Local family questions justice system after release of inmate

·9 min read

Mar. 30—WOODBRIDGE — A Woodbridge family is hoping an ordeal their son endured as a result of a 2018 hit-and-run will convince state lawmakers to change the criteria for violent offenders, and change policy with regard to sentencing and release from prison.

Joe Devencenzi had just left his grandmother's house near Katzakian Park and began driving to his Woodbridge home the evening of Oct. 22, 2018.

Turning east onto Turner Road from Bridgetowne Drive, Devencenzi followed his sister to the intersection at Woodhaven Lane and Lower Sacramento Road, when his family's lives would be changed forever.

"What happened to us was a parent's worst nightmare," father Aaron Devencenzi said. "My wife and I came home, we got a call from our daughter. She was in her vehicle about a quarter mile ahead of him. She heard the crash and came back and saw him in his own vehicle."

Joe Devencenzi was struck head on by another driver near Wine and Roses. His Chevrolet Camaro became stuck between a GMC Canyon pickup truck and the trailer it was hauling. The Camaro was pulled to the curb against a brick wall.

His sister found Joe Devencenzi, 21 at the time, leaning forward over the steering wheel, blood running from his nose and mouth, and cuts on his forehead.

Aaron Devencenzi said when he and his wife Susan arrived on scene, their son's legs were bent in opposite directions, and he was unconscious.

Lodi Police Department officers who responded to the collision told the Devencenzis the Canyon's driver had fled the scene on foot and was nowhere to be found.

The driver left behind two rifles, ammunition and several tools that were stored in a container on the trailer, according to News-Sentinel archives.

Joe Devencenzi was transported to the trauma unit at San Joaquin General Hospital in French Camp, where he underwent surgery to repair his pelvic area and right knee.

His right leg had been broken in three sections, the top ball of his left femur had been damaged and punched a hole through his pelvis.

He suffered several internal injures, a severe concussion, a broken nose and broken ribs. He also sustained lacerations on his arms and upper body, and medics pulled glass out oh head and face.

"He was basically injured from head to toe," Aaron Devencenzi said. "He was near death when he got to the trauma center. We were completely beside ourselves. Everything seemed like it was a bad nightmare."

Joe Devencenzi fell into a coma shortly after surgery, and doctors told the family if he didn't come out of it within a few days, they would likely need to place him in a skilled nursing facility.

Fortunately, he pulled out of the coma a few days later and was put into traction. However, he had no memory of his family, and did not know where he was or how he arrived at the hospital.

Several times, he tried to get up from his hospital bed, only to nearly injure himself in the process. Doctors had to tie him down to keep him from trying to move and cause more damage to his body.

He had sight and vision problems. A second surgery on his right leg left him paralyzed below the knee.

"I didn't know if he was going to come out of the coma," Susan Devencenzi said. "I think the scariest part for me was, when he was in hospital and didn't know any of us. He came out of it after a couple of days and we had some hope. He's just so young, for something like this to happen to him. Probably the hardest thing I ever had to deal with."

A few days after the accident, the GMC's driver — identified as then-42-year-old Brian Biehl of Lodi — turned himself into Lodi police. He was arraigned on Oct. 25, 2018, according to San Joaquin County court records.

Biehl had a history of run-ins with Lodi police, according to court records, as he was arrested on charges of felony possession of a firearm and ammunition in 2015; as well as for three drugs and ammunition offenses in 2012 and 13.

In 2006, he was arrested on charges of illegal possession of a firearm and ammunition, as well as resisting an officer resulting in great bodily injury.

On Sept. 13, 2019, he was sentenced to six years in prison for hit and run causing death or permanent serious injury; possessing or owning a firearm by a felon or addict, the manufacture, sale or possession of a multi-burst trigger activator; and possession of an assault weapon.

Biehl entered a state prison on Sept. 30, 2019, according to the California Department of Corrections.

The Devencenzi family was told Biehl received four months credit for as much as 11 months in jail. He also agreed to two years and four months in prison without being eligible for good behavior credit or even work credit, and that the full time would be served.

His release was scheduled for March of 2022, the family said.

On March 1, 2021, the Devencenzi family received word that Biehl would be released from prison in two days, a full year before his scheduled release date. The news upset the family.

"We could not get any answers," Aaron Devencenzi said. "The people we did talk to, and there were a lot of them ... we were told that we are in a climate where our state government is soft on crime, and it's their goal to let these people out."

Aaron Devencenzi eventually found Biehl had been sent to Dueul Vocational Institute in Tracy, then to Pleasant Valley Prison in Fresno. He eventually ended his sentence working at fire camp in Jamestown.

The family was told that because of the work-time credit, Biehl was eligible for parole as of August of 2021.

Joe Orlando, a spokesman for the CDCR, said pursuant to California law, Biehl was eligible to earn 50% day-for-day credits while imprisoned.

The sentencing court gave him 60 days of pre-sentence credits for time served while awaiting sentencing, 16 days of post-sentence credits for time awaiting transport to state prison, and 16 days of good-conduct credits, Orlando said.

Last year, CDCR announced that it would implement a one-time positive programming credit equal to 12 weeks to inmates in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because the inmate not considered a violent offender, Biehl was eligible for CDCR's Conservation (Fire) Camp program, earning two additional days off his sentence for every day served as a firefighter.

To be ineligible for the program, an inmate would have had to be convicted of sexual offenses, arson and any history of escape with force or violence, according to the CDCR.

In addition, Biehl earned an expedited release under Gov. Gavin Newsom's pandemic response to reduce prison populations in order to achieve social distancing guidelines.

Because he had less than 180 days on his sentence, and because he was not serving time for domestic violence, sex crimes or a violent crime as defined by state law, he was eligible for release.

A violent crime, according to state law, includes murder or voluntary manslaughter; mayhem; sexual assault offenses; robbery; first degree burglary; kidnapping; attempted murder; arson; carjacking; and " Any felony in which the defendant inflicts great bodily injury on any person other than an accomplice which has been charged and proved."

The latter, according to state law, does not include incidents involving motor vehicles or a hit and run.

Joe Devencenzi spent two weeks at San Joaquin General, and then another two weeks in a rehabilitation center at Adventist Health Lodi Memorial before he was able to return to his parents' Woodbridge home.

At the time of the accident, he was living in Modesto and attending Stanislaus State to pursue a career in law enforcement. He was hoping to land a position with the California Highway Patrol.

But, he said he will most likely never be able to pass a physical exam or an agility test due to his injuries.

"I'm still recovering," he said. "With my foot drop, there's some improvement but not enough to make it relevant for me to walk without a brace. So I'm pretty much dependent on this brace."

Joe Devencenzi is now looking at a career in the agricultural industry, doing something where he will not have to be on his feet for most of the day.

The Devencenzi family is angry that Biehl was not deemed a violent offender, and that Newsom ordered non-violent inmates released to stop the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.

Aaron Devencenzi said the governor's order victimized the family twice by releasing him, and using COVID-19 "as a very convenient excuse for releasing criminals back onto our streets."

"That accident and what he did to our son is one of the most violent things I've ever seen in my life," he said. "And their criteria for non-violent offenders is ridiculous. It's absurd and appalling. There is nothing non-violent about what (he) did to our family and our son."

Aaron Devencenzi added that he believed the early release, and lack of notification from CDCR was a violation of the state's Victims' Bill of Rights, more commonly known as Marsy's Law.

Under the law, "a victim has the right to reasonable notice of all public proceedings — upon request — at which the defendant and prosecutor are entitled to be present and of all parole or other post-conviction release proceedings, and to be present."

The CDCR said because Biehl was incarcerated with a fixed sentence, he did not need to go through Board of Parole hearings. Because he had a scheduled release date not determined by CDCR, there would not have been any notifications to be provided for a parole hearing process, the agency said.

In addition, victims must register with the CDCR's Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services to be notified of any status changes for an offender.

The agency could not disclose whether a victim or a victim's family is registered, citing privacy laws.

"Our son bares injuries as a result of one individual's criminal decisions, and that person has not served the time that was agreed upon," Aaron Devencenzi said. "What incentive is there for these criminals to not commit another crime? The punishment does not fit the crimes."

The family is also hoping Joe Devencenzi, now 24, will someday regain the complete use of his right leg. However, doctors have said he is "out of the time frame" for that to happen, and he may never fully recover, they said.

"A person that age shouldn't have to go through something like this," Joe Devencenzi said. "They shouldn't have to start their life and career out with a disability and have to have every day struggles trying to do things everyone else can do. Even tying your shoe is an obstacle I have to face every day. I will have permanent scars the rest of my life from someone who did wrong things in their life, and ended up ruining someone else's."

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