Teen charged in crash that killed 5 others denies allegations; attorney says DA seeks to try him as adult

A Laguna Niguel teen charged with manslaughter in connection with a fiery crash that killed five other teens last year denied the allegations in a petition in juvenile court Monday, his attorney said.

The Orange County District Attorney’s Office has also petitioned to charge Bradley Morales as an adult, said his attorney, Michael Khouri. OCDA Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder said the office is unable to comment on juvenile matters until the defendant is determined to be an adult by the court.

Authorities say Morales was 16 and driving without a license on Oct. 4, 2014, when he crashed a relative’s 1995 BMW sedan on the southbound I-5 in Irvine, killing all five of his passengers. The carload of teens was heading home at about 2 a.m. after a night at Knott’s Scary Farm when the crash occurred.

After a year-long investigation, authorities on Saturday arrested Morales, now 17, on five felony counts of gross vehicular manslaughter, driving a vehicle without a license and failure to show proof of financial responsibility.

Morales is due back in court on Nov. 16, when a judge will consider a report from the probation department that will recommend whether the case should proceed in juvenile or adult court.

A judge can decide whether a defendant is fit for juvenile court in what is called a fitness hearing. In California, the minimum age a juvenile can be transferred to adult court is 14 for some major crimes, like rape and murder, and 16 for any crime.

Khouri said the teen has no prior criminal record, and a blood analysis after the crash showed no evidence of drugs or alcohol. The case, he said, should remain in juvenile court.

“We do not believe there is any credible evidence that he was the driver of the vehicle,“ Khouri said. “The allegations, even taken as true, present the case of a 16-year-old speeding on the freeway, with no evidence of drugs, weapons or gang affiliation.”

“This is a horrific accident, but it’s an accident nonetheless,” he added.

Authorities have not released an official cause of the accident, but the California Highway Patrol said Morales crashed into an embankment wall at high speed.

After the crash, a fire ignited with five teens still inside the car. The five were: Jennifer Bahena, 14, of Laguna Hills; Jennifer Campos, 15, of Aliso Viejo; Matthew Ivan Melo, 15, of Mission Viejo; Brandon Alejandro Moreno, 14, of Mission Viejo; and Alejandro Sotelo, 14, of San Juan Capistrano.

Morales, the lone survivor, was thrown from the car before it burst into flames. He was hospitalized and underwent surgery for a skull fracture and brain hemorrhage.

“The doctors at Mission Hospital saved his life, and the quality of his life,” Khouri said.

Morales could face more than a decade in custody if he is tried as an adult, according to Khouri and William Weinberg, an Orange County criminal defense attorney who handles juvenile cases and isn’t involved in this case. Weinberg said if tried as a juvenile and convicted, Morales could be kept in custody until he’s 21.

The attorney said a judge looks at five main factors when considering whether to send a minor to adult court: degree of criminal sophistication, criminal history, the possibility of rehabilitation and the circumstances and gravity of the crime.

Weinberg said a judge could find Morales fit for adult court based solely on the severity of the case.

“The number of victims is just so compelling, and the fact that he was an unlicensed driver, and speeding obviously played a part,” he said.

Based on the charges, Morales could face roughly 12 years in custody if he is tried as an adult, Weinberg said.

Nearly 600 juveniles statewide were transferred to adult court in 2014, according to statistics from the California Attorney General. Of those, more than 60 percent were 17 at the time of arrest.

Contact the writer: kpuente@ocregister.com, 714-834-3773

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