Plea Deal for Drunk Driver that Killed Andy Garcia Does Little to Ease Pain of Victims, Friends, and Families

Ulises Melgar and Mario Lopez (both hit by Wendy Villegas last Sept.) and friend Andrew Gomez in downtown L.A.  Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Ulises Melgar and Mario Lopez (both hit by drunk driver Wendy Villegas last Sept.) and friend Andrew Gomez in Downtown L.A. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

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.”

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
Jose Vasquez, who chased after Villegas on his bike, leaves a candle at the ghost bike memorial for Andy Garcia. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

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.”

* * * *

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.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    I appreciate the emotional torture these people are going through. But locking someone in a cell for even longer isn’t going to bring anyone back. And increased jail time won’t deter anyone. I can’t imagine the idea of spending 3 years in jail, and I suspect that this will ruin the rest of her life, preventing her from ever getting a worthwhile job, and perhaps turning her to a life of crime.

    We should be increasing resources to catch people who are guilty of these crimes. But increased penalties just destroy cities as surely as crime itself. (Just ask any neighborhood that has been a victim of the war on drugs.)

  • Felicia Garcia

    I’m fairly certain that locking someone in a cell for even longer is not going to bring Andy back. However, the time Villegas has been sentenced to serve hardly reflects that a life was lost. She’s had almost 7 (free) months to reflect upon her foolish choices that night and has yet to imply that she carries any guilt. Perhaps 3 years isn’t an alarming enough thought for her. I can’t imagine the idea of spending 3 years in jail, but I can’t begin to want to imagine being thrown off my bike and killed. Our resources should definitely be increased to catch people guilty of these crimes. Unfortunately, that alone is too “after the fact” for potential victims. Increased penalties, though never enough, may act as a better deterrent. Heavier penalty may make a statement that incidents of this sort are not acceptable and are most definitely not tolerated by the law.

  • sahra

    I don’t disagree with your larger point with regard to sentencing and inner city youth. But this was not the case of a troubled girl that has been oppressed by the system and in and out of scrapes with the law who is tottering on the edge of a life of crime and just needs a break and a hug. She’s a college kid who liked to party and destroyed the lives of several families because she decided that partying mattered more to her than other people’s safety and well-being. If she hadn’t hurt so many people in one fell swoop, there is no way she’d have even been looking at more than a year in jail. As it was, her lawyer argued for community service instead of jail time, and made the case that even wearing an ankle bracelet would be a hardship for her. It’s a tough call. We talked last night about the inflexibility of the justice system and the fact that there is no ideal outcome — there is nothing that will change what has happened. Even when we talked about the possibility of civil suits, the young men were clear that they had no interest in money and that there would be no joy in suing her, were they to go that route. What the young men here want to see is that people be asked to take more responsibility for their actions when they get behind the wheel of a car and that cyclists’ and pedestrians’ lives be valued. The fact that we don’t even have viable data on hit-and-runs means that they really aren’t being taken seriously. And it doesn’t help that she has never expressed any remorse for her actions… Nobody wins in a case like this, that is clear. Maybe we need a more specific code of justice for cases like these, that includes a mix of jail time and service with programs that promote safety? I don’t know what the right answer is. But maybe this is a moment for the debate about proper penalties to begin?

  • Ninjalink

    So you’re saying that someone who took a persons life shouldn’t at least serve a minimum of 3 years in jail? Someone who decided to drink and drive. Knowing that something like this could happen, doesn’t deserve time? She took a young mans life away from himself, his family, and his friends. But no, you’re right. She deserves to be free and keep on doing stupid shit like that. NO!!! This 3 year and 8 month sentence is a fucking joke and a slap in the face of Andy’s family and friends.

    I do apologize for that hostile reply, but what you wrote triggered some feelings. I lost my best friend in January to a drunk driver who is now out on bail. So I know of the pain that his family and friends are going through.

    My deepest sympathy and best wishes to the family and friends of Andy.

  • ubrayj02

    Time behind bars? If that is what everyone thinks is necessary, okay.

    When this woman gets out of jail the big question I have is: how long until she gets her license back?

    There needs to be an incredibly difficult series of tests to ensure that these killer drivers know WTF they are doing with multi ton vehicles or be banned from operating them for life. Traffic school is not cutting it.

  • Nathanael

    Yes. There is no way in hell this woman should get a drivers’ license ever again. But it seems like people who commit vehicular manslaughter get to go back on the road to kill again. Routinely.

  • El Barto

    time in jail actually would deter people from committing the crime. witness the decline of graffiti in Los Angeles since it became a felony to commit more than $500 in damage. Slow TKO did EIGHT YEARS for his graffiti exploits and never killed anyone but was hit with multiple felonies. Same with Trigz and others. Slayer has 6 FELONIES hanging over his head. Graffiti has been reduced dramatically in recent years because of the priority set by the cops and the system. every driver EVER caught for hit and run should recieve a felony conviction and NEVER get a CA license again. cant deal? get the fuck out of CA then!

  • Me

    Not sure if you’re trolling, but the idea of her spending 3 years in jail is exactly what she deserves. When you get your license you are taking the responsibility of operating a potential lethal machine. Once she decided to get behind the wheel of said machine, she was already negligent. Maybe you would think differently if it was you or a close relative of yours who was hit and left to die on the street.

    She ran after killing someone.

  • Joe B

    I don’t think it’s useful to argue about sentences for drivers who kill. In fact, I think that concentrating discussion on their sentences is harmful, because it distracts us from proposing solutions that might actually significantly decrease dangerous driving.

    Only a (relatively) small number of people ever kill someone from behind the wheel. But a huge number of people drive dangerously. Even if we forbade drivers who kill from ever driving again, we wouldn’t make a dent dangerous driving because most killers aren’t repeat offenders. In order to stop dangerous driving, we need to address ALL dangerous drivers, not just those who kill.

    Some argue that long prison sentences for killers would deter other dangerous drivers. But I don’t think there would be much of a deterrent, because most dangerous drivers don’t think they’re ever going to actually kill somebody.

    The only way we’re going to make a dent in dangerous driving is by de-normalizing it. One way to begin de-normalizing dangerous driving is to begin consistent enforcement of traffic laws that ban dangerous behavior. Conduct well-publicized saturation patrols in small areas, with the goal of convincing drivers that if they do something dangerous in that area, there is a very good chance that they will be caught. Once they understand that and they begin driving safely in that small area, that frees up police resources to do the same thing in another small area. Eventually drivers will get tired of keeping track of where they can and can’t drive dangerously, and will avoid driving dangerously everywhere.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    I’m not trolling. I sincerely think that prison is an awful thing, and that we overuse it and abuse it in this country. The only purpose it serves is appeasement of our baser human desire for revenge.

    Step up enforcement, revoke licenses, impose harsher penalties and fines, but don’t expand the use of prison.

  • losangelebicycleattorney.com

    I had the pleasure of speaking with Mario Lopez last Saturday night when I spoke at the Bicycle Film Festival. Justice for cyclists is evasive, especially when a killer can plea her way out of stiffer sentence. For an in-depth understanding of how the plea process works, readers can check out this month’s cover story in California Lawyer Magazine: http://www.callawyer.com/clstory.cfm?eid=934210&wteid=934210_Pleading_for_Justice. Peace, Josh

  • David Haddox

    Not addressing the sentencing at all….What’s wrong with giving her a bus pass and a bicycle after she is released, and telling her to “figure it out”? Surely she doesn’t deserve to drive ever again. Its dumbfounding that she will get behind the wheel anywhere. That should be the long run punishment. An eternity of public transit, braving the roads on bike, and begging rides from friends. She has shown she cant be trusted.

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