DA: Alcohol, partying preceded Colfax I-80 overpass rock assault

Three accused youths joked about incident afterward, says prosecutor; Defense attorney: "They'll never do it again"
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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More details have emerged in the Placer County District Attorney’s case against three Colfax High School students charged with throwing rocks and other objects off an Interstate 80 overpass that seriously injured a motorist July 26. The new information includes allegations from the case prosecutor that the three were drinking alcohol that night, had earlier attended a party, and joked about the incident the day after. The revelations were made public during a bail-reduction hearing today that cleared the way for the release of two of the accused – 16-year-old Hunter Perez and 17-year-old Sean Edwin Steele. Steele and Perez, also known as Hunter Owens, had their bail reduced by Superior Court Judge Colleen Nichols from $150,000 to $10,000. Conditions of their release include a requirement that they wear electronic monitors and be home for a 6 p.m. nightly curfew unless accompanied by a parent. The third youth – 16-year-old Samuel Edward Quinlan – was able to post bail shortly after his arrest with the others in early August. He’s not subject to court-ordered curfew provisions or electronic monitoring. Deputy District Attorney Michael Paschon, who handles juvenile cases for the county, outlined his office’s arguments for holding bail at $150,000 and keeping Perez and Steele in custody at the North Auburn Juvenile Detention Facility. Before the judge’s ruling, attorneys for Owens and Steele said that the incident was a one-time event that wouldn’t be repeated and there was no public safety risk with their release. “They were all drinking, they were all being stupid,” Steele’s attorney Dean Starks said. “There was no indication any of them intended to hurt anybody.” Paschon said the facts show that while the two are not flight risks, they remain a risk to public safety. Going over some of the evidence investigators have compiled, Paschon said the youths initially threw rocks and gravel off the Canyon Way overcrossing in Colfax at around 2:30 a.m. Then they left to gather rocks 4 inches by 4 inches in size and a barricade because “they felt it would be more fun,” he said. The group waited for the approach of a semi-trailer traveling west and then threw the barricade onto the cab’s windshield as the driver attempted to weave to avoid being hit, Paschon said. The youths walked over to the area of the overpass above the eastbound lanes and targeted a United Postal Service truck, throwing two rocks that smashed into the front windscreen and the top of the trailer. The third vehicle that was struck by objects thrown that night from the overpass was driven by Jose Palomera of Sacramento. Working as a driver for a Union Pacific Railroad contactor, he was transporting two employees who were sleeping in his vehicle at the time. Paschon said that while the other two drivers were not hit by objects, Palomera was struck in the face and suffered serious injuries. Palomera attended the three’s arraignment Aug. 18 and said he spent five days in hospital. Paschon said the three had been drinking alcohol that night and had attended a party beforehand. The prosecution has talked to witnesses who can testify that the three subsequently were drinking alcohol at a bridge near a river the next day and joked about the incident, including hiding and running from the California Highway Patrol, he said. The three face felony assault-with-a-deadly weapon and assault-causing-serious-bodily-harm charges. Their case has been elevated from juvenile court to adult court by the District Attorney’s Office, which cited the seriousness of the charges. Paschon said that Perez initially lied and denied any involvement when first questioned by the California Highway Patrol. But after others were questioned that day and the Highway Patrol investigator returned, he did admit culpability, Paschon said. Starks presented the court with what he said were 100 letters from students, family and other community members supporting the bail reduction to an amount the Steele family could afford. Starks added the Colfax High School principal indicated Steele would be welcome to come back. Outside the Jail Courthouse in North Auburn, Steele’s father, Jeff waited patiently with other family members and some of the boys’ friends for his son. Jeff Steele, who had offered his hand in apology to Palomera a month ago, said his son rarely saw daylight while incarcerated. The family was planning for Sean Steele to return to high school, he said. And the revelation that his son had been drinking that night was new information, the father said. “He wasn’t angry (that night) – people who know him know that’s not his personality,” Jeff Steele said. “He made a bad judgment call when he was under the influence of alcohol. It clouded his judgment.”