Emotions built up over the past four years overflowed at Madera County Superior Court on Monday as the family of a 15-year-old girl killed by a drunk driver called for the defendant to receive the maximum punishment allowed.
A jury convicted Marcos Miguel Torres of felony gross vehicular manslaughter last month for a crash he caused while under the influence of alcohol Nov. 8, 2019. According to social media posts from the Madera County District Attorney’s Office, Torres refused a ride home after drinking and later drove through a residential stop sign in Chowchilla at 81 mph, crashing his truck into a Suzuki and injuring several passengers, including 15-year-old Jaycee Willet. She died of her injuries.
During victim impact statements, friends and family members described Jaycee as someone who always put others first, loved gymnastics, children and her dog, Gypsy. She dreamed of becoming a mother.
“Jaycee was the only daughter,” said her mother, Melody Willet. “She was daddy’s girl and mommy’s world and loved by her brothers. She was the sunshine in our lives, but on Nov. 8, 2019, Marcos Torres turned our world gray.”
Melody Willet has counted the days since her daughter’s death, five Thanksgivings, four Christmas mornings and four birthdays “with no one to open presents, no one to blow out candles, no one to sing happy birthday to.”
“There is one day that is her day, Nov. 8, thanks to Marcos Torres,” she said.
Torres, who posted bail after the crash, was set to be sentenced Monday. But letters commenting on his behalf and translated from Spanish still need to be reviewed by the court, so the sentencing was rescheduled for Dec. 11. His attorney, Mark Coleman, told the court that other comments on Torres’ behalf would wait until that date as well.
Coleman’s law office did not immediately respond to a call requesting a comment Monday.
Statements by those who cared for Jaycee described grief that they said has been extended by the dragging out of the case, as well as severe mental health impacts.
Kevin Willet, Jaycee’s father, died from heart failure shortly after his daughter’s death – a result of what family members said was intolerable grief.
“Jaycee’s death was devastating to our entire family and made her father lose his will to live,” Melody Willet said. “The grief was too much for his heart. He died 11 days later.”
She added that the Willet family held a double memorial for the father and daughter.
Jeremy Willet, one of Jaycee’s brothers, was overcome with emotion during the statements and had to step out of the courtroom. Steve Burke, of Chowchilla’s Cornerstone Community Church, read Jeremy Willet’s comment for him.
“I still remember my dad’s scream when I called and told him she was dead,” Burke said on behalf of Jeremy Willet. “At 19 years old, I had to deliver the devastating news to my father.”
Jeremy Willet told the Bee after the hearing that his brother, Jordan Willet, has been barred from the court due to an outburst during a past hearing. In her statement, Melody Willet said flashbacks of seeing EMTs try to save his sister caused him trauma that has led him to spend time in a mental health facility.
Other statements from supporters of the Willet family noted what Jaycee Willet will never experience due to her death.
Estee Robinson, a family member, contrasted the “choices that Marcos (Torres) made” with the absence of choice for Jaycee Willett.
“Where was Jaycee’s choice in all of this?” Robinson said. “Jaycee never got to choose how she would style her hair for her walk across the stage while accepting her diploma. She never got the choice of which young man at school would escort her to homecoming dance, the choice to celebrate her 16th birthday, the choice to apply for colleges.”
Lisa Barragan, the wife of Chowchilla Mayor Ray Barragan Jr. and an aunt of Jaycee Willet, noted that Torres is himself a father.
“When this is done, Marcos (Torres) will be able to hold his kids again,” Barragan said, “but my sister will never be able to hold her daughter again.”
Melody Willet said she found out Torres had pulled her daughter from the vehicle after the crash, and had at one point felt sympathy for the defendant. However, she said she realized Torres did not show regret when she faced him after an arraignment hearing in 2019 and he told her “’it was an accident’ with a slight grin.”
She added that she is expecting comments on behalf of Torres to say “he’s a great guy” with children of his own, and that his family will plead for a lesser sentence.
“Well, this isn’t about what his family will feel or what they might go through or how much they’re going to miss him,” Melody Willet said. “It’s about what he stole from Jaycee and what her family has, and continues to go through, because of him.”
In response to comments that Torres showed no remorse or accountability, Coleman, Torres’ attorney, told the court that his client has been willing to plead guilty to the charges he was convicted of and offered to meet with those impacted in a mediated setting.
After the hearing, the prosecuting attorney, Benjamin Levy, said mediation would have “gone nowhere” because the defense was offering a guilty plea for gross vehicular manslaughter alongside a dismissal of a murder count.
“That was not something we were willing to settle the case for,” Levy said.
Several people who commented on behalf of the Willet family called for a maximum sentence for Torres, adding that making an example of him could help deter others from driving drunk and save lives. A maximum sentence in this case could be between 11 and 14 years of prison time, Levy said.
He expects the defense to argue in favor of probation for Torres – a sentence he said would be surprising if it went through.
La Abeja, a newsletter written for and by California Latinos
Sign up here to receive our weekly newsletter centered around Latino issues in California.