Even the judge looked confused when the plea deal offered to Wendy Villegas was read out in court, says a somber Mario Lopez.
Villegas could have been sentenced to up to 15 years for having come tearing up the bridge on Cesar Chavez drunk last September 14th, slamming into Luis “Andy” Garcia and dragging his bike under her car, launching both Lopez and Ulises Melgar into the air, and fleeing the scene.
Instead, she was offered a deal of 3 years and 8 months — a sentence that fit within the window of what she might have gotten just for driving drunk and leaving the scene of a crash. And, because she is young and has a clean record, she will likely only serve a portion of that time.
The deal makes it painfully clear to her victims and their friends and families that she will not be asked to atone for the human cost of the havoc she wreaked that September night. And, they are not happy about it.
“How did it end up wrapping up so fast like that?” asks Melgar.
It’s a good question.
The damage had been severe. Garcia died on the scene, while both Melgar and Lopez had ended up in the hospital. The compression fracture Lopez sustained in his lower back forced him to move back home with his parents and lose three months of work.
And, there was no shortage of evidence linking her to the crime, including a witness — “my personal hero,” as Lopez calls him — who saw what happened and followed Villegas as she weaved her way home that night. Because he had been able to get her license number, the police were to verify that she had been driving drunk when they booked her — still intoxicated — at 7:15 the next morning.
Yet, the young men were not consulted about the plea offer. Nor were Garcia’s parents. The only chance any of them had to participate in the legal process was to read out statements about how Villegas’ actions had affected their lives when she finally entered a “no contest” plea last month.
“It just infuriates me sometimes,” says Lopez, shaking his head over how effectively they’d been shut out of an opportunity to seek justice. “I’d be semi, semi-happy if she did 3 years and 8 months. But she’s not [going to].”
We are sitting in a largely empty IHOP in Downtown L.A. so, as Lopez put it, we could have “something sweet as we discuss[ed] something not so sweet.”
But the smiley-faced pancakes Lopez ordered do little to make the conversation easier as we turn to what life has been like for them since that night.
The first days had been hard, they agree.
They couldn’t accept what had happened, despite having seen it unfold in front of their eyes.
“I’m not gonna lie, everything’s kinda mumbled up,” says Lopez. “I wish I was drugged up [on pain medication] to not remember, but I remember [everything]. The first thing I thought about after immediately hitting the ground, I turned and I just saw Andy on the ground. That was probably the hardest thing for me. I just remember yelling at Richie [another rider], ‘Why is he not moving!?'”
After the second car hit Garcia, his body ended up next to where Melgar was.
“I knew right away just by looking what I was looking at…and I started breaking down and screaming,” recalls Melgar. “I don’t know… I never been in that situation. I just started throwing up…”
But, the full weight of what had happened didn’t really hit him until the ambulances arrived. One picked up Lopez, who was screaming, “My back! My back!” and the other came for Garcia.
“They didn’t even open the doors of the ambulance,” Melgar says quietly. “They [just] checked his pulse and covered him.”
Melgar went home that night, but was admitted to the hospital the next day when he woke up to find he couldn’t move. Landing on his back had shocked his system and his legs were deeply bruised from the collision.
Being in the hospital made for a surreal episode, he says. Slightly disoriented and a bit foggy from pain medication, he says he awoke after a nap to hear a woman crying over her son who had spilled boiled water on himself. He wondered if he had dreamed the events of the night before. But, then he realized the nurse had come in and adjusted his head while he was semi-conscious because he had been making choking noises.
“I had been crying,” he says. “I just started thinking about Andy and I just could not accept it. I could not accept the fact that it had happened.”
Lopez also went through a brief period of denial.
“It can’t be real,” he says he told himself at first. “I knew it had happened, but still…Why did this happen to us?”
As he slowly recovered and got back to leading a more normal life, he found he couldn’t escape that night. It was always with him as he lodged minor victories in his healing process — like being able to bend over and touch his feet, ties his shoes, or put on his socks — and when well-meaning friends or co-workers asked him about how he was doing.
“Even to this day, when I talk about it or I think about it, it just hits me,” he says. “But, having to relive it every ten minutes…? You’re breaking down inside.”
Although he’s gotten somewhat used to the residual twinges of pain or discomfort when sitting, he says he feels a little more depressed these days.
“I’ve always been optimistic, but I’ve been a little down lately…I’m starting to feel more anger now that all this is happening with [Villegas’] short sentence.”
“I was hoping that the justice system would, you know, be just,” Lopez continues. “But, no. I’m disappointed and let down. The more I think about it, the angrier I get. I don’t think one and a half years [the time Villegas is likely to serve] is enough. I don’t think I’ll ever be OK with that.”
Unwilling to wallow in that sadness, Lopez, Melgar, and Garcia’s friends and family have dedicated themselves to fighting for safer streets and tougher penalties for perpetrators of hit-and-runs.
They are lobbying for more resources and technology to be made available to law enforcement so that they can catch perpetrators and bring them to justice. They also hope to encourage law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges to step up and treat hit-and-runs as violent crimes by convincing legislators to enact penalties that regard them as such.
They also seek to promote safer cycling practices among the youth. While there might have been nothing they could have done differently to change the outcome in the incident that killed Garcia, they feel it made them hyper-aware of just how vulnerable cyclists are on the road. They want to encourage youth to seek a safer and more comfortable co-existence with cars by riding predictably, using hand signals, sporting lights at night, and obeying signals.
“It sucks that we went through this,” says Melgar, who passes Garcia’s ghost bike memorial on Cesar Chavez every day on his way to and from work, “but it takes the victims or the people affected by this to take action.”
And, it helps keep Andy’s memory alive.
“As long as I’m cycling,” says Melgar, “he’ll always be riding with us.”
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Keep up with events, including the year-anniversary “Justice for Andy” ride in September, on the memorial facebook pages for Andy Garcia here and here. Join friends and family of Garcia on April 22nd, when they ride to witness Villegas turn herself in to begin serving her sentence. Or link up with the All City Brew Crew fundraiser April 26th to support Finish the Ride, the April 27th fun ride for a safer Los Angeles with hit-and-run victim Damian Kevitt and friends.