Photo by John Schreiber.
Photo by John Schreiber.

A 23-year-old man was sentenced Tuesday to seven years in prison for a drunken driving crash in which the SUV he was driving erupted into flames just before two California Highway Patrol officers rescued him, a woman and their two young children.

Leonardo Morales pleaded guilty June 10 to driving under the influence of alcohol causing injury, driving with a blood-alcohol level exceeding the legal limit of .08 percent or more causing injury as well and two counts of child abuse and endangerment, all felonies.

Morales also admitted sentencing enhancement allegations of inflicting great bodily injury and causing great bodily injury on a child younger than 5.

Morales also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of driving on a suspended or revoked license.

Morales was driving a 2001 Chevrolet Tahoe that slammed into a tree on the northbound Costa Mesa (55) Freeway off-ramp to 17th Street about 3:50 a.m., on April 13, 2015, according to CHP Officer Florentino Olivera.

Two CHP officers patrolling the area saw flames at the scene of the crash but were too far down the off-ramp to respond to the emergency, so they called it in to dispatchers, Olivera said.

Because of their quick response, two other officers were able to get to the victims before it was too late, Olivera said.

When CHP Officers Daryl Hansen and Timothy Montoya got to the scene of the fiery crash, they saw Morales lying on the ground, the panic-stricken toddler dashing around and 22-year-old Kathy De Rosa stuck in the front passenger seat, Olivera said.

“The 2-year-old was running around and crying and pointing at the car,” he said.

As the two officers worked to pull De Rosa out, Montoya heard a baby crying in the back seat. The baby was face-down, bloodied, on the floorboard of the rear driver’s side seat, Olivera said.

“By then the car was fully engulfed” in flames, he said.

Montoya quickly snatched the baby and ran her to safety, Olivera said. The two officers also managed to get De Rosa out of the SUV.

The two adults were taken to Western Medical Center in Santa Ana and their children were taken to Children’s Hospital Orange County, Olivera said.

The 9-month-old had “serious lacerations to her legs and feet,” according to Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Steve Concialdi.

The 2-year-old boy sustained a head injury and a deep bruise on his head, Concialdi said.

Morales sustained a back injury and De Rosa had cuts to her face, according to Concialdi.

Morales and De Rosa were arrested together Aug. 31, 2014. Court records show that on Sept. 3, 2014, Morales pleaded guilty in that case to driving under the influence of alcohol and on a suspended license, and De Rosa pleaded guilty to misdemeanor resisting arrest.

De Rosa was accused of brandishing a deadly weapon in front of an officer in the arrest, but the charge was dismissed as part of the plea deal, according to court records.

On March 13, 2015, De Rosa pleaded guilty to driving under the influence, driving with a blood-alcohol level over the legal limit of .08, child abuse and endangerment and driving without a valid driver’s license, all misdemeanors, according to court records.

That plea stemmed from a Dec. 14, 2014, arrest in Santa Ana, in which prosecutors accused her of driving with a blood-alcohol level of .20 and causing injury to two children in the car.

De Rosa was placed on four years of informal probation for the March 2015 DUI conviction and was ordered to participate in an alcohol program for first offenders and a child abuser’s treatment program.

Court records also show Morales has had trouble paying more than $4,000 in fines related to his various convictions, which include driving on a suspended license in 2012.

In September 2014, Morales was sentenced to three years of informal probation and ordered to participate in an alcohol program for first offenders.

–City News Service

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