No one was happy when Kurt Duncan Naegele was blamed for causing a 2009 car crash near Hearst Castle that injured him, two others and killed a fourth. And they weren't happy when a mistrial was declared in his vehicular manslaughter trial after the defense said it would present evidence showing a different passenger drove. And they weren't happy when he later cut a plea deal—while pursuing a separate civil suit against the targeted passenger.
So why would you expect anyone to be happy that the Newport Beach resident was just sentenced to a year in custody and four years of probation?
"The sentence was so light that it gave everyone that has been following the case massive heartburn and angst across most of the western United States," Ryan Robert Doheny, the man who the Naegele defense implicated as the driver, tells the Weekly in an email.
In reference to San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Michael Duffy allowing Naegele to apply to serve his time as home detention, Doheny sarcastically added, "We have noticed that Whole Foods Markets, Henry's Markets and Sprouts markets are starting to sell out of Axia3 ProDigestive antacid because of the court's decision to give him house arrest."
Meanwhile, Timothy Naegele, the father of the defendant and a Los Angeles lawyer who previously vowed to sue Doheny, maintains his son could have won the criminal case against him.
This will make more sense if we revisit the accident. According to the California Highway Patrol, Naegele, Doheny, Doheny's brother-in-law Darren William Dahlman, 38, of Pasadena, and Christopher H. Pennell of Los Angeles, had been drinking as guests invited to a birthday party on the San Simeon ranch on Sept. 18, 2009.
They drove to the airstrip to find out how fast Naegele's Range Rover could go, something a CHP investigator claims Doheny later told him was a bad idea because it was pitch black out and Naegele was driving very fast and erratically. Around 11 p.m., the Range Rover rolled several times before falling down a steep embankment 300 feet off the runway on the north side of the airstrip.
The crash killed Dahlman, seriously injured Naegele (who had to be extricated from behind the steering wheel) and also injured Pennell and Doheny. Naegele and Doheny estimated to officers that they had been traveling 35 mph at the time of the crash, but CHP investigators who examined the skid marks and other evidence at the scene determined they were going more like 105 mph.
Doheny also confirmed that Naegele, the Range Rover's registered owner, was behind the wheel. Naegele's blood-alcohol level later tested at about 0.16 percent—twice the legal limit. Beer cans were found strewn about the vehicle, according to those prosecuting Naegele for gross vehicular manslaughter and two sentencing enhancements.
He first pleaded not guilty, and Judge Duffy declared a mistrial after Naegele's attorneys, Eugene Harris and lawyer-to-the-stars Mark Geragos, informed the court they would produce explosive evidence proving their client was not driving the Range Rover.
Shortly after a second trial began, Naegele apparently had a change of heart, agreeing in May to plead no contest in exchange for a sentence that would allow him the chance to spend his time in custody at home.
It was after reporting on the plea deal that yours truly was first contacted by Tim Naegele, who essentially said not so fast, Coker; a no contest plea is not an admission of guilty and the family would file a civil suit against Doheny.
Regardless, the prosecution wanted a year in custody and five years probation, sentencing guidelines called for three years for the probation, and Duffy split the difference Friday by ordering four years probation.
"My heartburn has been horrible since the judgment," says Doheny, continuing with the pained theme of his reaction. "Thank god for Axia3 to get me through this hard time. You almost have to buy it online at Amazon.com or Drugstore.com now because of the demand."
The idea that Tim Naegele had talked of pursuing a civil case against him only increased Doheny's stress, but the father now maintains that matter has been settled—not that he's giving up in the court of public opinion.
"Mark Geragos' partner Pat Harris made an offer in open court for the decedent Darren Dahlman's family to come to the Geragos offices and review evidence that we have of Kurt's innocence and Ryan Doheny's guilt," the elder Naegele says. "A copy of the sentencing hearing transcript will confirm this."
Speaking of the sentencing hearing, the onetime chief of staff to former U.S. Senator Edward W. Brooke (R-Mass.) and counsel to the United States Senate's Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs believes he should have been able to submit a victim's impact statement to Duffy's court because, "Clearly, I am a 'victim' of that tragic accident; Kurt's wife and daughters, and his mother and sister are, too; and the rest of his family is as well."
Duffy only allowed those other than Kurt Naegele injured in the crash and Dahlman's family members to contribute such statements. While Tim Naegele says he "accepted that advice," he also provided the statement you will find on the next page, in which he expresses sorrow to Doheny's wife, accuses her husband of lying, and says the idea that his son is being held accountable for the crash "flies in the face of everything that I believe about our American system of justice."
But first, we will hear from Doheny, who scoffed at the idea that the Geragos team was prepared to use "the best forensic expert in the United States'" against him.
"This guy didn't find anything that would support their ridiculous stance, probably causing greater instances of heartburn for all of them," Doheny writes.
Had the civil case been pursued, Doheny says his attorney would have presented evidence of just what Kurt Naegele pleaded to: being the driver who killed a man that very tragic night.
1. Your Honor, my name is Timothy D. Naegele. I am the father of Kurt Duncan Naegele, the defendant in this case. I am a member of the District of Columbia Bar and the State Bar of California; and I have been a lawyer for more than 45 years.
2. My heart goes out to the parents, widow and young son of Darren Dahlman. I have seen the parents and the widow in the courtroom before, and I have seen at least one photo of Darren and his son; and the family's grief is overwhelming, I am sure.
A. There is nothing we can do to bring Darren back to life. If there was, we would do it in an instant, and have him here with us now. On a larger stage, I believe their path and his will cross again some day. Indeed, all of us will join Darren in the future. Until then, he is at peace and with God.
B. I have a sense of how the family feels because I was on my way from Southern California to Berkeley when the accident happened, to attend a memorial service for a dear friend and hiking partner of mine. I had stopped for the night in Modesto; and I checked my e-mail in the morning, only to learn about the accident. I did not know whether Kurt was alive or dead.
C. A parent's grief knows no bounds. It is a nightmare that never ends. That of a wife and child is endless too.
D. If I could wipe away their tears and sorrow, I would do so; all of us would. But exacting vengeance against Kurt will not bring Darren back to life. It will only compound the tragedies of that fateful night.
E. I would be remiss if I did not tell Chris Pennell and his family how sorry I am that he was hurt that night. I know their lives changed; and my heart goes out to them as well.
F. I feel sorry for Ryan Doheny's wife too. She did not need or deserve any of this, or what is yet to come.
G. Little did we know it at the time, but all of us became victims that night. My life changed; and the life of Kurt's mother changed. Your Honor was drawn into a case that you did not need. The same is true of the prosecutor, Mr. Kerrigan, as well as Kurt's lawyers, Mark Geragos and Pat Harris. Like a stone that is thrown into a tranquil pond, the ripples spread out far and wide, and seemingly forever.
3. Kurt was not the driver of the vehicle on the night of September 18, 2009, when the tragic accident occurred. I am convinced of that. And to admit that he was, or to be held accountable for something that he did not do, flies in the face of everything that I believe about our American system of justice.
A. In good conscience, I cannot accept the fact that Kurt is willing to enter a plea for a crime that he did not commit. It runs against everything that I believe in; it constitutes a travesty and a miscarriage of justice; and it compounds the tragic events that took place on the night of the accident. Far too often—involving an estimated 15-20 percent of those who are indicted in federal courts today—innocent parties are forced into plea bargains because they cannot afford to fight the legal system, or they are too scared to fight it. Many of these are Senior Citizens, who have run afoul of our Social Security laws. This is not justice at all.
(1) We have a "gotcha" legal system in this country today, in which totally-innocent people are forced into plea bargains every week in courts throughout our great nation. This is among the many reasons why more and more successful lawyers are telling their kids not to become lawyers. Our system of justice may be the best in the world, but it is deeply flawed; and the lawyers who practice in this State and other States know this better than anyone.
(2) The latest figures indicate that 97 percent of convictions in federal courts were the result of guilty pleas. In 2006, the last year for which data was available, the corresponding figure for State courts was 94 percent. Indeed, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority in a recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion—quoting other sources:
[Criminal justice today] is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials. . . . [Plea bargaining] is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system.
He added—again quoting other sources:
"[L]onger sentences exist on the books largely for bargaining purposes."
B. I have reviewed the facts of this case carefully, and I have spent enormous amounts of time working with Kurt, Mark Geragos and Pat Harris, and with others. If I thought Kurt was lying or had been the driver, I would have told him to admit his guilt and take the consequences. From the time that he and his sister were little kids, I taught them never to lie. If I ever caught either one of them lying, I would march them into the bathroom and insert a wet piece of soap in their mouths so they would never forget it.
C. Kurt was not the driver of the car. Again, I am convinced of that.
4. Tragically, Ryan Doheny was the driver. He has lied repeatedly—under oath and otherwise—since the moment of the accident, which is consistent with the pattern of his life. If he was a man, he would have told the truth and taken the consequences. Presumably he has lied to his own wife, the sister of Darren Dahlman's widow; and he has lied to widow herself, and to Darren's parents and others.
A. Ryan knows what he has done; and he knows that a totally-innocent man, my son, is willing to sacrifice himself by accepting a plea for the sake of his own wife and young girls. If there was a one-percent chance of losing at trial, he is unwilling to take that risk. I understand this, and Mark Geragos and Pat Harris do too.
B. It is time for Ryan to stand up and step forth and tell the truth. Otherwise, he will live with two events on his conscience for the rest of his life: (1) Darren's tragic death, which he caused; and (2) Kurt's tragic plea and the consequences, for a crime that Kurt did not commit.
5. I filed a civil lawsuit in this county against Ryan and the Hearsts. The Amended Complaint in that suit sets forth the true facts, and what actually happened.
B. Like Ron Goldman's father, Fred, who has pursued his son's killer—O.J. Simpson—to the ends of this earth in pursuit of justice, I want to assure Ryan here today that I will do nothing less with respect to him.
C. Unlike Fred Goldman, however, I do not hate Ryan. I feel sorry for him and pity him. I know he has suffered greatly since the accident occurred, living with the guilt of what really happened. My guess is that his wife has too, and her burdens will continue and never be lifted until Ryan tells the truth. After all, her sister's husband Darren was killed by her own husband Ryan.
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D. To unburden himself and tell the truth to all of us, including Judge Duffy and the prosecutor Mr. Kerrigan, might change Ryan's life forever—for the better. I would forgive him, and I know Kurt would; and I assume others might as well. Indeed, to do so would put an end to the tragic events of that night, and stop the ripples in the pond from spreading even farther.
E. Again, as a matter of conscience, I hope Ryan will tell the truth and not allow the tragedies of that night to continue and be compounded. Indeed, I would argue that he deserves a lenient sentence. All of us make mistakes.
6. Lastly, I have sat patiently in this courtroom and listened to everything that has been said about my son. I respectfully submit that I have the right to submit this statement in its entirely, and have it inserted in the record of this proceeding. Thank you.