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

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 wrought, 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.

"Every day is a struggle. Every day I wake up hoping it was all a bad dream," writes his mother. "It's extremely exhausting and draining just trying to make it through the day. Although there has been a tremendous outpour[ing] of support by family, friends, and even strangers, nothing brings me comfort...I can run, scream, cry, but there is no escaping the pain."

Andy Garcia
Andy Garcia. Photo courtesy of Carmen Tellez

While legislators like Assemblyman Mike Gatto are bringing attention to the issue of hit-and-runs, first with legislation extending the statute of limitations on such cases and now, proposing a mandatory 6-month driver's license suspension for those who commit hit-and-runs, little has been done to dedicate more resources to resolving these crimes or to increase the penalties for them.

That leaves families and victims feeling somewhat abandoned.

For the family of Benjamin Torres (killed on his way to work in the fall of 2012) -- one of the many cases where the perpetrator has never been found -- there can be no closure. Their frustration at what they feel to be major discrepancies between the account of the witnesses who found Torres in the street and the police report on the incident only adds to the sense that authorities do not take the safety and well-being of the vulnerable people in the community very seriously.

Even in cases where perpetrators are found and brought before a judge, consolation is still hard to come by.

A felony hit-and-run resulting in serious permanent injury or death (meaning somebody dies), will only bring a prison term of between 24 and 48 months. If the driver was intoxicated, and that can be proven (it often can't, as many are not caught right away), 5 years are added to whatever sentence is handed down.

Villegas' case is unusual in that she is facing rather serious charges -- one count of vehicular manslaughter, a DUI, and a felony hit-and-run -- which, together, could carry a minimum sentence of 5-7 years and a maximum of 10-15. But she had to be extremely drunk, kill one person, and severely injure other people in order for the judge to be able to consider throwing the book at her.

And, while the potential for her serving some serious time is a welcome outcome for the family, the process has been exhausting for them. They must travel from Texas to be present for the proceedings and continue to deal with the loss of a beloved son and brother. Residual pain from injuries incurred that night and horrific memories of having watched a young man die in front of them are constant companions for his friends.

Villegas, meanwhile, remains free on bond.

They will face her again at her next pre-trial hearing, set for next Tuesday, February 4th, and invite you to show your support for cyclists and all victims of hit-and-runs by joining them on a group ride to the courthouse.

The hearing will begin at 9 a.m. on the 3rd floor of Court 37 (210 W. Temple). They will meet up to ride at the grassy corner of Atlantic and Gage in Bell Gardens at 6:30 a.m. and ride out at 7 a.m. sharp. The facebook event page is here. The family has not yet set a route, but we will update you when they do.

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