Driver in Crash that Killed Mother, Child Died of Overdose

The driver had "expressed nothing but total sadness," his attorney said previously.

Courtesy of Castillo Family

A man who was charged in a drunken-driving crash that killed a mother and her 9-year-old daughter on New Year's Day last year died late last year of a drug overdose, court records obtained Tuesday show.

Melvin Cleveland Branch, who turned 30 on New Year's Eve 2018, overdosed on fentanyl on Dec. 29, according to court records.

The former Maryland resident, who lived in Orange at the time of the crash, was charged in January 2019 with two counts of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and one count each of driving under the influence of alcohol causing bodily injury and driving with a blood alcohol of .08 percent or more causing bodily injury — all felonies — and one misdemeanor count each of resisting/obstructing an officer and assault on a peace officer.

Branch had also faced sentencing enhancement allegations of causing bodily injury and death to multiple victims and fleeing the scene of a crime. He would have faced a maximum sentence of 20 years and eight months in state prison if convicted.

In video footage of Branch's arrest, aired in news reports, he could be seen struggling with officers.

Branch's attorney, Mark Fredrick was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday, but previously told reporters that Branch had never had any run-ins with the law before and was "extremely scared" at the time.

Fredrick said when his client learned of the charges, he "insisted on turning himself in as early as possible" and had "expressed nothing but total sadness" about the victims.


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He said Branch, a cable installer, did not learn anyone was hurt in the 12:50 a.m. crash until he was in the police station following his arrest.

Killed in the collision on the Garden Grove (22) Freeway east of Valley View Street were 33-year-old Jolene Gardner and her 9-year-old daughter Payton Castillo, who were on their way home from a New Year's Eve gathering at the time, according to a GoFundMe fundraising page set up to help their family.

The girl died at the scene and her mother was pronounced dead at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange about an hour after the crash.

Branch was driving a BMW on the freeway east of Springdale Street at an "extremely high rate of speed" in the HOV lane when he rear-ended a Lexus multiple times, causing the driver to lose control and slam into the right shoulder sound barrier wall, the CHP reported.

The Lexus driver escaped injury, but Branch then rear-ended Gardner's 2010 Ford F-150 pickup truck, which rolled over onto its right side and skidded
across the freeway into a 2003 Mazda 3 and then struck a guardrail bordering the right shoulder, the CHP reported. The Mazda driver also escaped injury.

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