Tears flowed in a Fresno courtroom on Friday for a Riverdale man who was killed last year when his motorcycle was hit by a big rig driven by a French citizen who was high on methamphetamine.
Eric Leoni, 48, was killed during the morning hours of April 24 while driving his Harley-Davidson to work.
On Friday, his family and friends went to Fresno County Superior Court to get justice for him by making sure Nicolas Laurent Appert, 21, was punished.
“He murdered my brother,” Yvonne St. Andrew told Judge James Kelley Jr. “He took a piece of our happiness, a piece of our joy, that we can never get back.”
Appert, wearing shackles and a red jail jumpsuit, said nothing. But in a letter, he told Leoni’s family he was sorry.
Prosecutor Esmeralda Garcia argued for the maximum sentence under the plea agreement of 13 years. “He can’t serve enough time to make up for what he did,” she said. Defense Stephanie Negin asked for a lesser sentence, saying Appert is remorseful and took responsibility for his actions.
Negin also said Appert began abusing methamphetamine after he was assaulted in San Francisco. She said Appert’s friends told him that the drug would ease his pain.
In the end, Kelley sentenced Appert to 12 years and four months in prison, noting that Appert, who was living in San Francisco at the time on a student visa, had no prior criminal record. After he serves his prison sentence, he will be deported back to France.
The California Highway Patrol said Leoni was stopped for a red light on eastbound Mount Whitney at Highway 41 when his Harley-Davidson was struck from behind by Appert, who was driving a stolen Freightliner truck.
Appert, who was driving at high speeds, failed to slow for the red traffic signal, the CHP said. The truck came to rest with the motorcycle underneath. Leoni died at the scene. Appert, who not injured, left the scene but was arrested later that morning.
According to a CHP report, Appert told officers that he had stolen a truck in Hayward a week prior to the fatal collision. He drove that truck to Los Angeles and abandoned it. He later stole the Freightliner in Los Angeles and said he was headed to San Francisco, the CHP report said.
On the way to San Francisco, he said he smoked “speed,” a slang term for methamphetamine. He recalled driving east on Mount Whitney, going 70-75 mph, the CHP said. But he was “unaware how he arrived on Mount Whitney Avenue” because he believed he was in San Francisco, the report says.
Before the fatal collision, Appert nearly collided head-on with a westbound pickup. The pickup driver took evasive action; his truck sustained major damage, but the driver was not hurt, the CHP said.
Appert told the CHP he saw the motorcycle but doesn’t remember hitting it. He said he then went into a nearby orchard and fell asleep. When he woke up, he was apprehended by CHP officers. “His speech was slow and slurred and he was extremely lethargic,” court records say.
Appert had his French passport but a fake California driver’s license. Officers found a hypodermic needle in the Freightliner.
On Jan. 11, he pleaded no contest to 10 charges, including gross vehicular manslaughter while under the influence of drugs, hit and run causing death, and driving a stolen vehicle without a license.
Leoni was killed about six miles from his home. He was headed to Leprino Foods in Lemoore, where he was a machine operator.
In court Friday, Leoni’s daughter, Ashley Leoni, and his wife, Kelly Leoni, tearfully told the judge that Eric Leoni’s death continues to haunt them and their family and friends.
“I don’t live a normal life. I live in fear. I live by crying myself to sleep,” Ashley Leoni said.
Kelly Leoni said she knows she and her family have to move on with their lives, but she said she can’t. “Every time I hear a motorcycle, I cry,” Kelly Leoni told the judge. “Every time I go through that intersection, I am reminded of my husband.”
But she said she also found comfort in knowing that her husband died doing what he loved – riding his Harley-Davidson.
Seeking justice, Kelly Leoni said about Appert: “I hope he has nightmares about what happened. He killed my husband.”