
Authorities allege Nelson was under the influence of a prescription medication and marijuana when he struck and killed Richey.
Ronald Kitagawa with the state Department of Justice said he found "high" amounts of oxycodone in Nelson's blood and believed Nelson had used marijuana within hours of the incident.
But Kitagawa said he couldn't form an opinion that Nelson was impaired while driving based on the drug levels alone. Unlike alcohol, there is no "legal limit" that determines when a person is impaired on prescription drugs.
"We can't tell you a person at this certain level is going to be impaired," Kitagawa said.
He said he knew of no studies looking at oxycodone's affect on driving ability.
Defense attorney Mary Lynn Belsher said in a previous interview that Nelson is a former football player who has constant pain from two dislocated shoulders and a degenerative disease in his knees. He was prescribed oxycodone for the pain.
Belsher asked Robert Ford, the Sonora commuter, if he had seen anyone run the stop sign at Milnes and Church roads before.
Yes, he said, "but not like that."
Nelson is housed in the Public Safety Center on $1 million bail.
Testimony continues today.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.