Accused drunken driver in fatal crash apologizesA man accused of driving drunk, fleeing an officer and causing an early Saturday morning crash that killed two Grand Forks residents and injured two others appeared Monday in front of a judge in state District Court, apologizing to the victims’ relatives and friends who packed the courtroom.
GRAND FORKS — A man accused of driving drunk, fleeing an officer and causing an early Saturday morning crash that killed two Grand Forks residents and injured two others appeared Monday in front of a judge in state District Court, apologizing to the victims’ relatives and friends who packed the courtroom.
“I just want to say I’m sorry about everything,” said Celso Garza, who appeared from the Grand Forks County jail via video.
Garza, 24, of East Grand Forks, is charged with two counts of homicide while fleeing an officer and two counts of assault while fleeing an officer, along with charges of driving under the influence, possessing marijuana, possessing drug paraphernalia, driving with his license revoked and fleeing. He was ticketed for running a red light and having an open alcoholic beverage in his vehicle.
Over the weekend, prosecutors said Garza would be charged with manslaughter and reckless endangerment, but Assistant State’s Attorney Thomas Falck said out of court Monday that state law allowed for stiffer charges, namely homicide while fleeing an officer — a Class A felony with a maximum prison sentence of 20 years — and assault while fleeing an officer — a Class B felony with a maximum of 10 years.
Because those charges are considered “violent offenses,” Garza, if convicted, would have to serve 85 percent of his time in prison before he became eligible for parole, Judge Debbie Kleven said. If convicted on all charges, Garza would face a maximum prison sentence of 63 years and two months.
Garza appeared in court Monday without an attorney. The mother of Garza’s 18-month-old son, Dina Diamanti, sat in the courtroom gallery and told the judge she and Garza are trying to hire a private attorney. “Right now, he’s obviously not working, and he has a baby on the way, so I don’t know if he can afford it,” she said.
Garza told the judge that up until last week he had worked in the packaging department at Philadelphia Macaroni in Grand Forks. His girlfriend spoke up to say he has lost his job and that she’s supporting their family.
The judge approved Garza for a public defender in case he can’t retain an attorney. She set Garza’s bail at $105,000. He’s set for a preliminary hearing Aug. 2.
Police said Garza was stopped at the intersection of Columbia Road and University Avenue for running a red light early Saturday morning. As an officer approached Garza’s vehicle, he sped south on Columbia, reaching an estimated speed of 100 mph.
The officer considered ending the chase seconds before Garza’s 1995 Chevrolet Lumina broadsided a 2009 Pontiac G6 in the intersection of Columbia and 17th Avenue South, about a mile from where Garza was pulled over. The Pontiac had the green light, police said.
Katie Olson, 22, was driving the Pontiac; Michael Badurek, 18, was the front-seat passenger; Tasha Brenno, 19, and James Freestone, 21, were in the backseat. The four, who worked at the Hugo’s grocery store across from Altru Hospital, had just attended Relay for Life, a late-night cancer benefit in University Park.
Brenno and Freestone were killed in the crash. Olson remains hospitalized at Altru with injuries, which include a broken jaw and fractured bones in her neck. Badurek was treated for his injuries and released Saturday morning.
After the crash, a small amount of marijuana, a pipe and an open 40-ounce bottle of booze were found in Garza’s car, police said.
‘Heal in time’
When the judge announced Garza’s case Monday, Freestone’s sister, Carol Bjarnason, took the hand of her husband as they sat on a bench behind prosecutors.
They watched as Garza looked down at the documents charging him. Several times throughout the hearing, Garza wiped his eyes.
Outside of court, Bjarnason said she felt sorry for Garza’s relatives. “His family is hurting just as much as ours is right now,” she said.
“They will all heal in time,” Sandy Olson said of her daughter’s injuries.
“The emotional part is going to be worse,” said Beth Melby, a Hugo’s manager who supervised the four crash victims.
Melby said Brenno “was a very nice girl. She would have given her heart. We were so proud of her at work because she got her (high school) diploma.”
Olson’s mom said many Hugo’s employees have gone to visit her daughter at Altru. “It’s her second family,” she said.
Archie Ingersoll is a reporter at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, which is owned by
Forum Communications Co.