Officials celebrate expansion of Fontana courthouse

FONTANA — One judge called the courtroom “a closet.”

Another described it as “notorious.”

Fontana Superior Court’s tiny Dept. 6 — created to ease excessive case loads at the courthouse — was so small that the audience area consisted of only three narrow benches.

With space so tight, defendants’ family members were forced to wait in the hallway, and could enter the courtroom only when their cases were called, Judge Arthur Harrison recalled this afternoon.

But with a Fontana courthouse expansion project nearly completed, Dept. 6 is gone.

Its former space is unrecognizable, having been converted into a conference room and office space for court reporters.

“With this expansion we’ve had the opportunity to undo that,” said Harrison, the supervising judge in Fontana.

County officials celebrated the expansion of the courthouse today with an open house, dedication ceremony and unveiling of a plaque to mark the $8.3 million project.

The number of courtrooms has been increased from six to eight, and construction of a ninth courtroom is expected to begin Monday, Harrison said.

The project also includes an expanded clerk’s office and a newly constructed jury assembly room.

“I think it is indeed show-off material,” Harrison said.

When the courthouse in Fontana first opened in the 1970s, it had only two courtrooms — enough to accommodate the city’s population at the time of about 20,000, according to a San Bernardino County news release.

With the city’s population booming in recent years to nearly 200,000, the courthouse became increasingly cramped, forcing Presiding Judge Douglas M. Elwell to create Dept. 6.

“Our courts were exceedingly overworked,” Harrison said.

In a brief speech during Thursday’s event, Elwell praised the expansion project’s “phenomenal changes and improvements.”

San Bernardino County Supervisor Paul Biane said funding for the project was divided 50-50 between the county and the state.

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Prosecutors dismiss case against truck driver in fatal crash

RANCHO CUCAMONGA — Prosecutors have dropped criminal charges against a commercial truck driver whose runaway dump truck crashed into another vehicle, killing its driver.

Adam Ahlberg, 30, was acquitted of felony vehicular manslaughter in June, but jurors deadlocked on a lesser misdemeanor count.

During a Sept. 21 hearing in West Valley Superior Court, prosecutors moved to dismiss the remaining misdemeanor against Ahlberg.

Ahlberg’s prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Charles Feibush, said the misdemeanor couldn’t be refiled because the statute of limitations has expired.

Angel Calzada, a 51-year-old Rancho Cucamonga city employee, was killed June 16, 2006 when Ahlberg’s runaway dump truck collided with his Ford F-250 at Archibald Avenue and Arrow Route in Rancho Cucamonga.

Ahlberg testified at his trial that his truck’s brakes failed at the northern end of Archibald, where the street has an unusually steep grade.

Prosecutors argued during the trial that Ahlberg and his employer, Clark Grading, Inc. of Riverside, knew the truck had faulty brakes but failed to maintain them.

Clark Grading, Inc., still faces criminal charges in connection with Calzada’s death, and has a pre-trial hearing scheduled for Nov. 4.

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Mother, boyfriend plead no contest in death of Ontario infant

RANCHO CUCAMONGA — A mother and her boyfriend have pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter in the death in 2007 of the woman’s 8-month-old son.

Authorities said the mother, Elizabeth Reta, swabbed Samuel Reta’s nose with a Q-Tip tainted with methamphetamine. Her boyfriend, Juan Antonio Sanchez, then beat the child to try to get him to come down from the high.

Reta and Sanchez both accepted plea bargains from prosecutors on Friday, Sept. 24 that carry prison sentences of more than a decade.

Reta’s plea bargain carries a sentence of 11 years, said Deputy District Attorney Jason Anderson. The 31-year-old Ontario woman is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 21 in West Valley Superior Court.

Sanchez, 35, of Pomona, was sentenced the day of his plea to 27 years in prison. His sentence is longer than Reta’s because he has a prior conviction for robbery, Anderson said.

According to a police report attached to her court file, Reta told authorities that in August 2007, she swabbed her son’s itchy nose with a Q-Tip in their home in the 1500 block of South Euclid Avenue.

When the boy began behaving strangely, Reta told Sanchez, who called the woman “stupid” and told her he uses the Q-Tip to clean his methamphetamine pipe.

For the next four days — before Reta called paramedics Aug. 29 over Sanchez’s objection — Sanchez repeatedly spanked and slapped the boy, threw him onto the floor and tied him to a bed, according to the report.

Reta pleaded with Sanchez to call for paramedics the day she swabbed her son’s nose, but Sanchez told her not to because he feared police would arrest him on drug charges.

Samuel Reta was in a coma when he was hospitalized. He was suffering from pneumonia, and doctors said he had a broken arm, broken rib, an apparent bite mark on his arm, and injuries consistent with shaken baby syndrome, according to the report.

Reta and Sanchez were arrested Aug. 30, and Samuel Reta died Aug. 31.

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Drunk driver’s plea bargain carries three-year sentence in fatal crash

RANCHO CUCAMONGA — A driver who killed 64-year-old Paul Martin in a June traffic collision has pleaded no contest to felony DUI as part of a plea bargain that carries a three-year prison sentence.

Albert Gilbert Ruiz, 23, is set to be sentenced Oct. 21 for the June 13 crash on Church Street in Rancho Cucamonga, in which witnesses said Ruiz drove over a landscaped median into opposing traffic and collided with the car driven by Martin.

Martin, a Rancho Cucamonga resident since 2001, was pronounced dead the night of the crash at San Antonio Community Hospital in Upland.

Ruiz, whose blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.16 — twice the legal limit — agreed to the plea bargain Sept. 20 in West Valley Superior Court. The conviction will count as a strike, according to minutes of the court hearing.

One of Martin’s daughters called Ruiz’s expected three-year sentence “an insult.”

“He gets his life back in a few short years,” Erika Giffing said. “We’ll never have our father back. We’ll never be the same.

Giffing said she believed that because Ruiz has no criminal history, the maximum sentence he could have faced was not much longer than three years.

“That’s just our judicial system,” she said. “I don’t agree with it. But it is what it is.”

Ruiz’s prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Mary Izadi, could not be reached for comment.

Ruiz’s attorney, Richard Escobedo, did not return calls seeking comment.

During an interview after the crash, Ruiz told a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy that before the collision, he drank about seven beers while watching a Lakers game at a friend’s house.

Ruiz said his friends tried to keep him from driving because he was drunk, but he snuck away, according to a transcript of the interview attached to Ruiz’s court file.

Giffing said she plans to read a three-page victim-impact statement during Ruiz’s sentencing hearing.

She said she will describe “how hard it was to relay all this information to our children — because he was such a good grandfather.”

“Seeing my kids cry and my mom cry was the hardest thing I’ve had to do, and I’m a cancer patient,” she said.

Giffing said her father didn’t drink and drive, and he tried to keep family members and friends from doing so.

“Maybe someday I can find it in my heart to forgive (Ruiz),” she said. “I can’t right now.”

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Woman pleads not guilty to embezzling $720,000

RANCHO CUCAMONGA — A former branch manager at a company that supplies San Bernardino County jails with phone cards and other materials pleaded not guilty Monday to embezzling $720,000 from the company.

Carmen Ascencio, 37, is accused of embezzling the funds over the last five years. She was arrested last week at her home in the 36700 block of Solvay Street in Palmdale.

A police report attached to Ascencio’s court file alleges she embezzled money from the Rancho Cucamonga branch of Canteen Corrections in the following ways:

— Falsifying invoices for inmate phone cards and cashing the checks for herself. (Total loss: $401,000.)

— Underreporting vending machine sales at local jails and keeping the balance. (Total loss: $95,000.)

— Stealing sacks of quarters meant for use by inmates in jail pay phones. (Total loss: $224,000.)

Ascencio remains jailed in lieu of $1 million bail at West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga. She is next due Thursday in West Valley Superior Court.

Canteen Corrections is a subsidiary of the United Kingdom-based Compass Group, according to the report. Canteen Corrections provides supplies to many prisons and jails in Southern California, according to the report.

Ascencio managed the Rancho Cucamonga branch of the company from 1999 until she quit without notice in February.

“Canteen Corrections attempted to contact her with negative results because she had disconnected her personal cell and home phone,” the report says.

Ascencio quit amid a San Bernardino County sheriff’s department investigation into possible “selling and smuggling of contraband into the jail facilities,” the report says.

The company completed an audit after Ascencio quit, and discovered she falsified documents in the course of embezzling $720,000, according to the report.

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