Hit-and-Run in Boyle Heights Forever Changes Lives in an Instant

Jose Vasquez leaves a candle at the ghost bike memorial for Andy Garcia, killed last week in a vicious hit-and-run. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

She must have been traveling really fast, they speculated.

People tend to fly along the bridge at Cesar Chavez as it is — it can be an uneasy ride for a cyclist, day or night.

But she must have really been flooring it.

“We didn’t even have a chance to call ‘car back,’” said Jose Vasquez to a friend as they sat in front of the ghost bike memorial set up for Luis “Andy” Garcia.

“When don’t we call ‘car back’?”

He and five friends had been riding home in the wee hours of Sept. 14th. Experienced night riders, versed in the rules of the road, and outfitted with helmets, lights, and reflectors, they assumed they were safe.

Drunks hadn’t figured into their calculations.

So, when 21 year-old Wendy Villegas came tearing up Cesar Chavez over the river, she was able to wreak utter devastation in a matter of seconds.

She first slammed into Garcia and knocked his friend Mario Lopez to the side, barely missing Richie Berumen.

Garcia’s bike spit sparks from underneath her car as she dragged it up the bridge. She then slammed into Ule Melgar, crumpling his back wheel and sending him somersaulting so high, he almost went over the bridge railing and down to the river below.

The ghost bike set up by Danny Gamboa, Kat Jarvis, and Garcia's friends. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

A shocked Berumen ran to help Garcia when he heard Lopez calling from the side of the road, “My back! My back!”

As he attended to Lopez, he realized a van was headed directly at Garcia, who still lay motionless in the middle of the dark road. Berumen screamed at the van to stop and waved his cellphone to try to get their attention, but it was too late.

The van hit Garcia, much to the horror of the three men inside who had just come from a church event. They immediately stopped and, unable to do much else for him at that point, knelt down next to Garcia’s body with their Bibles to pray.

Somehow, despite all this commotion, Villegas managed to continue weaving along on her merry way.

Another driver who saw the whole thing happen, followed her long enough to get her license plate.

“She was still intoxicated at 7 a.m.” when she was taken into custody, said Garcia’s cousin, Jose Contreras.

Even so, the detective that gave Contreras the police report said that, because of her age and her clean record, they would be lucky if she got 5 years’ time.

He couldn’t believe it.

Neither could Garcia’s friends.

“If you tried to run over a police officer,” said Melgar, still sore from the incident and sporting significant road rash on his back, “they’d consider [a car] a weapon.”

“How can you just take off? And leave someone in the road?” asked another friend, shaking his head.

Garcia's family joins his friends at the memorial on the bridge along Cesar Chavez. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

More than one: Lopez is still recovering from a broken back.

If she had just stopped, Melgar lamented, she might have been able to prevent him from being hit again. Or maybe he might have survived.

At least the three Christian men would not have to live with the guilt that they had hit somebody.

“She’s ruined a lot of lives,” I said, glancing over at his family sitting next to the memorial.

They had come in from El Paso the night before to take Garcia back home.

Garcia had only arrived in L.A. a little over a year ago and had loved it out here.

He hadn’t been a biker before — in fact, he had come out here to finish college and wrestle. He was an all-star athlete and a talented artist. But biking had given him a circle of great friends and a love for the city.

Once he got a taste of life out here, his father said with tears in his eyes, “there was no turning back for him.”

Until Villegas decided to drink and drive.

There are several fundraisers planned to offer support to the family. This Thursday, friends will gather at Hacienda Heights Pizza Co. in the City of Industry. Mention “Andy Garcia” when you order and 20% of the proceeds will be donated to his family (offer is good all day). On Sunday, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., friends will be holding a memorial car/bike wash at 6301 Florence Ave in Bell Gardens. If you’d like to donate to Andy’s memorial fund, please make checks payable to the Luis Andres Garcia Donation Fund, Acct# 5566986583, at any Wells Fargo Bank. To keep up with information on Andy’s case, please check in here. For more information on Ghost Bikes in L.A., please check out Danny Gamboa’s and Kat Jarvis’ work here. Special thanks to Gamboa for letting me know about the memorial service last night.