Man pleads no contest to three counts of DUI manslaughter

Northwest Florida Daily News


Monday September 17th, 2007

Jesus Bernal, who killed three people driving drunk while living illegally in the United States, will serve 38 to 55 years in prison.

Bernal pleaded no contest Monday to three counts of DUI manslaughter and two counts of DUI with serious bodily injury. He will be sentenced for the crimes Oct. 18.

Prosecutor Ryan Love said he was surprised by the plea, which came on the day a jury was to be selected to try Bernal.

“We were not making any (deal) offers to him,” Love said.

James Rook, 43, of Cincinnati, Ohio, and his wife, Margie, 41, died June 24, 2006, when Bernal's truck collided head-on with their car on U.S. Highway 331 in Walton County.

Arnulfo Morales, known as Jose Barrintos Bonta, a 28-year-old passenger in Bernal's pickup, also died as a result of the wreck.

Courtesy Walton County Department of Corrections

Bernal was further charged with severely injuring Magan Doherty, 14, a passenger in the Rook car, and Jorge Rivera, 41, another passenger in the pickup.

Neither the state attorney's office nor the Walton County Jail could find proof Bernal was a legal resident at the time of the deadly accident and surmised he was in the U.S. illegally.

The jail had his country of residence listed as Mexico, and no Social Security number for him was in its records.

Defense attorney Michael Weinstock said he advised his client to plead after Walton Circuit Judge Kelvin Wells agreed to cap the maximum sentence for Bernal at 55 years, as mandated by state sentencing guidelines.

The number of deaths that occurred as a result of the wreck gave Wells leeway to set aside guidelines and order a life sentence, but the judge agreed to the cap, Love said, after the family of the victims went along with it.

“This is probably in Mr. Bernal's best interest,” Weinstock said of the plea agreement. “But we were prepared to go to trial and actively defend him on this.”

The Rook family had begun arriving in DeFuniak Springs for the trial when they were notified of Bernal's decision to enter a plea. Some were expected to record statements later this week that will be played at sentencing.

Family members were traveling in a three-vehicle caravan from Cincinnati and had arrived in Walton County at about 5 p.m. on the day of the fatal wreck.
The Rooks were accompanied in the lead car by their 14-year-old daughter, Kylie, and Kylie's friend, Magan Doherty.

Bernal was driving his pickup truck north and had passed another car, the Florida Highway Patrol said. Bernal lost control, overcorrected and crossed the center line into the Rooks' path.

Kylie Rook received minor injuries. Doherty was listed in critical condition at Gulf Coast Medical Center in Panama City the day after the wreck.

The Rooks' son, Chris, was driving behind them in another car when the crash happened. He was unharmed.

Pete Wolniewicz, a volunteer with the Okaloosa-Walton chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, had intended to “monitor” the Bernal trial this week.

“We in MADD are tracking this sort of thing,” he said. “We had planned to be in court just to keep abreast of what was going on in the courtroom.”

Wolniewicz said the Bernal case is one of “five or six” pending in the two-county area that MADD is paying attention to.

         Daily News File Photo
Emergency workers transport the injured to hospitals in the photo from June 25, 2006. Three people were killed in the accident and Jose Bernal plead guilty to three county of DUI manslaughter on Monday.