A 32-year-old man who killed a friend in a DUI crash in Westminster, despite being warned by a judge several years earlier that he would be charged with murder if he drove drunk and caused someone’s death, was sentenced Friday to 15 years to life in prison.
Jonathan Aaron Samoff was convicted of second-degree murder in his second trial last November for the March 8, 2014, crash that killed 25-year-old Isaias Tang, whose family spoke about his singing voice and passion for volleyball.
“He had a gentle spirit about him that would make all those around him smile and feel loved,” his sister, Sara, said in a statement read aloud in court.
The victim lost another sister to a car crash in 2005, his mother said.
“If you could have met my (son) you would have fallen in love with him,” Saray Corte told Orange County Superior Court Judge Sheila Hanson. “Everybody loved him. He was just an amazing person.”
Samoff’s attorney, Eugene Sung, said his client — whose first trial last June ended with jurors deadlocked 11-1 in favor of conviction — struggled to write a statement and could not manage to do so.
“He wanted me to convey to the family and court how truly sorry he is,” Sung said. “He found it incredibly difficult to write something down.”
The defendant’s aunt, Tiffany Samoff, addressed the victim’s family.
“I would like to offer my condolences… I lost my mom in the same way — in an accident,” she said.
She said she has visited her nephew multiple times a week in the Orange County Jail and recalled him as a “full-of-life, witty, kind” child who would “always make me smile and laugh.”
Samoff pleaded guilty in November 2009 to driving drunk in Los Angeles County. He was admonished about the dangers of drinking and driving and was warned that if he drove drunk again and it resulted in someone’s death, he would face an upgrade in charges from vehicular manslaughter to second-degree murder.
At that time, Samoff was also ordered to participate in a three-month first-offender program for drunken drivers that educates them on the hazards of drinking while impaired and mandates attendance at 12-step meetings for alcoholics or drug addicts, Senior Deputy District Attorney Dan Feldman said at the defendant’s trial last year.
On March 7, 2014, Samoff was kicked out of a sober living home in Anaheim for violating rules. He befriended the victim at that facility, according to Feldman.
A witness told investigators he saw the pair at a gym in Fullerton about 10 p.m. that night and they appeared to be intoxicated, Feldman said.
“He smelled the odor of alcohol and marijuana,” Feldman said.
According to Feldman, the two had plans to go to a bar in Fullerton later that night.
About 2:15 the following morning, the pair visited with Tang’s cousin, who told Tang she had just been diagnosed with lupus, Feldman said. During a tearful conversation in which Tang tried to console her, she made him promise that he would not get behind the wheel of a car because he had been drinking, Feldman said.
Samoff, “who looked fine” to Tang’s cousin, introduced himself as Tang’s “designated driver,” Feldman said.
At 2:54 a.m., police were called to Magnolia Street and Oasis Avenue, where a Toyota Camry had slammed into a wall. Samoff pulled Tang out of the car and “left him on the curb to die,” Feldman told jurors.
Feldman said Samoff ran from the crash scene and went to his father’s home, where the defendant’s aunt noticed he had a “fresh” head wound and took him to a local hospital, where his blood was drawn.
Samoff’s blood-alcohol level just before 5 a.m. was 0.11, over the legal limit of 0.08, according to the prosecutor. An expert testified that the defendant’s blood-alcohol level at the time of the crash was 0.15, nearly double the legal limit, Feldman said.
Samoff’s DNA was on the driver’s side air bag, and Tang’s was on the passenger side airbag, according to Feldman, who said a neighbor who heard the crash and looked over the wall where the car ended up told investigators he saw a man in a hood pull Tang out of the car.
Samoff fled the state after the crash and was arrested in October 2014 in Omaha, Nebraska.
His attorney said Samoff was a “young man with a bright future” when he was arrested for drunken driving in Los Angeles County in 2009.
“He had a wake-up call and there were issues he had to deal with, which ultimately takes him to the sober living home in Anaheim,” Sung said.
He said Samoff did not leave his friend “to die” on the curb because the victim was killed instantly in the crash.
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