Former Central High basketball coach Loren LeBeau was sentenced Thursday to 12 years in prison for the drunken-driving hit-and-run death of 7-year-old Donovan Maldonado in July 2012.
Before he left in handcuffs, a teary-eyed LeBeau, 43, told Donovan’s family he was sorry for causing them so much pain and asked them to forgive him.
“I wish I would have seen him. I wish I would have stopped,” he said in Fresno County Superior Court.
Donovan’s tearful father, Jesse Maldonado, who was seriously injured by LeBeau’s car, accepted the apology. He later thanked LeBeau for his remorseful words about Donovan and his family.
LeBeau’s punishment concludes a horrific case in which both sides shed tears for a Fresno boy who loved family, school and sports, but whose life was cut short when he was dragged under LeBeau’s car for more than 800 feet, according to police estimates.
Donovan, his father and younger sister, Bella, were struck as they crossed Shepherd Avenue in a northeast Fresno crosswalk that’s part of the Sugar Pine Trail. City officials are finishing a tunnel to replace the crosswalk that should be completed by December.
LeBeau lost his job as coach and is going to prison for at least 10 years. He told the judge that telling his wife, Sarah, and their four children about the fatal crash was hard. His 9-year-old daughter asked if he knew it was against the law to drink and drive.
“Crying and ashamed, I said, ‘Yes,’ ” LeBeau told the judge.
“I guess what they say is true. You learn everything you need to know about right and wrong in your primary grades. It was such a simple answer to a simple question,” he said.
LeBeau’s 12-year prison sentence was part of a June 12 agreement in which he pleaded no contest to felony charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, hit-and-run causing death and injuries, and drunken driving.
Thursday’s hearing was emotional, with Donovan’s family and friends sitting on one side of Judge Gregory Fain’s courtroom and LeBeau’s supporters on the other.
Both sides focused on Donovan’s loss to his family, except for one of LeBeau’s supporters, who blamed Jesse Maldonado for not watching his son more closely. Fain quickly stopped the proceedings. LeBeau’s attorney, Jeff Hammerschmidt, then escorted the man from the courtroom while LeBeau apologized to Donovan’s family.
The Maldonado family hasn’t been the same since Donovan’s death, his father said.
“It’s like a bad dream that you can’t wake up from,” Jesse Maldonado told Fain.
Jesse Maldonado said he used to be athletic, but now uses a wheelchair and crutches and might lose his legs. With help Thursday, he stood to deliver his statement.
He said his wife, Maria, used to be outgoing but now is so depressed she seldom leaves the house or talks to anyone. Every night, Donovan used to kiss his mother and say good night. She would always pick him up at school.
“Our perfect family is over,” a sobbing Jesse Maldonado said.
“My wife cries herself to sleep and wakes up in the middle of the night,” he said, noting that she saw LeBeau’s car hit and drag Donovan. “Can you imagine the horror of watching your baby boy take his last breath and knowing there was nothing she could do?”
Bella, then 18 months old, was near death and had to be revived at the hospital, her father said. She and her older sister, Adriana, miss their brother. “They have mental scars that may never heal,” Jesse Maldonado said.
His tearful comments caused Fain to wipe his eyes. LeBeau, however, didn’t cry.
Before his punishment was announced, LeBeau said he was sorry and wanted to hug Jesse Maldonado, walking toward him before he was told to stop by bailiffs. He returned to the defense table and for the first time gave a blow-by-blow account of what happened that night.
He said he was driving home on July 25, 2012, from Bass Lake, where he drank beer and swam. He was westbound on Shepherd at 9:11 p.m. when “there was a collision that I never saw.”
It was dark and the crosswalk was not well lit, he said. “I saw nothing. I did not brake. I did not swerve.”
He said he was driving the speed limit — about 40 mph — when he felt something hit his car. “It felt like a cannon ball just dropped from the sky,” he said. “I did not stop right away because I panicked. I feared for my own safety.”
He said he drove around the block with his windshield damaged and returned to the scene in six minutes. “I was distraught, scared,” he said. “There was never any intent to run or hide.”
He said he didn’t call 911 after he returned to the crash site because he heard sirens and saw police arriving. “I stood by my car praying in a bewildered state, still not knowing who or what I hit,” he said.
When police approached him, LeBeau said he told officers he was the driver involved in the accident and that he had been drinking. He said police told him that a boy had been hit.
Looking at Donovan’s father, LeBeau said, “as God is my witness, I did not know or feel anything under my car.”
Submitted to the court were nine letters from supporters who included basketball coaches Vance Walberg, Pat Geil and John Jones. LeBeau also wrote a letter to the judge.
The hearing started with Hammerschmidt asking for a delay so he could view a re-enactment of the fatal hit-and-run, but Fain denied the request. The re-enactment is part of a civil lawsuit that Donovan’s family filed against LeBeau and the city of Fresno.
In announcing the sentence, Fain took into account LeBeau’s lack of a criminal record and his early admission of responsibility. Because serious injuries and death resulted from the incident, LeBeau will have to serve 85% of the sentence — slightly more than 10 years — before he is eligible for parole.
In addition to the prison sentence, LeBeau has agreed to pay close to $759,000 in restitution to the Maldonado family. That’s to cover medical bills through May 24 for Jesse and Bella Maldonado.
In the end, Fain, too, noted that his judicial rulings wouldn’t end the family’s heartbreak, saying, “There is nothing I can do to make things right.”