LANCASTER – A 24-year-old man accused of driving drunk and causing a crash that killed two Walmart employees must stand trial, a judge ruled Friday.
Tommie Lee Cole was held to answer on eight felony counts, including two counts of second-degree murder, in connection with a Feb. 26 collision that killed Jeffrey Gilstrap, 23, and Beau Josh Owen Fluker, 26.
Around 2:26 a.m., Fluker and Gilstrap were carpooling home from a late-night work shift at Walmart when their vehicle collided with Cole’s vehicle at the intersection of 20th Street West and Avenue J in Lancaster.
During a two-day preliminary hearing that ended Friday, attorneys argued over which party was at fault for the collision.
Prosecutors said a blood sample, taken less than an hour after the crash, put Cole’s blood-alcohol level at .21% — nearly three times the legal limit. Prosecutors also showed a video-taped interview of Cole, which was recorded by investigators in the hours following the crash.
In the video, Cole said he drank six Budweisers in the eight hours before the crash, while hanging out with friends at the Sunset Ridge Apartments. Cole said he was headed home, going northbound on 20th Street West, when he tried to “beat” the yellow light at the Avenue J intersection.
“It’s yellow, I’m pretty close, so I’m trying to make it through the yellow,” Cole said in the video-taped interview.
Asked if he’d made it through the yellow, Cole replied, “Apparently not.”
But Cole’s defense attorney, J. Nigel Villanueva, said his client was being “sarcastic” when he made that statement. Villanueva argued that it was possible that Cole had a yellow light going into the intersection, and that the other party may have caused the collision by speeding and running a red light.
“Nobody knows who ran the red light and that’s a fact,” Villanueva said.
A thorough investigation revealed that Gilstrap and Fluker’s vehicle, which was going eastbound on Avenue J, entered the intersection at about 40 miles per hour, testified deputy Mike Politano, of the Lancaster Station’s Traffic Unit.
The investigation also concluded that Cole was the one who failed to stop for the red light, according to testimony from Traffic Investigator Richard Daley.
The judge sided with the prosecution, and denied a motion by the defense to dismiss the charges for insufficient evidence. Cole was ordered to stand trial on two counts of murder, two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, two counts of driving under the influence and causing injury, and two counts of driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.08% or greater and causing injury.
“I’m sure he didn’t intend to kill anybody, but he chose to get behind the wheel when he was drunk,” said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Randolph Rogers, in rendering his ruling Friday.
Many family members of Fluker and Gilstrap were in the courtroom Friday. Linda Gilstrap said she was shocked that Cole’s defense attorney thought he could get the charges dismissed, and she was disappointed that Cole seemed unwilling to take responsibility for her son’s death.
“He doesn’t seem to really get that the lives of everyone who loves Beau and Jeffrey are permanently changed and we don’t have any choice in the matter,” Gilstrap said. “If Tommie Lee really got what he’s done, he wouldn’t be expecting to just walk away from this and have the charges dismissed.”
Gilstrap said Cole had many options available to him on Feb. 26 that would have prevented her son’s death.
“He could have taken a taxi home, he could have slept at his friend’s apartment, he could have called somebody and asked for a ride,” Gilstrap said. “He had a chance to prevent this, and he didn’t, so he has to face the consequences for what he’s done.
Cole was ordered back to custody on $2 million bail. He is due back in court on Nov. 9 for a second arraignment.
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