Neil Storm Stephany, who was blazing on heroin when he mowed down a bicyclist in Newport Beach and then drove away, has been sentenced to 15 years to life in state prison for the murder, although the prosecutor wanted four more years tacked on for drug-related probation violations.
Calls of distress streamed into police on Oct. 19, 2014, about a Toyota Tacoma pickup driver’s erratic driving on the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor (73) toll road before Stephany headed westbound on East Coast Highway around 5 p.m., when he swerved into the bike land near the intersection east of Los Trancos and 30-year-old bicyclist Shaun Eagleson of Fountain Valley.
Without stopping to render aid, the 24-year-old Huntington Beach resident continued to drive into a guardrail and away from the scene, prompting more calls to cops from alarmed drivers. Newport Beach police caught up with Stephany about 5:30 p.m. near Fashion Island, where he failed field sobriety tests and had fresh track marks from heroin use.
Blood tests would show he had heroin and Lorazepam in his system. He also had another drug on him that is used to help with heroin withdrawal and had intended to check into a rehabilitation facility the following day, according to Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker, the prosecutor in the case.
Back at the collision scene, paramedics arrived to take Eagleson to Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, where he later died. A first-time impaired driver in a fatality case like this would normally be charged with manslaughter and face a much shorter sentence if convicted. Prosecutors sought a second-degree murder count because Stephany had a 2011 DUI conviction and signed a statement acknowledging he could be charged with murder if he killed someone while driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. He signed the advisement again in 2013.
An Orange County Superior Court jury on Oct. 26 found Stephany guilty of murder. During his sentencing Friday, Walker asked Judge Gary Paer to tack four more years onto the prison term because the defendant violated his parole for a 2013 conviction of assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury and unlawful possession of a controlled substance. Besides serving jail time for the 2011 and ’13 convictions, Stephany spent more time behind bars for violating parole in each case.
But Judge Paer’s sentence of 15 years to life in prison is standard for second-degree murder in California. It means that Stephany can eventually apply for parole and, based on his behavior inside he could be released, although there is no guarantee. His attorney, Brian Gurwitz, says his client has had an “impeccable record” while in custody.
City News Service courtroom reporter Paul Anderson also reports that Paer had harsh words for Stephany, saying his decision to “shoot heroin” before getting behind the wheel was “mind-boggling. … Hopefully this case will send a message to the community that this type of conduct won’t be tolerated.”
The judge and Stephany had heard from the wife of the victim, Sandra M. Eagleson, who tearfully described how wonderful her husband was and how he loved all genres of music and writing songs. At the time of his death, the former member of the Riverside band The Enemy Within had just started a studio in Huntington Beach called Apex Audio.
The wife said Stephany robbed them of their future. She read a letter to her unborn baby that described how she had battled celiac disease and had just been told she was healthy enough to get pregnant when the deadly accident happened. “Stephany killed someone else that day—the baby we worked so hard to have,” said the grieving wife, who’d been told at 18 she may never be able to have children.
The news made her “stop believing in miracles,” but then, “I met a boy and this one was different.” As Eagleson proposed to her, she told him he didn’t want her because she couldn’t make him a father. He replied, “I don’t care if you can’t have a baby, we can always adopt.”
Of the couple’s dreamed-of baby, Sandra Eagleson said, “We were so close to having you. We were finally ready, but then something happened, something ruined me forever. Someone selfish killed you both.”
Sylvia Zaldivar, Shaun Eagleson’s mother, told the judge that learning of her son’s death was the worst day of her life and that she continues to mourn him every day and feels unbelievable grief and sadness.
“Shaun was killed a year ago and it feels like yesterday,” said Zaldivar, who vowed to go to every parole board hearing to oppose Stephany’s release. “No matter how much time this killer gets it won’t be enough. I (expletive) hate him. I hate him.”
Obviously a letter Stephany wrote to Eagleson’s family fell on deaf ears. In it he wrote, “I am truly sorry for the anguish I have caused you. I take full responsibility in my actions as they have been quite selfish. This entire situation pains me deeply. I can’t imagine how you feel. If nothing else, I hope the letter can bring a bit of amity. I say this from the deepest place in my heart. I hope you accept my sincere apology.”
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.