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Once A Promising Stanford MBA, He Now Faces Prison

A scene from the accident, as shown on ABC Channel 7 in San Francisco

BLOOD-ALCOHOL LEVEL DOUBLE THE LEGAL LIMIT

According to court records, the Highway Patrol officer on the scene observed that Katz “displayed several objective signs and symptoms of alcohol intoxication: his speech was slurred and he had red, watery eyes.”

When Katz was removed from the vehicle he was “handcuffed by one wrist to a gurney inside the ambulance,” the report reads. “While speaking with the paramedic, Katz said he had consumed two rum and Diet Cokes that evening,” the report continues. According to Highway Patrol Officer Robert Rich, who testified in 2016, Katz said he had been driving “from South San Francisco en route to his home in Palo Alto.” However, Katz was actually driving northbound toward San Francisco — the opposite direction of Palo Alto — on the wrong side of the freeway for nearly two miles before the collision.

While still trapped in his own car, Katz was asked to submit to two preliminary alcohol screenings. The first showed a .158% blood-alcohol content, and the second showed .16%, exactly double the legal .08% limit. Another test administered at the hospital, about two hours after the crash, showed Katz’s level was .13%. According to an expert questioned by San Mateo County Deputy District Attorney Vishal Jangla, Katz’s blood-alcohol level equated to “about six drinks at 3:49 a.m. after accounting for burnoff.” According to the testimony of the Highway Patrol officer on the scene, Katz never refused the blood-alcohol tests — but he also never fully consented.

HIS DEFENSE TEAM ARGUED THAT HIS RIGHTS WERE VIOLATED

It was this latter fact that led San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe to call the case “a battle,” one that, according to Palo Alto Online, was drawn out over years, protracted by Katz’s efforts to keep the blood-alcohol test out of evidence. Katz’s defense was that the blood-draw violated his Fourth Amendment rights — and the court agreed, initially. A little more than two years after the accident, on October 27, 2015, San Mateo Superior Court Judge Barbara Mallach ruled that the blood test results were not admissible because Highway Patrol Officer Robert Rich did not read Katz the consent law. But this would not be the last word. Prosecutors filed an appeal on November 24, 2015, and the California First District Court of Appeal reinstated the blood tests on March 29, 2016. California’s Supreme Court agreed with the the Court of Appeal’s decision and refused to hear the case on June 15, 2016.

Eight days later, on June 13, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court offered another glimmer of hope to the Katz defense when it ruled in an unrelated case that blood draws do, in fact, require warrants. Katz’s defense argued the case again in November 2016, but in January 2017, the state appeals court ruled the Supreme Court decision did not apply to the “inevitable discovery doctrine” on which the Katz case was based. The California Supreme Court refused to hear the case again in March 2017.

All the while, Katz was out of custody, having posted $250,000 bail.

GROWING UP ON LONG ISLAND

Zachary Katz grew up about a 40-minute train ride from New York City. His father bought and resold clothing in bulk, and his mother was an account clerk for a school district. Katz’s parents separated soon after he enrolled at Harvard. He later testified that he saw cars repossessed from his parent’s house and answered phone calls “when collection agencies have called” during his father’s two bankruptcies.

“I put myself through college, besides the zero coupon bonds that my mother mentioned, thanks to science scholarships and financial aid based on need, because my parents didn’t meet the basic income threshold,” Katz testified. Later, working at Genentech in San Francisco for two years before beginning his MBA at Stanford, Katz “regularly” sent checks home because he was making more than both his parents.

Katz also claimed to be a strong opponent of drunken driving, citing his role as president of his high school’s Students Against Drunk Driving chapter. “I’m extremely opposed to it, and it’s something I would never do,” Katz said in court. He seemed highly likable. An early profile of him noted that outside of work, you could find Katz playing the cello, doing community service, playing tennis, or trying to conquer a word puzzle of some kind. And he also loved the written word. 

EARLY PROFESSIONAL CAREER AND PUBLISHED NOVEL

Katz may have been at Stanford for business school, but literature appears to be one of his passions. His literary aspirations were evident even before he published his first book, Century Village, in 2014, the year after the accident that derailed his academic and professional life. At Harvard he had written for the Harvard Advocate, a journal of fiction, poetry, art, and criticism, in addition to his output for other publications in science, law, and research; in a blurb for his book, he describes how he was “encouraged to explore longer lyrical forms under Seamus Heaney and other resident scholars” at Harvard, and how he “first began to experiment with writing novels as a college sophomore.” His undergrad AB had a primary concentration in the History of Science with a secondary concentration in English Literature.

Katz’s professional calling, however, was the intersection of science and business. While in college he had completed internships in business development with OSI Pharmaceuticals, in health and research at Booz Allen Hamilton, and in “valuation analysis, landscape research, financial modeling, and due diligence to numerous healthcare deals” for JPMorgan, according to his LinkedIn profile. After graduation he did business development work for Diagnostics For All, a biotech company in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and for Genentech he was manager of pipeline and portfolio planning from March of 2011 to February of 2013, a job that made him responsible for helping to bring to market medicines in areas with high unmet medical need. 

But the accident seems to have shifted Katz’s career path. Since July 2013 the only jobs listed at his LinkedIn page are an 11-month stint as “chief strategy officer” for Oliver Inc., a New York-based web platform that connects renters with landlords and no-fee listings; and, beginning in February 2017, in operations and product analytics for Scentbird, a perfume subscription service that claims to be “disrupting a $40B perfume market” with an algorithm that places consumers in “fragrance archetypes.”

A ONE-TIME OCCURRENCE OR A LIFESTYLE?

Zachary Katz will be sentenced January 26 in San Mateo Superior Court

Katz’s first memory after the burning rubber smell and classical music was waking up and “being sideways in my car unable to move and in a lot of pain.” His left arm hurt and his right knee “was cut deeply,” according to his testimony. “I felt blood on me, and I was — I knew I was in my car. I had no sense of time or place, where I was, where the car was situated,” he testified. Nor did he remember talking to the police, saying he only remembered the responding officer from “the past few days in the courtroom.”

Katz did, however, remember being in the hospital handcuffed to the gurney. He was told he had driven drunk and killed another person. No one who was with Katz gave testimony as to what exactly happened between the time of his last memory, a little after midnight, and when he was found in his car at the scene of the accident. Katz’s defense was that the epileptic seizure, as well as antidepressants and the medications he took for anxiety — together with a potentially drugged drink — were to blame.

Yet a former friend, Samuel Grossberg, testified that Katz was a heavy drinker, and that he had driven drunk at least once in nearby Sonoma County in 2012.