Two families sat in a Stanislaus County Superior courtroom Thursday afternoon awaiting a judge’s decision on the appropriate sentence for a 19-year-old man guilty of killing another man in a drunk driving collision. Both families left disappointed.
The family of Naremsen Edward Kalyana, who was 28 years old when he died, wanted the defendant to feel the full weight of the law and the consequences of his actions with a lengthy prison term.
The family of Alejandro Valdovinos begged the court to show leniency on a young man who had no prior offenses and a future rife with prospects of bettering himself and others.
After hearing impassioned pleas from both families and the arguments from both attorneys, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Ricardo Cordova said probation would not be an appropriate sentence and that the offense merited a prison term. He sentenced Valdovinos to a total of five years and eight months in prison.
“I think you are a good man and you unfortunately made a serious mistake,” Cordova told Valdovinos. “I hope you can find some way to make peace with it. And to the victim’s family I hope that you also will find some form of peace.”
Kalyana was one of three children in his family. He has a twin sister, Nohara, and an older brother Nerary. Born and raised in Iraq, Kalyana and his family were forced to flee the war-ravaged country in 2008 and settled in Syria, where he promptly found a job and contributed to the family income. In 2013, the family decided they must once again move, as war had found its way to Syria. They moved to the United States and settled in Turlock, where they joined a close-knit Assyrian community of family and friends. Kalyana got a job working at the Amazon distribution center in Patterson. He typically worked the overnight shift Tuesday through Friday, but his boss asked him if he could work an extra shift, and he agreed because he and his brother were the main providers for the family and his twin sister had an upcoming wedding. Kalyana had plans to buy her the wedding dress of her dreams and the money from an extra shift would help.
No words can begin to describe what effect his death has had on us. Our family has a sentence of daily pain.Florida Oraha
On Oct. 22, 2017, Kalyana was returning home from working the overnight shift. It was about 7 a.m. and he was stopped at the intersection of W. Main Street and S. Carpenter Road when his 2014 Chevrolet Cruze was hit from behind by a 2017 Ford Mustang.
The Mustang was traveling at a speed around 80 to 90 miles per hour and there was no evidence of braking or swerving before the collision, according to the California Highway Patrol. The force of the impact pushed both cars an estimated 285 feet forward, before spinning around and coming to rest alongside the road. Both vehicles caught on fire immediately in the wake of the collision. A fellow motorist was able to help Valdovinos and his cousin Enrique Valdovinos out of the Mustang, but the flames were already engulfing the Cruze. Kalyana died at the scene of the collision.
Florida Oraha, Kalyana’s mother, recounted waking up that Sunday morning and being surprised to find her son was not yet home. She tried his phone, but got no answer. She asked his brother, who also tried calling, but with the same result. Kalyana’s aunt and uncle arrived at the house and their collective apprehension began to grow as the minutes then hours ticked by and still there was no word from Kalyana. Just as they were preparing to drive the route he traveled to and from work, a California Highway Patrol vehicle pulled up to their home and a man in a uniform got out of the car and approached their front door. The officer delivered the shattering news to them and in an instant their world had spun into a new orbit, one that would always feel off-kilter.
God gave me a second chance. Life is beautiful and precious and never to be taken for granted. I will not let the name Naremsen Kalyana go in vain and he will live in my heart forever.Alejandro Valdovinos
“My precious baby boy was burned to ashes,” she wrote. The family brought with them the tarnished chain and cross that belonged to Kalyana and was found with his remains.
“His death has caused pain that I never knew existed,” said Kalyana’s aunt Philadelphia Mikael.
In letter after letter, Kalyana’s friends and family described a hard-working man who was full of love for others and awaited the day when he would start his own family. Instead of a wedding, they celebrated his life in memorial services that were held in various spots around the world, as a show of the impact Kalyana had on the lives of others.
Even in death Kalyana’s life continues to make an impact on others, perhaps none more so than on the man responsible for ending his life.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t regret my choices and think that it should have been me that died,” Valdovinos told the courtroom. “God gave me a second chance. Life is beautiful and precious and never to be taken for granted. I will not let the name Naremsen Kalyana go in vain and he will live in my heart forever.”
Valdovinos told the judge that he is haunted by the decisions he made that led to Kalyana’s death and how out of character they were to his nature.
Raised by a single mother with one sister, Valdovinos recognized the need for a stable income at an early age. At 16 years of age he began working as a roofer for his grandfather’s business in Santa Cruz. At 17, he made the decision to finish his high school education through independent study, so that he could work full-time in construction and continue to help his mother financially. Living in Hayword, he spent his days toiling in hard labor and his nights studying, but the long hours eventually began to wear on him and he considered dropping out or quitting his job. His mother, Bernice Flores, said she would support his decision, but encouraged him to find some motivation that would keep him focused. He found that motivation with the goal of buying his dream car — a brand new Ford Mustang.
Valdovinos met that goal and the achievement made him feel other dreams were just as possible. He had a dream of one day becoming an anesthesiologist and through his research, determined that joining the military would be his best option for gaining the finances he would need to meet his goal. He met with a recruiter from the Air Force and began the process to enlist in July 2017. By October he was preparing to take his physical and had just taken a flight lesson. His future was looking good the night he and his cousin went to a party in the Central Valley, which is where he made the decision to drink, take cocaine and eventually get behind the wheel.
Traveling down the rural road at dawn in his dream car, Valdovinos displayed a recklessness that his family said was out of character for the teenager. He drove at an excessive speed, flashing his high beams at vehicles driving in front of him. One witness recounted that Valdovinos passed him on a double yellow line and nearly caused a head-on collision with an oncoming car.
Then there was a cloud of dust and the lives of two families were forever altered.
On Oct. 1, 2018, Valdovinos entered guilty pleas to gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and two counts of driving under the influence causing great bodily injury. In addition to Kalyana’s death, the collision left Valdovinos’ cousin with a fractured back. Valdovinos’ only hope of avoiding prison was if the judge opted to show leniency on him. It was a result his family fought stridently to achieve.
“My son is responsible and hard-working,” Flores told the judge. He has had no other trouble with the law… His heart is so pure. My son is not the monster that they see.”
In the end, Cordova stated there was no sentence he could impose that would ever bring back Kalyana to his family or assuage their grief. Nor could he let Valdovinos off with probation, regardless of his good character and what effects prison may have on him. The best he could do was to leave two families disappointed.