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MARTINEZ — For the second time in some 40 years, 83-year-old Vacaville resident Betty Rushton and her family left a Contra Costa County courthouse on Monday feeling the justice system failed them.
In 1969, Rushton’s eldest of three daughters, Susan Rushton, was killed by a drunken driver in Richmond at age 19. The driver served 90 days in County Jail.
Last summer, another drunken driver killed her youngest daughter, 57-year-old Walnut Creek attorney Kathleen Moorhead.
Given that DUI laws are much tougher today than in Susan’s time, the family was hoping Ruel “Bud” Sasser would receive the maximum penalty — 10 years in prison. But after the sentencing Monday, a prosecutor said it is unlikely Sasser will ever step in a cell.
“I know you are disappointed,” prosecutor Paul Sequeira told Moorhead’s family as they shared tears and hugs outside the courthouse. “I’m disappointed in a bigger picture in that I don’t like the message being sent.”
Sasser, 70, of Concord, had not even had a traffic ticket before he struck Moorhead with his truck as she was walking on Treat Boulevard on July 17, 2010. As the dozens of people who wrote letters and spoke before Judge Leslie Landau would attest, he is a fine man. Caring, generous and responsible, he is a role model for his family and friends. He had a long and distinguished career at Chevron, where he started with a menial job at a service station and retired as an IT supervisor.
driving was so out of character for Sasser that many close to him said they have never seen him consume more than an occasional light beer.
His attorney, William Gagan, asked for probation over prison time based on Sasser’s history and numerous medical issues.
“A prison sentence for this man I think could well be a death sentence,” Gagan said.
Sequeira asked Landau to focus on the accident, rather than the defendant, when determining a sentence.
Sasser had several drinks as he and a friend visited three restaurants in Danville and Blackhawk that day. About 6:30 p.m., he was driving home east on Treat Boulevard. He first hit a median and blew a tire about a quarter-mile from where Moorhead was killed, but continued on. He scraped the median three more times before hitting it hard enough to flatten a second tire. It was then, while making two short calls on his touch-screen cell phone, that Sasser lost control of his truck and veered across all lanes of traffic, jumping a sidewalk curb.
Moorhead, taking an evening walk, saw the truck barrelling toward her and tried to jump over a fence. Sasser ran her over — 14 feet from the curb line — before crashing into that fence and a tree. A witness pulled the keys from Sasser’s ignition, fearing he might flee. Sasser had a .15 blood alcohol content — nearly twice the legal limit — when tested an hour after his arrest.
Moorhead’s only surviving sibling, Nancy Van Tassel, said she feels there is an “endless, bottomless abyss in my life that will never be filled.”
Moorhead, too, was described as a rock of the family, having cared for her father before his death the previous year. Moorhead did a two-year stint in the Navy and worked as a nurse for 13 years. She was in the Army Reserve for 23 years, serving as a battalion commander and reaching the rank of colonel. She passed the California bar in 1986 and worked since 2003 as the head of Fidelity National Financial’s Northern California litigation department. To opposing attorneys, she was known as “The Terminator.”
“We have to demonstrate the consequences of this conduct,” Sequeira said, pounding his fist on a courtroom podium. “If you drink and drive and kill, prison is where you need to go.”
Sasser sobbed as Sequeira listed Moorhead’s numerous injuries.
“I’m so sorry for the pain and suffering I put you all through,” Sasser said, turning to Moorhead’s family. “My actions that day are inexcusable.”
“Thank you,” Betty Rushton mouthed from the audience.
In the end, Landau sentenced Sasser to five years formal probation that, if violated, would lift suspension from a six-year prison sentence. She sentenced him to a year in County Jail that would be served either in custody or through electronic home monitoring, at the discretion of the Sheriff’s Office. She ordered him to 200 hours of community service, speaking to students about drunken driving.
“Maybe you’ll be able to save a life and balance the books in your own mind,” Landau said.
Sequeira said in his 26 years being a prosecutor, he knows of no such case where the defendant avoided jail or prison time. Sequeira said he has found suspended prison sentences “hollow” and, given jail overcrowding and Sasser’s medical issues, he foresees the Sheriff’s Office picking home detention.
“Days like today are among the hardest judges have to handle,” Landau said.
She said important factors in her decision were Sasser’s decision to plead guilty without any guarantee of a sentence or negotiated deal, as well as his “heartfelt” apology to Moorhead’s family.
“Given the man in front of us today, the maximum of 10 years in prison is not appropriate,” Landau said. “I don’t mean in any way to demean Ms. Moorhead.”
Reach Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684.