Conrad denies charges

August 12, 2003 11:00 pm

By MIKE MORRIS

After missing two past court hearings, veteran actor Robert Conrad — with an arm in a sling and walking with a cane — pleaded not guilty to felony drunken driving charges in Calaveras County Superior Court yesterday.

Conrad's medical problems — including partial paralysis suffered in the March 31 accident that led to the criminal charges — prevented him from attending the two previous hearings.

The accident near Arnold, in which Conrad's car hit a car driven by Kevin Burnett of Forest Meadows, also left Burnett with a badly broken leg. He has since filed a civil lawsuit against Conrad.

"I've been very, very humbled by this accident," Conrad told an audience of reporters and camera crews after entering his plea.

Prosecutors are to present evidence supporting the charges against Conrad — drunken driving causing injury and driving with a blood-alcohol level above .08 and causing injury — at a Nov. 18 preliminary hearing. Should a judge agree that evidence establishes a probability that Conrad is guilty, he will face a trial.

If convicted, the actor could face from 90 days in the county jail to three years in state prison.

Timothy Pemberton, Conrad's Markleeville attorney, asked for a November hearing date due to Conrad's two upcoming back surgeries, also needed as a result of injuries from the March wreck.

Milton Matchak, a Calaveras County deputy district attorney, asked that Conrad, free without bail, agree to four restrictions pending the Nov. 18 hearing. Conrad agreed to three: that he not consume alcohol, is subject to random drug or alcohol testing and can be searched at any time.

The fourth restriction — that Conrad not drive — was modified to allow him to drive only within 6 miles of his home. Conrad and his wife, Lavelda, have homes in Murphys and Bear Valley.

Conrad asked for the driving modification so he can run errands, such as going to the grocery store and dropping off his daughter at Bret Harte High School in Angels Camp.

Harold Bradford, a visiting Alpine County Superior Court judge presiding over the case, said the stipulations can be reviewed at any time.

"Mr. Conrad doesn't appear to be in shape to drive," Bradford told Pemberton.

Pemberton said Conrad might be able to drive by the time of his November hearing.

After the arraignment, Conrad, 68, thanked the community for the many letters and prayers he said he has received. He also said he is now attending a Sonora church that has helped him cope with the accident.

With his wife at his side, Conrad further said that his thoughts and prayers include Burnett.

"That boy has been in our prayers every night," Conrad said.

According to California Highway Patrol reports, Conrad was driving west on Highway 4 when his Jaguar crossed the center line and struck the Burnett's oncoming Subaru.

After the head-on collision, Burnett was taken by helicopter to Memorial Hospital in Modesto and Conrad was flown to Doctors Medical Center in Modesto.

Conrad underwent rehabilitation at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.

Calaveras County District Attorney Jeff Tuttle has said Conrad's blood-alcohol level the night of the accident was .22 percent. The legal limit is .08.

Burnett's civil lawsuit, seeking a yet-to-be determined sum, was filed against Conrad last month.

Despite his legal and medical problems, Conrad yesterday joked a bit with reporters as he and his wife left court.

"Despite being humbled, I look pretty good for being 68," he commented when asked his age. While the CHP previously listed Conrad's age at 73, the actor insisted he is 68.

Conrad has appeared in dozens of television shows and movies, most notably as James T. West in the 1960s series "The Wild Wild West," and fighter pilot Pappy Boyington in the 1970s series "Baa Baa Black Sheep."

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