Alton man pleads not guilty in fatal smuggling crash

Trial set for December; man faces up to life in prison

On what would have been Cesar Martinez Galarza’s 76th birthday, the man accused of causing his death appeared in court.

Fernando Miranda Rodriguez, standing next to his attorney Abiel Flores, pleaded not guilty Tuesday morning to charges related to a May 6 crash in La Joya that left Martinez dead and another man seriously injured.

Rodriguez, 19, faces several charges, including one count of murder, one count of accident involving death, one count of evading arrest/detention causing death, and evading arrest with serious bodily injury, and three counts of smuggling of persons, records show.

The state contends that just before 2 p.m. on May 6, in La Joya, Rodriguez, who was allegedly attempting to transport three men suspected of being in the country illegally, tried to flee from a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper who attempted to conduct a traffic stop on Rodriguez’s 2007 Chevrolet Impala.

According to the official crash report, as Fernandez drove away from the DPS trooper at an “unsafe” speed down U.S. Highway 83 near the intersection of Farm-to-Market Road 2221, he collided with Rafael Gonzalez Lopez, 44, of Sullivan City, as Gonzalez turned onto a private drive in his 2004 Chevrolet Tracker SUV with Martinez, then 75, as his passenger.

The report states Rodriguez “drove around stopped traffic and struck” Gonzalez’s vehicle on the “right back quarter” with Rodriguez’s right front.

“(Rodriguez’s vehicle) drove around stopped traffic and due to his unsafe speed, he was unable to control his vehicle,” the document stated. “(Rodriguez) fled the scene of the crash on foot but was later apprehended.”

There were three men inside Rodriguez’s Impala at the time of the crash who fled, but like Rodriguez, they were subsequently arrested.

Martinez died May 25 as a result of the injuries he suffered in the crash, while Gonzalez suffered serious injuries and was released. Martinez, who was born in Mexico Oct. 1, 1943, was buried in Mission May 31.

Despite the state’s objection that Rodriguez was a flight risk because he’s not a legal resident, the court set a bond of $190,000 for him during Tuesday’s hearing. Rodriguez has been in custody for nearly five months, records show.

Flores argued his client, who turned 19 years-old about a month before the crash, was not a flight risk because has no prior criminal history, and despite his lack of legal status in the country, has lived in the U.S. the “majority of his life.”

Rodriguez, when asked if he had a job prior to his arrest, said he worked for his family’s bakery. He also said he completed 11th grade, but had failed to graduate from high school.

If convicted of the murder charge, a first degree felony, Rodriguez faces between five and 99 years to life in prison.

The Alton native is scheduled for his final pre-trial hearing Dec. 5, with a jury trial set for Dec. 16, records show.