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

Jose Vazquez 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 Vazquez 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.

  • Susy

    I have a younger brother who was hit and left on the street unconscious a few years back. Were it not for good samaritans things might have ended up differently. This incident is so sad on many levels. The drunk driver is a 21 year. Whether she receives the maximum of 5 years or not, and whether she realizes this now or not, her life will never be the same either. My heart goes out to the family of the victims. – Thanks for writing the story.

  • Ricardo R. Berumen

    Thank you very much for writing; I’m deeply sorry for not being at the memorial and missing the opportunity to share my experience with you, and others… setting up the ghost bike, and being right next to Andy in his last moments is more than I could bare last night. Staying in with my family was a blessing I could not pass up.

    -Richie

  • Anonymous

    Was the driver of the van cited for violating the Basic Speed Law (CVC 22350)?

  • sahra

    I don’t believe Marroquin (the van driver) was cited, but I do not know that for sure. I also don’t know if he was speeding. Speeding or not, his ability to see Garcia in time would likely have been hampered by how dark that stretch of road is. The lighting on the bridge, while beautiful at night, makes the street itself very dark. We’ll be following up on this case as it moves along, so we’ll let you know.

  • Anonymous

    Why are these laws so lenient when it comes to cyclist? And what can be done to change them?

  • Lopez M

    Can anyone help us get justice?

  • ubrayj02

    Whether this girl goes to jail or not you know what she will always be able to do? She will always be able to get her drivers license again. It will take a little while – but the privilege to drive is treated like a right and murderers like this cry in front of a low level judge and say, “Bud I godda git to work onna udder side da county *sniffle* pwease!”

    How about this: you kill someone with your car and maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to legally operate a car ever again?

  • Ule Mel

    To all my family and friends, family and friends of Carmen Tellez (Bel Air High School Alum), and friends of her beloved son, Andy Garcia:
    As many of you already know, we lost Andy to a tragic accident this weekend in Los Angeles, CA. We’re so grateful for the love and support that has already so graciously been sent our way. Thank you, especially for your kind prayers. Please, keep praying as this is going to continue to be a difficult time for the family, whom are currently in CA picking up their son/brother. A donation fund has been set up in Andy’s honor. If you would like to offer you support that way, donations can be made to:

    Luis Andres Garcia Donation Fund
    Acct# 5566986583-Wells Fargo Bank.

    You can call in, mail or drop off donation at any Wells Fargo Bank.
    (Checks payable to Luis Andres Garcia Donation Fund)

    Thank you for the continuous support and may God bless you all.
    1

  • Anonymous

    The laws are fine. The problem is the police, who refuse to enforce the laws. And the DAs, who refuse to prosecute.

  • sahra

    Great question…in most of these cases, the perpetrators rarely see the kind of penalties that they should. I think Danny Gamboa said he gave Richie the name of a lawyer. Asking the lawyer about how best to make your case is probably the first step. There were lots of people hurt by this incident, either physically or emotionally, so she’s inflicted a lot of damage…much of which is measurable and easy to prove. Getting statements from the guy that chased down her car to get the license number could be important — I was told he saw her weaving all over the place. Any information you can find out about Wendy is probably another step. She quickly took down her facebook and twitter and instagram accounts, but you can still see who she was connected to. Finally, what we really need is a victims’ advocacy group to push for harsher penalties in these cases. Keeping the story in the public eye is important, too. I hope you are healing up (I’m assuming this is Mario?)!

  • Anonymous

    If the road is dark, you are legally required to slow down as per CVC 22350. The posted speed limit only applies in ideal conditions.

  • Elbatmanuel

    Such a terrible tragedy, I have always felt that all of the bridges crossing the river are very dangerous for cyclist. I bike across them everyday, multiple times a day and this is my worst nightmare. My heart felt condolences to Andys family, I’m truly sorry for your loss.

    Hopefully something can be done to help prevent incidents like this in the future. With the increased popularity of DTLA and the opening of so many new bars, I’m sure there are plenty of intoxicated drivers leaving the bars heading east for the night. All traffic going to the east (except freeways) must cross one of the 10 bridges (spring to olympic). It shouldn’t be a significant burden on the police to pay attention to these areas especially after midnight when the drunks start coming out.

  • westerncultureontheskids

    I think all who drink, drive and kill should lose thier licenses permanently. Never another chance to ruin people’s lives.

  • Anna Ruiz

    I suggest that as many people, especially those in the biking family attend every and all legal proceedings involving the murderer. Send a clear message to the DA, that a lenient sentence is not justified!

  • Will Campbell

    It sounds like you’re auto-presuming the van’s operator was in violation of CVC 22350. Posted signs do not come with an asterisk that makes it
    applicable under only “ideal conditions,” which is an ambiguous term. If
    that were the case then everyone operating a vehicle at night everywhere should
    be driving 5-10 mph below whatever the posted limits are.

  • Anonymous

    “All speed limits are based on ideal driving conditions.” http://webtrafficschool.com/wts/content/California/s4_2ca.html

    And there is something called “overdriving your headlights,” which is going “so fast that your stopping distance is farther than you can see with your headlights.” http://www.mto.gov.on.ca/english/dandv/driver/handbook/section2.11.1.shtml

  • Will Campbell

    I’m not disagreeing with the important application of common sense and increased awareness when someone’s behind the wheel at ALL times. And of course I understand and agree that all speed limits are based on ideal driving conditions.

    Your presumption was that the van operator was guilty of violating CVC 22350 (and thereby possibly negligent and a contributor to Luis Garcia’s death) by not driving below the posted speed limit because it was at night. Night — especially under clear skies and over a dry roadway across a lighted city bridge — is simply not an unideal condition that triggers a violation of the Basic Speed Law.

  • Anonymous

    A lighted city bridge? The article says the road was dark. “Garcia…lay motionless in the middle of the dark road.”

  • sahra

    I’m not sure why the need to vilify a van driver that had the very bad luck of coming upon the scene of a tragic incident only seconds after it happened? Or why the need to lay such blame when you don’t actually know that they were speeding or appear to be familiar with the bridge? The bridge is lit, but the road (at ground level, where Garcia lay) is dark at night, as many roads tend to be at night where there are no other sources of light (i.e. buildings to bounce lights off of or that are independently lit) and existing lights are spaced out. The young men involved in the incident didn’t lay any blame on the driver of the van and neither did law enforcement, that I am aware of. Everyone is more focused on the drunk woman who upended their lives, and rightly so.

  • Anonymous

    Sahra, let’s take a look at the facts:

    Fact 1: Garcia was laying “motionless in the middle of the dark road.”

    Fact 2: Visibility was poor in the spot Garcia was laying, because it was dark.

    Fact 3: CVC 22350 says, “No person shall drive a vehicle upon a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable or prudent” having due regard for conditions such as visibility. http://dmv.ca.gov/pubs/vctop/d11/vc22350.htm

    Fact 4: The van driver hit Garcia.

    Am I correct so far? Ok, now we get into the hypotheticals:

    Hypothetical 1: If Garcia had been difficult to see at night wherever he would have been–if he was dark-skinned AND darkly clothed AND had no lights or reflectors–then even a person driving a vehicle with due regard for visibility may not have seen Garcia laying in the middle of the dark road.

    Hypothetical 2: If Garcia were light-skinned OR was wearing light clothes OR had lights or reflectors, then a person driving a vehicle with due regard for visibility would have seen Garcia laying in the middle of the dark road.

    There’s a small possibility that Garcia met all of the conditions listed in the first hypothetical, but in my opinion it’s unlikely that all of them were true.

    And sorry, but I don’t trust that the police would charge the van driver. The police tend to blame the bicyclist in vehicle-bicycle collisions, and because they already have the woman to blame for two violations (DUI and hit-and-run), there’s even less pressure to determine whether the van driver was partially responsible.

  • Jim Pocrass

    We have taken a number of these cases to court for survivors of hit-and-run bike accidents and for families who have lost a loved one in a bike accident. In one case the 18-year-old drunk driver claimed she had no idea she hit the cyclist, in spite of the fact that he’d left 9 teeth in her back window. It’s always heart-breaking. One of the most important things you can do as cyclists is to increase your uninsured motorist insurance. It costs pennies on the dollars. You can only recover the amount of insurance the person has (if they even have insurance) – regardless of the verdict.

    Uninsured motorist insurance makes up the difference between the verdict or settlement and the amount of insurance the driver has. Compensation for your injuries (or worse) is often critical to rebuilding your life, to getting the therapy and medical care you need, and to being able to provide for loved ones during your recovery.

  • Roadblock

    AMEN. How about you leave the scene you lose your fucking license forever. While CalBike spent the last 3 years of political momentum getting a 3ft law watered down and finally passed by the gov… This shit has been raging for years and years.

  • Roadblock

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

    I dont get this statement. They DID hit someone. If you cant fucking see what’s in the road ahead of you, then you need to slow down. No excuses.

  • Roadblock

    if you cant see whats in front of you, you need to slow down. you need to be able to see clearly in front of you far enough ahead to stop in time to avoid hitting it. since the object, a body, was not in motion, and didnt suddenly move into the van’s path, then the van driver is at fault.

  • Will Campbell

    Roadblock, I hear you. As I stated before I am not disputing the important application of common sense and increased awareness when someone is behind the wheel of a vehicle at any time, day or night. I’m also not trying to defend the van driver. Fault may indeed reside with the him if, for example, it is determined he wasn’t watching the road while approaching the downed cyclist. All I’m saying is that if he was driving the posted speed limit then that’s not where fault can be ascribed.

  • sahra

    You’re essentially implying they should have been driving with the expectation that there could be a body in the road. I’m obviously someone who is very much in favor of safe driving habits, but that seems kind of ridiculous. And it goes beyond what the law stipulates, I would think. I also don’t think it is fair to assign blame to someone without hearing from them about why they couldn’t stop or didn’t see the cyclist. Who knows if they were distracted by Richie gesturing wildly on the side of the road and therefore looked away from the road instead of realizing what was directly ahead of them? Or they may have been trying to go around Richie and Mario, not realizing Andy was in the road. If they were speeding or driving drunk, then that’s different. But nothing I’m aware of seems to point to either of those things being the case. The riders I spoke with were actually empathetic towards the men, seeing them almost as victims of what the drunk driver had wrought. None of this means I find the situation any less horrific or lamentable, I just don’t feel comfortable as some in laying a very heavy charge against someone without knowing more facts first.

  • Roadblock

    A) You were the one the wrote “At least the three Christian men would not have to live with the guilt that they had hit somebody.” which is simply factually wrong. They did indeed hit someone. You could argue that it was impossible for them not to hit Luis but the fact is that they hit Louis.

    B) “You’re essentially implying they should have been driving with the expectation that there could be a body in the road.”

    I’m not implying I’m stating it. Drivers should ALWAYS be on the look out for debris, potholes, bodies in the road, objects in the road. That is the whole point of headlights and looking at what is in front of you, that is the whole point of driving at a safe speed for the given conditions. No excuses if you cant see in front of you you NEED to slow down. Looking to the side of the road and seeing Richie, would mean they need to slow down as well. No excuses when operating tons of machinery in the public space. Watch the road in front of you. I was taught that if you lose sight of the road you slow down, even stop if you cant see. It’s irresponsible otherwise. Fog? slow down. Darnkness? slow down. stop.

  • Roadblock

    We can rally to make noise at city hall and the police commission and perhaps the LADOT even has some form of public comment…. We should be banging pots and pans until someone in the city fortress hears us.

  • Roadblock

    It’s not vilifying the drive of the van it is holding them accountable for driving irresponsible. If the road is dark then drive accordingly. No excuses.

  • Roadblock

    I get you on that big Will, but posted speed limit is a limit not a minimum. Too many people think that its a minimum and that myth needs to be broken. If you cant see the road you must then slow to a speed and even come to a stop until you can see the road. thats it. thats the law. no excuses.

  • sahra

    Indeed, I did write it. I sense a significant difference between what I am saying and what you are saying, however. We do agree that, technically, the driver did hit Andy. There is no question of that. You and the other gentleman below go a step farther, however, which is to assume that the driver was irresponsible and negligent and therefore also to blame or liable for Andy’s death. Again, purely technically, they did hit him and make it impossible for him to survive (whether or not they delivered a fatal blow is unknown; he may have been already dead or fatally wounded). I think that to go beyond that and call them irresponsible or negligent without having facts/evidence to support that, especially in a case that is as tragic and traumatic as this, is unfair and inappropriate. At least as a journalist, I am not comfortable making an unsubstantiated claim of that nature. You are welcome to your opinion.

  • Roadblock

    Sorry but you are not engaged in journalism if you go the complete opposite direction and absolve them of any wrong doing.

    The fact is that we give drivers a pass far too often in this society and your statement doesnt help it only clouds the issue aside from being flat out incorrect.

  • I read this post twice before posting it, and I have no issues with Sahra’s characterization of the second crash.

    In extremely rare circumstances, even the safest driver can use good judgement and still end up hitting someone. A body lying in the road at 3 in the morning, a distraction off to the side of the road, trying to maneuver around people in the street. There’s a going on with this somewhat chaotic scene. Sahra’s intent seems pretty clear that we know the first driver is completely at fault, let’s not get caught up in a discussion of what was going on with the second one.

    I agree that society is way too often lenient on negligent drivers. I don’t think we know enough here to know if the driver of the church van is one of those people that got away with one.

  • sahra

    Again, you are welcome to your opinion on the case as well as your unfavorable opinion of me and my refusal to make a potentially libelous statement, if that is how you prefer to dialogue on the issue. But the kind of speculation you are suggesting I make is the same one that many folks make about cyclists. Since there are some among us that have no regard for the rules of the road, drivers and law enforcement tend to assume that ALL cyclists are therefore always at fault for collisions. We saw that play out most clearly this summer here: http://usa.streetsblog.org/2013/06/28/dc-police-wrongly-presume-injured-cyclist-guilty-cmon-youre-a-biker/. Those kinds of blanket presumptions hurt all of us and make it harder for us to both get justice in cases where drivers are at fault and implement solutions to prevent future collisions (i.e. better lighting, more signage, stricter penalties, education, whatever). Yes, too often drivers get off without consequences for incidents that can completely upend a cyclist’s or pedestrian’s life… nobody disputes that. But that doesn’t make it fair to assume every driver is negligent simply because they were involved in an incident. Nor is it a useful approach to analysis when trying to deal with road safety concerns. I think it is important that there is some investigation into why the driver did not stop, both to ensure penalties are meted out to the right people and so that future tragic incidents can be prevented. But until I know more about what happened that night, I cannot do what you are asking, which is essentially to take the very serious step of accusing someone of a crime in print.

  • Roadblock

    Damien. Sarah.

    If this is a true statement: “The van hit Garcia,”

    then this is a false statement: “At least the three Christian men would not have to live with the guilt that they had hit somebody.”

    That is the crux of my complaint. We can speculate the circumstances all we want, the reality is that those two statements are not factually synced up.

  • Sahra’s point here is that the second crash would likely not have occurred without the first.

  • Roadblock

    I get that… my point is that it should be worded differently so that innocence is not assumed.

  • Elbatmanuel

    The second hit would have not have occurred if the driver had operating his vehicle with extra precaution (driving slower and being vigilant) since he was driving through an area with substandard lighting.

    Roadblock is right. The fact is that the second car DID hit him, just because someone hit him first doesn’t excuse the second vehicle. Is the driver of the second vehicle as bad as the first? No, but you can’t ignore the fact that the driver wasn’t operating his vehicle with enough caution and attention in a poorly lit area as he should have been. Since he failed to notice the other people in the street, even though one had “screamed at the van to stop and waved his cellphone to try to get their attention”.

  • Ryan Alba

    What the fuck is wrong with you? this is a very tragic story and you are concerned about semantics? This is a blog, not the New York Times, Mr. Editon-in-Chief. Really? What is wrong with people now a days, hiding behind a handle and just acting like spoiled children. You seem like a very dense, insensitive, arrogant and self-centered individual. not to mention an all-around asshole. Have a nice day!

  • Use Common Sense

    Roadblock, I think you are misunderstanding the term guilt. The writer did not mean it as a law definition, as in guilt or innocence, but rather as a human emotion>

    The line has nothing to do with their liability, but more likely the emotions they are feeling over what happened. Being at fault, or not being at fault, does not determine whether or not you are allowed to feel guilty for something.

    The line the author used is perfectly fine, had she not done what she did, it is likely the other drivers would not feel the way they feel.

  • Paul Charles Harrison

    If she would have stopped, her vehicle with the lights and its bulk may have shielded Garcia, thus possibly saving Garcias life, therefore the men would not have run over him while lying in the DARK road… Now do you get it..?

  • Paul Charles Harrison

    Sahra… Don’t argue with a FOOL… and the character you are trying to teach logical thinking is apparently incapable of such a complicated task… Remember: Never try to teach a pig to sing; it is a waste of your time, and merely aggravates the pig… Good day…

  • Paul Charles Harrison

    They were never charged with a crime… So, the authorities deemed they acted and drove in a responsible manner and cleared them of any wrong doing… Lets hope you never have a mishap on your tricycle, because I would hate for a someone with such a childish mentality to be hit while playing as a roadblock in traffic…

  • Taster’sChoice

    BUT he WAS irresponsible and negligent and that is Roadblock’s point. If you can’t SEE what is on the road in front of you then you should SLOW DOWN. That’s also what people should do in a downpour. Slow down until you can see in front of you. Had he done that, he wouldn’t have hit the biker, whether Christian or otherwise.

  • Taster’sChoice

    Bingo.

  • Eric

    I understood the statement, as an afterthought if the first driver had stopped, and didn’t have to read it over and over again. Some people like to argue simply to hear themselves.

  • USG Worker

    I find it hard to believe that someone could not see anything on the Cesar Chavez bridge. I work at union station, so I have to drive over this bridge 10 times a week at various points of the day. It is not hard to see what is ahead on the bridge, unless you’re driving while being distracted. Even if it was still dark at that time, the lamps on the bridge do a pretty good job of illuminating the entire road as well as anything occurring on the sidewalk. So, I am perplexed by the driver of the van”not” seeing anything.

  • tonie

    She deserves more time I cant believe how always drunk.drivers get away.with.so.lil time. Prosecutors should imply higher.sentences. Smh