On a rainy early-January morning in Silicon Valley, two men in orange jumpsuits were escorted into Courtroom 4C inside the Superior Court of San Mateo County. They could not have been more different in appearance. The first man was older, gray-haired, and large, his thick forearms covered in tattoos. The second man was young, small, standing well under 6 feet, and very thin — tiny, really, with just a blank, somewhat timid facial expression. Holding some papers in his handcuffed hands, Zachary Katz took a seat at the far end of the dock and stared down, silent. It was a little less than five years since he had been a rising star beginning his first year in the full-time MBA program at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.
After a lengthy court case involving multiple appeals, the 28-year-old originally from Long Island, New York, was convicted by a jury last November on one count of felony vehicular manslaughter under the influence of alcohol, one count of felony driving under the influence of alcohol causing bodily injury, and one count of felony driving with .08 percent or higher blood alcohol causing bodily injury. It took the jury four days to deliver its verdict, and some jurors could be seen weeping at the tragic outcome.
Katz was scheduled to be sentenced on that rainy January day, but San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Leland Davis granted him a three-week delay. Defense attorney Geoff Carr requested the continuance because Katz’s family was unable to travel during the major storm that was wreaking havoc on the Northeast. Katz will be sentenced this Friday (January 26).
ACCEPTED TO STANFORD’S MBA PROGRAM AT 22
On paper, Katz seemed to have everything going for him. His lawyer, Geoffrey Carr, was so awed by his intelligence that he calls him a Doogie Howser character after the precocious teenage protagonist in the once popular TV series. He’d been valedictorian of East Meadow High School in Long Island, accepted into Harvard University on scholarship. Katz would do some of his undergraduate coursework at the University of Oxford, ultimately graduating from Harvard summa cum laude with highest honors. Even before earning his Harvard degree in history and biochemistry, English and American literature, Katz had been accepted into Stanford’s full-time MBA program in 2009 as a 22-year-old — unusual at a school where the average age hovers closer to 26 — but he countered by asking the GSB’s admissions office to reinstate his acceptance in 2011, a request that was granted. He used the time wisely: After graduating Harvard with a 4.0 GPA, Katz earned — with distinction — a master’s in philosophy at the University of Cambridge in 2011.
But when it came time that year to enroll in Stanford’s full-time MBA program, Katz again vacillated. “The first delay was because I didn’t think I wanted to go to business school. The second delay was because I didn’t have money to pay for it,” Katz testified during his criminal trial, which lasted nearly a month from mid-October to early November of last year.
By the time Katz arrived on the campus of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in the fall of 2013, he did so with a sterling resume: Harvard. Oxford. Cambridge. Stanford was the proverbial icing on the cake for a career with stratospheric potential. Katz had been admitted to three of the most elite and prestigious universities in the world, and at Harvard he had been a research fellow at the Center for Systems Biology. Armed with his Cambridge degree, Katz landed a plum job at Genentech where he led strategic planning for molecule teams in immunology, ophthalmology, and infectious diseases. It was hard to imagine anything in his future but success and acclaim. He was 24 when he began attending classes in Palo Alto, one of just 406 first-year MBA seekers in the Class of 2015. In the end, though, he would sit for only about three weeks’ worth of lectures and case studies.
THE NIGHT THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING
October 4, 2013 was a Friday. Katz planned to meet his friend, Norman Underwood, at a bar called The Mix in the Castro district of San Francisco, according to court transcripts obtained by Poets&Quants. Katz left his Stanford dorm room around 9 p.m. and drove his Nissan Infiniti north from Palo Alto to San Francisco along Interstate 280. He arrived in the Castro and parked his car. He had packed an overnight toiletry bag, which he left in his trunk. Around 10 p.m., Katz and Underwood arrived at The Mix, where Katz ordered a rum and Diet Coke, which according to his testimony was Katz’s drink of choice because the soft drink masks the taste of alcohol. Around 11 p.m., he ordered another rum and Diet Coke and drank it.
At midnight, Katz and Underwood took a cab to a “pop-up event” in the South of Market district in San Francisco. Once there, a friend-of-a-friend ordered him another rum and Diet Coke, which Katz testified he started to drink but didn’t remember finishing. At that point, he testified, things got fuzzy. He remembered walking into a bathroom and having trouble standing up — and, most troubling, he smelled burning rubber and heard classical music.
AN UNUSUAL MEDICAL CONDITION
“I heard music,” Katz testified last fall. “And I felt that I had to be away from commotion, and I felt a really fearful panic that something was wrong, a tightness, and I didn’t know what was wrong, but I knew that something was wrong.”
The first time Katz smelled burning rubber and heard classical music was the summer of 2003. He was 14 years old and living in Miami with his uncle while volunteering in a lab at Miami Children’s Hospital. Burning rubber filled Katz’s nostrils while the music drowned out all other sound. His chest tightened and his fingers began to tingle. Some time later, he woke up in the backseat of his uncle’s car.
It was the first of many “episodes” Katz would experience. He testified that between 2008 and 2013, he experienced three to five episodes per year, in one case even temporarily losing his sight. As a result, Katz began taking anti-anxiety medication and antidepressants, self-diagnosing the issue as extreme anxiety. On one instance, Katz’s parents called 911 and the physician diagnosed anxiety, prescribing the medication. Finally, two years after the fatal accident, he was diagnosed with a form of epilepsy in 2015.
THE FATAL COLLISION
During the wee hours of the morning on Saturday, October 5, 2013, California Highway Patrol officers responded to reports of a vehicle traveling northbound on the US-101 southbound freeway just south of San Francisco–and then, more grimly, of a three-car collision. When patrol officers arrived at the scene, they found Katz trapped in the driver’s seat of his car, conscious and breathing. “The odor of alcohol was emanating from Katz’s breath and person,” reads a court report from 2016.
Katz had been driving 65 miles an hour in the wrong direction down one of the Bay Area’s main arteries at around 3:30 in the morning. His Infiniti sedan slammed head-on into a Ford Escape SUV taxi, which then rolled over toward the shoulder and hit another southbound vehicle. A passenger in the cab, Pedro Juan Soldevilla, 62, of Puerto Rico, died at the scene after being ejected from the vehicle; the driver of the cab and a second passenger, who was traveling with Soldevilla, were hospitalized with major injuries. Both recovered. The driver of the third vehicle was not injured.
Soldevilla, who was headed to San Francisco International Airport to return to Puerto Rico, was a race car driver in the 1970s and ’80s who raced Porsches at such venues as Sebring and Daytona, in Florida. Nicknamed “Chiqui,” he was known as “a gentleman on the track, in his business and with his family life,” according to Jaime del Valle, a friend and owner of a Puerto Rico automotive services business. Del Valle said Soldevilla was in California because his company supplied prostheses to hospitals and he had been exploring more cost-effective products.
Soldevilla “saw a way to help his neighbor selling quality medical equipment and good prices, that’s how he was helping the country,” del Valle said. Soldevilla was a husband and a father, survived by his wife Wanda, a son, Pedro, and a daughter, Karina.