A man accused of driving drunk and triggering a multiple-vehicle New Year’s Day crash that killed a mother and her 9-year-old daughter on the Garden Grove (22) Freeway pleaded not guilty Monday to multiple felony charges.
Melvin Cleveland Branch, who turned 30 on New Year’s Eve, remains in custody in lieu of $300,000 bail pending a pretrial hearing on Jan. 25.
Branch, a former Maryland resident who lives in Orange, was charged Friday with two counts of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and one count each of driving under the influence of alcohol causing bodily injury and driving with a blood alcohol of .08 percent or more causing bodily injury — all felonies — and one misdemeanor count each of resisting/obstructing an officer and assault on a peace officer.
Branch also faces sentencing enhancement allegations of causing bodily injury and death to multiple victims and fleeing the scene of a crime. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years and eight months in state prison if convicted as charged.
In video footage of Branch’s arrest, aired in news reports, he can be seen struggling with officers.
Branch’s attorney, Mark Fredrick, told reporters that his client had never had any run-ins with the law before and was frightened at the time.
“He was extremely scared,” Fredrick said.
Branch was originally taken into custody last Tuesday and held in lieu of $100,000 bail, but he was released from the Orange County Jail on Thursday as prosecutors asked investigators for more evidence. A warrant was subsequently issued for Branch’s re-arrest and he surrendered at the California Highway Patrol’s Santa Ana office on Sunday.
Fredrick said when his client learned of the charges, he “insisted on turning himself in as early as possible,” adding that Branch has “expressed nothing but total sadness” about the victims. He said Branch did not learn anyone was hurt in the crash until he was in the police station following his initial arrest on suspicion of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated shortly after the 12:50 a.m. crash.
Killed in the collision on the 22 Freeway east of Valley View Street were 33-year-old Jolene Gardner and her 9-year-old daughter Payton Castillo, who were on their way home from a New Year’s Eve gathering at the time, according to a GoFundMe fundraising page set up to help their family. The girl died at the scene and her mother was pronounced dead at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange about an hour after the crash.
Branch was driving a BMW on the freeway east of Springdale Street at an “extremely high rate of speed” in the HOV lane when he rear-ended a Lexus multiple times, causing the driver to lose control and slam into the right shoulder sound barrier wall, the CHP reported.
The Lexus driver escaped injury, but Branch then rear-ended Gardner’s 2010 Ford F-150 pickup truck, which rolled over onto its right side and skidded across the freeway into a 2003 Mazda 3 and then struck a guardrail bordering the right shoulder, the CHP reported. The Mazda driver also escaped injury.
When Branch was cleared by doctors, he was taken to jail, the CHP reported.
Branch works as a cable installer, a job he picked up after working for several years for Southwest Airlines, Fredrick said. Branch would often fly back and forth from his home in Orange County to Maryland to be with families during holidays, but did not do so this season, his attorney said.
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