RIVERSIDE – A thrice-convicted drunken driver goes on trial today, accused of murder for allegedly crashing his Range Rover into a Perris woman’s car while under the influence, triggering a fire that killed her.
Juan Antonio Covarrubias, 31, could face 15 years to life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder and driving on a suspended license in the March 31, 2011, death of 43-year-old Gyla Walters.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Richard Fields began hearing motions on evidence and witnesses in the case on Wednesday. Jury selection will get under way today, when Fields is slated to bring prospective jurors into his courtroom in downtown Riverside for questioning as to their availability and qualifications.
Opening statements are tentatively set for Monday.
On the night of the crash, the defendant allegedly had a blood-alcohol level that was more than twice the legal limit to operate a motor vehicle in California.
Covarrubias left a house party in Perris in the predawn hours and headed west in his 2005 Range Rover, intending to return to Anaheim, according to the prosecution.
Around the same time, Walters was going home after working an overnight shift at a DHL plant in Moreno Valley. She was stopped at the intersection of Ramona Expressway and Evans Road, a couple of blocks from her house, waiting for the light to change, when Covarrubias approached from behind in his SUV, according to court papers.
Witnesses told sheriff’s deputies that Covarrubias’ SUV was weaving between lanes and never slowed down before slamming into the back of the victim’s Mazda Protege. The impact triggered a fire in the Protege’s fuel tank, and flames quickly consumed the vehicle, with Walters trapped inside.
Witnesses said Covarrubias initially tried to free Walters but couldn’t get her door open, abandoning the effort as the flames intensified, leaving Walters to die in the fire. According to prosecutors, the defendant tried to bribe passing motorists to help him get away, offering one man $500.
Deputies arrived moments later and arrested Covarrubias, who has been in custody at the Smith Correctional Facility in Banning in lieu of $1 million bail.
The D.A.’s Office alleges that Covarrubias admitted during an interview with investigators that he had been warned by several people, including a relative, not to drive that night after the party, but did not heed the warnings.
Covarrubias has three prior misdemeanor DUI convictions, according to court records. He was on probation at the time of Walters’ death.