Orange County District Attorney
FONT> Susan Schroeder
Tony Rackauckas, District Attorney
401 Civic Center Drive West
Santa Ana, CA 92701
For Immediate Release
September 8, 2006
Public Affairs Counsel
(714) 347-8408 Office
(714) 323-4486 Cell
TOW TRUCK DRIVER PLEADS GUILTY TO VEHICULAR MANSLAUGHTER AND 11 OTHER CHARGES AFTER A SANTA ANA MAN DIES DURING A PREDATORY TOWING INCIDENT
SANTA ANA – A Santa Ana tow truck driver pled guilty today and will receive six years in prison and a Strike for a predatory towing incident that resulted in the death of a Santa Ana man. Paul Sassenberger, 30, a San Bernardino County resident, pled guilty to charges of felony vehicular manslaughter, the recent use of methamphetamine, seven counts of unlawful taking of a vehicle, two counts of extortion, and one count of attempted extortion. He will be sentenced on November 3, 2006, at 9:00 a.m. in Department C-44, Central Justice Center, Santa Ana, and will begin serving his prison sentence at that time. Vehicular manslaughter is punishable by two, four, or six years in prison, and Sassenberger will receive the maximum sentence. The maximum exposure on the case was 14 years and 8 months.
While employed by Pepe’s Tow Company in Santa Ana, the defendant refused to release vehicles to their lawful owners on eleven separate occasions, from November 25, 2003 to June 12, 2005. Several of these incidents resulted in minor injuries to people attempting to get their car back while Sassenberger drove away. Sassenberger also illegally threatened to harm the victim’s property by towing their cars, with the intent to financially benefit by having the victim’s pay him to have their cars released.
On Sunday June 12, 2005, at approximately 8:50 a.m., Sassenberger unlawfully towed away the car of Leoncio Flores, 42, of Santa Ana. Flores approached the defendant and offered him $50 to release the vehicle. Sassenberger refused and began to drive away. Flores tried to stop the defendant from leaving by knocking on the driver’s window and grabbing hold of the tow truck as he walked alongside it. Sassenberger kept driving away and Flores eventually lost his grip and was run over by the truck and killed. A sample of Sassenberger’s blood taken shortly after Flores was killed tested positive for methamphetamine, consistent with recent use.
California law states that a tow truck driver does not gain legal possession of a vehicle until the vehicle is removed from private property and is in transit. Tow operators must release a vehicle to the person in lawful possession of the vehicle if they return before their vehicle is removed from private property.
Generally, for a tow company to remove vehicles from private property, the private property owner or agent must be present and sign a specific authorization for the removal, with some vehicle code exceptions.
Deputy District Attorney Lesley Young of the Consumer and Environmental Protection Unit prosecuted the case. The investigation into the death of Mr. Flores was completed by the Santa Ana Police Department’s Traffic Collision Investigation Unit.