Modesto tomato truck driver gets 4 years in crash that killed 4

FRESNO -- A tomato truck driver was sentenced Wednesday to four years in prison for causing a collision that killed four people on a lonely west Fresno County road last year.

A handcuffed Hernesto Escalante, 36, of Modesto said nothing in Fresno County Superior Court as relatives of the victims tearfully asked the judge for justice.

Prosecutor Chris Irwin also shed tears as he read letters from the victims' relatives in El Salvador.

Judge Jon Nick Kapetan scolded Escalante for leaving the scene without rendering aid.

"You left them to die on the road," Kapetan said. "This is beyond callous."

According to the California Highway Patrol, Escalante ran a stop sign and collided with a Honda Civic about 5 a.m. Aug. 3. The car went under one of the trailers, causing three people to be decapitated and another to be thrown onto the roadway, Kapetan said.

The collision killed relatives Jose Menjivar, Wilfredo Lopez, Angel Nunez and Nelson Nunez. Concepcion Lopez survived but lost her husband, Angel Nunez.

"He killed my whole family and almost killed me," she tearfully said in court Wednesday. "He knew I was in the accident, but he was not dignified enough to help me. Instead he ran away."

Kapetan said he was upset with Escalante because he stopped and checked the wreckage before returning to his truck and driving away. He then drove about two miles to a business and unloaded his two trailers. After he picked up new trailers, he drove toward his home in Modesto and passed the wreckage again.

"This is incomprehensible to me that he would just leave them," Kapetan said.

Judge: Punishment is not justice

On March 30, Escalante pleaded no contest to four counts of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter and one felony count of leaving the scene of a collision. Though Escalante faced as much as eight years in prison, defense attorney Deborah Girard sought a lesser punishment because she said the collision was an accident. She also said Escalante has no prior felony record and he wasn't drinking at the time of the collision.

But the victims' families told Kapetan that for justice to occur, Escalante must get the maximum penalty.

"He left us with a lot of pain that will never end," said Sonia Nunez, sister of Angel and Nelson Nunez.

Kapetan indicated a four-year prison term when Escalante pleaded no contest. He then reluctantly conceded to the family that the punishment does not amount to justice.