A Mexican man who has been deported at least 15 times pleaded not guilty Wednesday to a felony drunken driving crash in San Ysidro that fractured the skull of a 6-year-old boy.
Lennox Lake’s parents didn’t go to court for the arraignment, preferring to stay at their son’s bedside at Rady Children’s Hospital. “He’s a tough kid,” father Benjamin Lake said. “He wants to go home, to his brothers, his dog, to play on his computer and go to the park.”
But Lennox will have to stay at the hospital for at least nine more days while he receives antibiotics for a common strep infection that set in after surgery to repair his skull, his family said.
The boy was knocked unconscious and wasn’t breathing when a pickup slammed into his parents’ Honda Accord late Saturday night as they returned from a day at Disneyland. Lake and his wife, Ingrid, suffered minor injuries.
Constantino Banda-Acosta, 38, is suspected of speeding through a stop sign on Camino de la Plaza at Dairy Mart Road in San Ysidro and plowing his pickup into the side of the Accord. Then, authorities say, he kept going.
He was arrested about a mile away, where Border Patrol agents found him in the damaged pickup with a passenger.
Immigration officials say Banda-Acosta, 38, has been returned to Mexico at least 15 times since 2002 for being in the U.S. illegally, most recently in January.
Banda-Acosta entered his not guilty plea in Chula Vista Superior Court to felony charges of driving under the influence of alcohol, driving with a blood-alcohol level of more than 0.08 percent and hit-and-run, and a misdemeanor charge of driving without a license. If convicted, he faces a possible sentence of seven years and eight months in prison. (The judge ordered that images of Constantino Banda-Acosta in court be blurred.(Courtesy: KSWB)
At the prosecutor’s request, Judge Edward Allard III set the defendant’s bail at $230,000. Because the defense attorney did not oppose the bail amount, the judge did not allow a prosecutor to reveal other details about the case.
A defense lawyer asked that prosecutors make sure a material witness, likely the man taken into custody with Banda-Acosta, not be deported pending further investigation. The witness is being held by immigration authorities, Deputy Public Defender Juliana Humphrey said.
While speaking to reporters outside the courtroom, Deputy District Attorney Christopher Chandler declined to provide details about Banda-Acosta’s blood-alcohol level after the collision, his criminal history or his citizenship status, noting he had not discussed them during the arraignment.
“His citizenship status doesn’t affect what we have to do for our case,” Chandler said after the arraignment. “It’s not relevant to our prosecution of the case.”
Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency would seek deportation for Banda-Acosta after any prison sentence is served.
Banda-Acosta’s past deportations could have occurred under a number of federal processes. They include a formal removal order issued by an immigration judge or an expedited removal order handled administratively by law enforcement officers.
A person can also be returned to their home country in a reinstatement of prior deportation orders or when a person voluntarily agrees to go back and doesn’t ask for a hearing.
Mack said she could not release specifics on Banda-Acosta’s deportations because of privacy rules.
Chula Vista police said they arrested Banda-Acosta twice on charges of domestic violence against his wife, on April 9, 2006, and this year on Jan. 9. According to court records, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic battery in 2007 and spent time in county jail.
The records also show he has convictions for driving on a suspended license and a 2006 misdemeanor DUI conviction for which he was placed on probation for five years.
Some immigration attorneys expressed surprise at the number of times Banda-Acosta was sent back to Mexico — although they pointed out it is not known whether those were formal deportations or voluntary returns.
Although entering the U.S. illegally is a crime, federal prosecutors typically prosecute border crossers in those cases where the person has a criminal record, they said.
“I’ve never heard of a case, and I’ve been practicing for 35 years, where a person has come in 15 times, but then again they don’t come to me because there’s nothing I can do for them,” said Lilia Velasquez, a San Diego immigration attorney.
Velasquez said the U.S. Attorney’s Office tends to “focus on hard-core criminals and not just illegal entrants.”
Benjamin Lake said knowing Banda-Acosta has been deported so many times has changed his opinion about immigration law enforcement.
“I probably feel a little bit different about the whole sanctuary thing. We need to protect people,” he said. “I feel like it’s a broken system. It’s sad that this could have been prevented.”
Shortly before Saturday’s crash, Lake said the family had stopped for milkshakes and were looking forward to spending Sunday with their other two sons, ages 14 and 16. Then, as he was driving on Dairy Mart Road and was about to make a turn toward home, he heard the screeching of tires speeding toward their car.
“The next thing I know, I’m awake to airbags around me,” he said. He and his wife assured each other they were OK. But Lennox, in a child seat on the side of the car that took the brunt of the impact, was unconscious, not breathing and bleeding from his ears and nose.
Lake crawled out of the car on the passenger side and called 911. “I’m a nurse, but I was freaked out pretty bad,” Lake said.
His wife worked frantically until she got Lennox breathing again. Border Patrol agents rolled up, and Ingrid Lake gave them the description of the pickup that helped them to find the suspected driver.
Their son started crying and told medics, “I’m fine, I’m fine.” But the boy had suffered deep fractures to his skull along with a broken nose and scrapes. Lake said more tests are needed to try to figure out why Lennox bled from his ears.
Lake said his son’s eyes were swollen shut until Tuesday night, when he was able to open them again. He couldn’t see and watch TV in his hospital bed, and he was getting bored, his father said.
“My wife and I made up games, like making animals out of Play-Doh and have him guess what they were,” Lake said.
He added that doctors said if Lennox’s scalp laceration had been an inch further back on his head, “he wouldn’t be here.”
“He’s not paralyzed, he didn’t lose his left eye. We’re blessed,” Lake said.
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