1 man found guilty of second-degree murder, another manslaughter, for killing Bakersfield grandmother in street racing trial

Mar. 17—The grandmother was simply driving her two young grandchildren on Old River Road's busy corridor when the unexpected happened a little more than three years ago: A red Mustang speeding at about 130 mph clipped Maria Navarro's van so hard it flung across a concrete median and broadsided into a crane truck.

And after deliberating for about two days, Kern County jurors on Friday found Ronald Pierce Jr. — the Mustang's driver — guilty of second-degree murder in the killing of Navarro and having a blood alcohol level of more than 0.08 percent. Israel Maldonado, who started what prosecutors called a street contest, was acquitted of murder but found guilty of vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving.

"I'm very glad that the jury held these men accountable for what they did to the victim in this case, Maria Navarro," Deputy District Attorney Cole McKnight, the case's prosecutor, told reporters.

Around dusk on Nov. 24, 2019, Maldonado in a Dodge Ram truck started spinning his wheels in place while stopped at a red light next to Pierce. The smoking wheels prompted a challenge of a street race during which Pierce — with a blood alcohol content three times higher than the legal limit of 0.08 — sped down Old River Road and hit Navarro just before The Marketplace, McKnight argued during trial.

Maldonado's attorney, Tony V. Lidgett, denied his client engaged in a speed race during closing arguments.

David Torres, Pierce's attorney, argued in court his client's actions never amounted to malice as is required by a second-degree murder conviction. Pierce attempted to swerve away from traffic but couldn't because Maldonado nipped his Mustang, Torres said. He texted a reporter this case warrants nothing more than a gross vehicular manslaughter charge, as he said during his closing arguments.

"I recognize trying a case which involves alcohol, a death and injured children is difficult and can be very emotional to jurors," Torres' text continued. "The fact that the entire episode, including the crash was videotaped by my client on a Dash Cam exacerbated the entire event."

Torres broke down the five seconds before the Mustang's collision into Navarro's car during trial several times to show Pierce attempted to swerve away from the grandmother's car but wasn't able.

Lidgett has denied his client nipped Pierce's Mustang. The attorney sought a full acquittal because he said Maldonado never engaged in a race and never hit Navarro's van.

Prosecutor McKnight said the family thanked him and law enforcement for working the last three years to net this verdict.

"They're very grateful to the jury for holding these two men accountable," McKnight said. He noted it was disappointing to see Maldonado exonerated of a second-degree murder charge, but he can understand why jurors reached their verdict.

"He was less culpable," McKnight added of Maldonado.

Driving drunk and excessive speeding are two of the most deadly and dangerous crimes committed on roads, Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer said in a written statement on this verdict.

"That Pierce combined two inherently dangerous crimes put everyone in danger, and his complete disregard for the safety of the community has left a trail of death and destruction in his wake," Zimmer continued. "Today's verdict holds both men accountable for their roles in this senseless tragedy, and a proper sentence will protect the public from further harm at their hands."

Sentencing is scheduled for May 5.

The outcry and frustration over street racing built in 2019 as unsafe drivers seemingly overtook Bakersfield's roads. It was only a matter of time until someone died, The Californian's reporting that year said.

It just happened to be a Bakersfield grandmother simply driving her two grandchildren.

You can reach Ishani Desai at 661-395-7417. You can also follow her at @_ishanidesai on Twitter.