MADERA – A horrific head-on collision near the 22-Mile House on Highway 41, claimed the lives of three young women back in August of 2009.
Today, a Madera County jury convicted Justin Eugene Rice of three felony counts of second degree murder, three felony counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, one count of felony driving under the influence causing injury, and two misdemeanor counts of resisting arrest, according to District Attorney Michael R. Keitz. The convictions came following a 6-week jury trial in the Madera Superior Court.On Aug. 20 , 2009, Rice, 35, of Ventura, California, was driving south on State Route 41, when he entered the north bound lane, forcing the oncoming vehicles to swerve to avoid a collision. According to ABC 30 in Fresno, Highway Patrol spokesman Matt Radke described Rice’s driving before the crash as, “Erratic, reckless, selfish. It all comes down to the fact that he was DUI.”
Radke said the CHP had received calls that Rice was weaving in and out of traffic, and running cars off a two-lane section of Highway 41. “Unfortunately, the one vehicle that didn’t see him was struck by the DUI driver.”
The officer on the scene was quoted as saying the then-32-year-old driver was so high on marijuana and possibly meth, he had no idea he had been in an accident. The officer also said that Rice told him he had heard an explosion, but didn’t know he had slammed head-on into a car with 5 women carpooling to work at the Chukchansi casino.
Three of those women perished in the crash; Elena Mendoza, Maria Rodriguez and Estella Frias, all in their thirties, all from Madera.
Rice, who was later determined to be under the influence of methamphetamine, was taken to the emergency room at Madera Community Hospital where he tried to escape, and fought the officers attempting to restrain him.
“He suffered hardly any injuries, killed three innocent people going to work making a living, and becomes combative with the officers,” Radke told ABC 30.
Rice was reportedly out on bail from the Ventura County Jail. According to the Ventura County Star, he was arrested in May on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon, child endangerment and being under the influence of a controlled substance.
Reports say that Rice was seen ramming his vehicle into a car driven by his mother, in which his 5-year-old son was a passenger. Rice had lost custody of the child, and was trying to run his mother off the road to take his son, police said.
On Wednesday, Jan. 2, Rice was convicted on nine counts, and awaits sentencing. Senior Deputy District Attorney Edmund Gill presented the evidence at trial.
Rice is expected to return to court on Jan. 15, when Judge David Minier will consider the special allegation that Rice previously suffered a prior strike conviction under California’s Three Strikes Law, and a further allegation that Rice committed other crimes for which he spent time in prison.
For his actions, Rice is facing up to life in prison when he is sentenced.
“The deaths of three victims in this case is a tragic consequence of Rice’s choice to drive a vehicle while under the influence of drugs,” said District Attorney Keitz. “It also demonstrates that such unlawful and reckless conduct can result in the driver being convicted of murder.”