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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. Read more…

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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. Read more…

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Bill Suspending Hit-and-Run Drivers’ Licenses Passes Assembly Committee

Last week, the Associated Press released a video of a hit-and-run crash in Orange County. The video is available to view here.

The California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee voted 7-0 Tuesday to approve A.B. 1532, which would require an automatic license suspension for drivers who flee the scene of a crash where a person is hit, even if that person is not injured.

That unanimous vote marks an exceptional win for the bill, which was introduced by Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles). Typically, bills which increase penalties for existing crimes or increase the burden on law enforcement are subject to extra scrutiny and face an uphill battle gaining committee votes.

CA’s current hit-and-run laws require drivers to stop when they are involved in crashes, and drivers who kill or seriously injure others and flee the scene can face severe penalties. A.B. 1532 would add penalties for cases where the injuries are minor, including automatic license suspension.

“The bill’s key aspect is that it increases minimum penalties so there is no less than a six-month mandatory license suspension,” explained Damian Kevitt of FinishtheRide.org. “That way prosecutors can no longer mitigate a hit-and-run down to a $500 misdemeanor fine, which is a slap on the wrist.”

“Hit-and-run drivers should be penalized, as this legislation requires,” said Nicole Schneider, executive director of Walk San Francisco, who applauded the bill as “a good step towards creating a culture where people respect each other.”

“This addresses the middle ground for those hit-and-runs that aren’t severe, making a statement that it’s not okay to leave the scene of a crash.”

Read more…

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The Wheels of Justice Slowly Begin to Turn in the Hit-and-Run that Killed Andy Garcia

She made the decision to drink. She ran over me and my two friends, and she fled. She killed a friend of mine. My back and other bones were broken, and I was out of work for three months, recounted Mario Lopez (in Spanish, above), to a reporter from Canal 22 yesterday.

He was one of several victims hit by 21-year-old Wendy Villegas in the incident that killed Luis “Andy” Garcia last September.

Villegas had come flying up the bridge on Cesar Chavez that fateful night, knocking Lopez aside, slamming into Garcia and dragging his bike several hundred feet underneath her car, and launching Ulises Melgar into the air so high he nearly flew over the bridge railing to the river below, all while friends Richie Berumen and Jose Vasquez watched helplessly.

But, I am going to keep fighting, Lopez continued, and I am going to campaign so that people know that we are here and we are going to achieve justice for Andy.

And, with that, the riders that had gathered at dawn at Montebello City Park pedaled off toward the courthouse in downtown L.A. to confront Villegas once again.

It was about time.

Garcia’s family had flown in from Texas last month only to see the preliminary hearing postponed for the second time.

New evidence had been entered that both parties needed to review, Garcia’s mother had explained.

At the time, she also said that, while she understood that this was how the justice system worked, it was still very painful. Not least because they had seen no expression of remorse from Villegas. In fact, the only regret they heard from her seemed to be linked to the requirement that she wear an ankle monitor; her lawyer had complained this was a hardship — sartorial and otherwise — for a young college student to endure.

Thursday’s hearing brought hope that Garcia’s family and friends might finally see justice. Read more…

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Hearing For One Hit-and-Run is Rescheduled While Another Takes the Life of a Young Man in Watts

21-year-old Wendy Villegas, charged with a DUI, vehicular manslaughter, and a felonly hit-and-run at her pre-trial hearing yesterday. (Screengrab, KTLA)

21-year-old Wendy Villegas, charged with a DUI, vehicular manslaughter, and a felonly hit-and-run at her pre-trial hearing yesterday. (Screengrab, KTLA)

When a female (who may or may not have been walking her bicycle) was hit and killed by a bus on Slauson in South L.A. last month, I got a few phone calls from friends in the area.

“Was it you?”

“No,” I reassured them. “I’m still here.”

I was surprised they had heard about it. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been. It feels like more mainstream attention is being given to incidents on the road that result in the death or serious injury of pedestrians and cyclists of late, and it actually feels like people are paying attention. Or, at least starting to see these preventable tragedies — particularly hit-and-runs — as a problem.

It has been incredibly heartening, for example, to see KTLA take an interest in ghost bikes (and the work of the activists who put up the memorials) and show up yesterday to cover the Ride for Justice for Andy Garcia. Garcia was the young man killed in a hit-and-run last September when an intoxicated 21-year-old named Wendy Villegas slammed into him and dragged his bike under her car several hundred feet up the Cesar Chavez bridge.

KTLA met the riders at the starting point in Bell Gardens, interviewed Garcia’s mother, Carmen Tellez, who was riding with the group, and then stayed to cover the hearing.

Their presence was also an opportunity, notes Tellez, for her to educate the reporters about just how many cyclists are regularly killed on the road, something she felt they are still only just beginning to understand.

But, for all the attention to and education around the problem, the carnage continues.

Just last night, a 19-year-old man was killed in a horrific hit-and-run in Watts.

Jerry Arredondo had stopped by a friend’s place on 105th and was crossing the otherwise quiet street when a (possibly drunk) driver came screaming down the block at between 80 and 100 mph, hit a dip in the road, went airborne, and slammed into him, apparently launching Arredondo 20 ft. into the air and 40 ft. forward. The car then continued on down the street, smashing into seven other parked cars, finally stopping after losing a wheel.

The driver then got out of the destroyed rental car and into a BMW, apparently driven by an acquaintance who thought it prudent to help the first driver get away from the mayhem he had just created.

A search is currently underway for both drivers.

Even when drivers are found, the wheels of justice turn very slowly, as Garcia’s family can attest. Read more…

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“Nothing Brings Me Comfort”: Family of Hit-and-Run Victim Plan to Hold Ride to Driver’s Hearing

andy

Andy Garcia, center, with some of his riding buddies. Photo courtesy of Carmen Tellez

What goes through the mind of a drunk driver who senselessly mows people down?

It’s a question the family and friends of Luis “Andy” Garcia are still waiting for answers to.

Garcia, an experienced cyclist and recent transplant to L.A., was riding home with friends on the night of September 14th, 2013, when 21 year-old Wendy Villegas came tearing up the bridge on Cesar Chavez, slamming into him and dragging his bike under her car for several hundred feet. She also knocked aside Mario Lopez, sending him into the pavement hard and breaking his back, and launched Ule Melgar so high into the air that he almost sailed over the railing to the river below.

Seemingly unaware of the havoc she had wreaked, she kept going.

Thanks to the help of a driver that witnessed the incident and got her license plate, police were able to track her down. She was still intoxicated when they took her into custody at seven in the morning.

The family, Garcia’s mother tells me, is still waiting for some expression of remorse from her.

According to those present at her arraignment last October, her lawyer suggested that wearing an ankle bracelet to monitor both alcohol intake and movement would be inconvenient to a young, working student as well as a challenge for her to pair it properly with the variety of shoes she wears.

For Mario Lopez, still in pain, struggling with mobility, unable to work, and dealing with both anxiety and feelings of helplessness, it was too much.

He said that, at that moment, he thought, “Well, what about Andy? [Andy] was a full time student in college. He had responsibilities. But yet, he can’t and will never be able to fulfill them…And she is worried about her fashion sense! What about the inconvenience she brought upon his family and friends?”

For Garcia’s family, her concerns about the bracelet left them cold.

“I understand that it is her attorney’s job to work and manipulate the legal system to her benefit. However, what I can’t understand is how she has not shown one ounce of remorse,” writes Garcia’s mother. “Her behavior in the courtroom demonstrates her lack of compassion towards human life. Her nonchalant demeanor is extremely offensive to me. It is like her having to appear in court is a mere inconvenience in her life. She has yet to look me in the eye, much less [offer] some sort of apology.”

Several months on, the family continues to mourn as they await justice. Read more…

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New Gatto Legislation Requires License Suspension for All Hit and Run Drivers

Yesterday, Assemblyman Mike Gatto introduced legislation mandating that any driver who commits a hit and run offense, even if the victim is not seriously injured, forfeit their driver’s license for six months. Gatto’s legislation is his second effort to criminalize hit and run crashes following last year’s Assembly Bill 184 which extended the statute of limitations for hit and run drivers.

“A.B. 1532 will give victims of hit-and-runs solace, knowing that cowards who drive recklessly, and purposefully avoid responsibility for their actions, are no longer driving the streets,” said Assemblyman Gatto.  “This is a sensible fix to the law that will lead people to think twice before leaving the scene of an accident.”

Gatto’s legislation adds a penalty of a six month driver’s license suspension to anyone found guilty of a misdemeanor hit and run crash. Currently, most hit and run drivers are either given a probation and fine, although law does allow for up to a six month stay in jail. This latter provision is rarely enforced.

“A driver’s license comes with a serious responsibility – one that arises from the privilege of operating a piece of machinery that can have the potential to maim or kill and thus completely ruin lives,” writes Sam Ollinger, the executive director of Bike SD. “Assembly member Gatto is showing both a willingness to pay attention to California’s needs and address a sorely needed gap that has unfortunately arisen out of our mobility needs.”

Hit and run crashes, and the seeming helplessness of the LAPD to stem the crisis level of these crashes in Los Angeles, have been a major issue in Gatto’s hometown for years. The Los Angeles Police Department records 20,000 hit-and-run crashes are recorded annually, and the L.A. Weekly considers this number a low estimate.  State data shows that 4,000 hit-and-run incidents a year in Los Angeles lead to injury or death.  2014 has already been a deadly year in Gatto’s district. A 24-year-old veterinary student was killed in a hit-and-run in Northridge just last week.

However, Gatto’s dedication towards pursuing meaningful reform of the state’s hit and run laws is bolstered by the experience of Damian Kevitt. Kevitt was riding his bicycle to Griffith Park with is wife when he was struck by a driver and dragged hundreds of feet. The driver escaped onto the 5 Freeway and has not been found. Read more…

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Hit-and-Run Victims and Surviving Family Members Face Drunk Driver at Her Arraignment

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

This past Wednesday, friends and family of Andy Garcia, killed in a brutal hit-and-run last month, came face to face with the woman that had upended their lives.

“It was very hard and emotional being there and seeing the person who killed my friend Andy,” wrote Mario Lopez to me yesterday. Lopez was one of the riders 21 year-old Wendy Villegas had mowed down that fateful night.

It was also physically draining for him.

He is still recovering from fractures in his back and leg. While he is able to stand and walk around for short periods without his walker, he is still in a brace and in a lot of pain.

So, when she and her lawyer complained that wearing an ankle bracelet that would monitor both alcohol intake and movement would be inconvenient to a young, working student as well as a challenge for her to pair it properly with the variety of shoes she wears, Lopez couldn’t take it any more.

“I thought to myself at that moment, ‘Well, what about Andy?’” he wrote. “‘[Andy] was a full time student in college. He had responsibilities. But yet, he can’t and will never be able to fulfill them…And she is worried about her fashion sense! What about the inconvenience she brought upon his family and friends?’”

He finally yelled out, “But she killed someone!”

Indeed she had, and then some.

On the night of Sept. 14th, she had come tearing up the bridge on Cesar Chavez, knocking cyclists out of the way like bowling pins. Lopez was tossed into the air, Garcia was slammed to the ground and his bike was dragged several hundred feet under her car, and Ule Melgar was nearly knocked over the railing and into the river below.

She was still intoxicated when she was taken into custody several hours later.

Thankfully, say both Lopez and Melgar, the judge recognized the seriousness of what had happened and had little sympathy for her.

According to them, the judge told Villegas she will wear the device because she is a danger to society. As such, she is no longer able to drive a vehicle, must obey a curfew, and is obligated to appear in court by 4 p.m. today (Oct. 11) to both pay for the monitor and have it placed around her ankle. Should she choose not to do so, the judge advised, a warrant would be issued for her arrest, she would be placed in custody, and her bail would be revoked.

It isn’t too surprising that she would be already protesting at an arraignment. The charges against her are quite serious: one count of vehicular manslaughter, a DUI, and a felony hit-and-run. Because she had injured so many people, she is looking at a minimum sentence of 5 – 7 years and a maximum of 10 – 15.

While that means that some justice will likely be served, for the young men who witnessed the incident and/or were injured, their lives have been forever changed.

Read more…

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An Open Letter to ABC 7 Concerning Their Coverage of a Hit and Run Crash That Killed Andy Shah

(The following letter was sent to Streetsblog with the understanding that we would publish it by the friends and family of Anand “Andy” Shah. Shah passed away after being struck in a hit and run crash in September. The LAPD is still looking for information about the driver who caused the collision. The only edit I made was to remove the text of a link and hyper link it in the same sentence. The letter was written in response to the video embedded directly below.- DN)

8 October, 2013

To Whom it May Concern,

In this open letter, we the undersigned are writing in regard to ABC 7’s news coverage of the fatal accident involving our friend Anand “Andy” Shah. We understand that the purpose of ABC’s report, which aired on September 6, 2013, was to draw attention to the fact that the driver involved in the accident had absconded and that this might invite viewers to come forward with useful information. While such reportage is necessary, it still needs to be done with sensitivity. Such tact was sorely lacking in how ABC informed the public about the accident that led to Andy’s demise.

Most egregiously, video footage accompanying the report repeatedly showed images of our friend’s body as it lay covered with a white sheet on the street. If the intent was to reach out to those who might be able to provide insight about what happened on the night, how would such a spectacle be of any assistance? Rather, the displaying of Andy’s remains served only to further traumatize those already grieving his loss, even if this was not the intent. Such callousness acts in a sensationalist fashion that has little to do with garnering leads that would help the investigation into this crime, but has much to do with how the media further desensitizes its viewers to the tragic loss of life in such violent circumstances. Read more…

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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.” Read more…