Judge to Hit-and-Run Perpetrator: Don’t Do it Again or it Will Be Considered Murder

Carmen Tellez, mother of hit-and-run victim, speaks to local news outlets following the sentencing hearing for Wendy Villegas. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Carmen Tellez, mother of hit-and-run victim Andy Garcia, tells local news outlets she is disappointed with the outcome of the sentencing hearing for Wendy Villegas. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“If you drink and drive and kill someone again, [this time] it will carry a charge of murder with a minimum sentence of 15 years,” the judge told 21-year-old Wendy Villegas at her sentencing hearing. “Do you understand?”*

Her words had been meant to admonish Villegas — to convey the idea that slamming into a group of cyclists, killing Luis “Andy” Garcia and leaving Mario Lopez and Ulises Melgar for dead, was a very serious offense.

Unfortunately, the judge’s warning that the book would be thrown at her next time only served to underscore the fact that our laws do not yet take drunk driving or hit-and-runs seriously enough.

Fire a gun into a crowd and injure four people at a party at USC, and you’ll get forty years to life.** Get behind the wheel, and you apparently have to kill a second time before the death you cause is legally classifiable as a homicide.

From where I and 40 other members of Garcia’s family and friends sat, staring at the back of Villegas’ head, it was hard to tell if the judge’s words — or anything else, for that matter — made an impression on her.

She never met anyone’s gaze as she walked in and out of the sentencing hearing, never turned to look at anyone as she sat facing the judge, never appeared to show any emotion, and never uttered a word, other than to answer the judge’s direct yes-or-no questions.

It drove Garcia’s friends and family crazy.

Cynthia Garcia, Andy’s cousin, was the first to say so in her impact statement.

Shaking as she addressed Villegas’ stoic back, Garcia railed at her for not having enough respect for the family to accept responsibility for what she had done.

“You can’t say sorry?!…I hope [it] haunts you! I hope it keeps you up late at night!” she sobbed. “What you took away from us, we won’t [be able to] get back!”

An aunt, Yvette Holguin, described how Andy had fallen in love with the city shortly after moving here, and how he had posted photos from the bike ride he and his friends had gone on that night in September, “not knowing he had his hours counted.”

She recounted having screamed upon hearing that Andy had died so horribly and cried as she recalled the pain of having a closed casket at the memorial service.

At first, she had asked herself why Andy had felt he needed to ride that night, she said.

Then it dawned on her, she continued, that “the choices he made were not illegal.”

It was Villegas who had had too much to drink that night and who had made the illegal choice to get behind the wheel. It was Villegas who had made the illegal choice to leave the scene. Yet, it was Andy who paid the price while Villegas continued to appear unmoved by what she had done.

Perhaps Villegas realized, Holguin mused bitterly, that “hit-and-run penalties are a joke.”

Mario Lopez, who Villegas left with a broken back, speaks about the need to do more to prevent hit-and-runs. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Mario Lopez, who Villegas left with a broken back, speaks about the need to do more to prevent hit-and-runs. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Another of Andy’s aunts said that not one day had gone by that they hadn’t thought about him.

Knowing he had been left to die in the street had shattered them, she said. But the pain was made infinitely worse by Villegas’ complaints to the court about having to coordinate her ankle monitor with her shoes and the financial burden taking a life had placed upon her.

She realized that Villegas’ lawyers had likely advised her to show no emotion and to avoid addressing the family, she said, but she couldn’t help but feel “it was bad advice.”

“No one should have to live through this… especially with no [apology from you],” she said through tears. “There’s nothing wrong with human decency.”

The statements of Akira Peña, who had dated Garcia for 8 years, were perhaps the most heart-breaking. The couple had temporarily split after moving to L.A., but had finally agreed to get back together in September, telling each other they believed they were soul mates.

“A few hours later,” she wept, “[Villegas] took his life!”

“That was the love of my life!…You took that away from us!” she wailed, her tiny frame shaking. “We were going to get married! We were going to have kids!”

By the time she finished speaking, the entire courtroom was in tears. If Villegas was moved, however, she gave no indication.

Even the judge appeared exasperated by Villegas’ demeanor as she read off the sentence of 3 years and 8 months to be served in state prison.

“I always look for silver linings,” the judge began quietly, referring to her desire to see something good come out of the terrible incidents that regularly come under her jurisdiction.

Appearing genuinely troubled, she confessed that, in this case, she hadn’t been able to find any.

Recognizing it wasn’t necessarily up to her to come up with the answer, the judge indicated the time Villegas would serve might give her the space to reflect on what she had done.

“I hope,” she said, addressing Villegas directly, “you can figure out what that [silver lining] is.”

The group gathers for a photo with Univision and Danny Gamboa of Ghost Bike Documentary. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
The group gathers for a photo with Univision and Danny Gamboa of Ghost Bike Documentary. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Villegas may not find a silver lining, but friends and family of Andy Garcia have channeled their pain into activism. They encourage riders and those who care about the prevalence of hit-and-runs to come out to Finish the Ride this Sunday and support the movement to make the streets of L.A. safer for all. I will be there before the ride starts, documenting the stories of those who have been touched by hit-and-run incidents. Please look for me if you have a story you’d like to tell!

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*PLEASE NOTE: Bizarre as the judge’s statement sounds, she was describing the current unfortunate state of our laws with regard to how hit-and-runs are classified, not her personal feeling about what happened. And, it was the attorneys that had decided amongst themselves –without consulting the other victims or Garcia’s family– to offer a plea deal that allowed for a more lenient sentence instead of the maximum of 15 she could have served. For more on that, please see here.

**In making this comparison I do not mean to diminish the seriousness of attempted murder or the role of intentionality, or suggest that 40 years to life was an appropriate sentence in that case. Sentencing in both of these cases seems woefully arbitrary. And in most such cases, for that matter. In the case of the hit-and-run that killed USC student Adrianna Bachan (where another student was left for dead), both the driver AND her husband, who pulled the injured student off the windshield, were sentenced to 8 and 7 years, respectively.

  • MBDElf

    There IS no “silver lining” to wrist-slapping a careless, drunken killer. NO ONE’S life should be minimized because of the choices they make, whether it’s gender ID, preference, politics…or how they get from A to B.

    This convict’s ‘freedom’ to choose an adult activity wasn’t ‘free’ to the rest of us , was it? Cost a LIFE.

  • Prinzrob

    I wouldn’t call it a silver lining, but there is some useful legislation in the works in California to hold drivers to a greater level of accountability with regards to both hit and runs (AB 1532) and collisions with bicyclists or pedestrians (AB 2398). Learn more about these bills at the California Bicycle Coalition website (https://calbike.org/legislation) and show your support on their petition here: http://www.change.org/petitions/state-sen-mark-desaulnier-protect-vulnerable-road-users-and-support-ab-2398

  • A J MacDonald Jr

    Fire a gun into a crowd and injure four people at a USC party, and you’ll get forty years to life. Get behind the wheel, and you apparently have to kill a second time before the death you cause is considered a homicide.

  • neroden

    Plea bargains are actually illegal — they’re “corrupt bargains” under Anglo-American common law.

    Why are plea bargains allowed? Because DAs are quite literally allowed to get away with murder, under the judge-invented “absolute immunity” doctrine.

    We don’t have a justice system. We have a system where DAs decide who they want to put in prison and who they want to let go free, with no regard for the law.

  • ROADBLOCK

    FUCK THIS SHIT.

  • jen

    Lets start renting jail space from Mexico. I bet a few months there will straighten some people up.

  • sahra

    or…um…we could avoid slandering Mexico and work on fixing our laws? #keepitpositive

  • sahra

    I updated that language, just to make it clearer it wasn’t the judge’s personal opinion. I’ve seen instances where some (not you) apparently thought that that was what I was implying: “Fire a gun into a crowd and injure four people at a party at USC, and you’ll get forty years to life.** Get behind the wheel, and you apparently have to kill a second time before the death you cause is legally classifiable as a homicide.”

  • J

    Wile leaving the scene of a crash is despicable, I’d prefer we focus less on punishing the “hit and run” and more on preventing the “hit” in the first place.

  • Danny Wade

    A very public case of a hit-and-run driver going to prison for 20 years could help a lot with that cause.

  • stripeyunderpants

    How will that happen when hit-and-run murderers are permitted to go free because some limp-wristed, cowardly judge thinks they deserve another chance to murder someone?

  • Abby Rose

    Everyone who drives a car needs to ride a bike on the road for a month.

  • traal

    Is Villegas still allowed to drive?

  • sahra

    Apparently so. I don’t believe her license was suspended even while she was out on bail. I checked with the other victims and they can’t recall a license suspension. Crazy…the hit-and-run aside, considering she was still drunk several hours after the incident (it happened at 1 or 2 a.m. & the booked her, still drunk, at 7:15 a.m.)

  • HighNoon

    Especially PD.

  • JC526

    So, how many cyclist do you need to KILL before you get a 25 to life sentence?

  • David Haddox

    Wasnt the judge, its the way the statutes are written. Judges hands are tied. If anyone is to blame its the DA, for getting soft and dealing with the defense attorneys. The DA on the case had full authority to charge what ever they wanted and seek however much time they wanted, or felt the woman should do. Either the DA had problems wiht the case, that likely will never come out (ie bad police work, missing evidence needed to prove the case, something) or they made a poor decision out of laziness and not wanting to try the case.

  • Alex Thompson

    S.O.S.

    Same old shit.

  • sahra

    “limp-wristed?” really? come on, folks.

    As David Haddox suggests below, the judge had little discretion in this case, except to accept the full terms of the plea deal (i.e. not give her an even lighter sentence).

    In this case, expediency seemed to have
    been an issue, as was the fact that she was a pretty-ish 21 yr old with a clean record and her
    whole life ahead of her. My guess is they felt no jury
    would give her more than a couple of years, at best. It was still
    poorly handled — the DA never consulted the family or the survivors of
    the incident prior to announcing the deal. The judge, as I make clear in the story, was acknowledging the limitations of the law, not reveling in them.

  • zmau

    Depends. I understood that – while she’s not drunk – she can kill as many cyclists as she wants. But if she kills someone while being drunk again, then she could have problems.

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