One of the two men charged in the Santa Ana street racing crash that killed a longtime Orange County Register staffer had a previous DUI conviction and was also under the influence during the fatal collision last week, officials said Monday.
Louie Robert Villa, 29 of Santa Ana, was charged with murder, along with one felony count each of driving under the influence of alcohol causing great bodily injury while street racing and driving under the influence of alcohol with a blood alcohol level of greater than .08. He also got a misdemeanor charge for street racing, and another for driving on a suspended or revoked license with a prior conviction, the O.C. District Attorney Office said.
The DA said the man is facing a murder charge for the fatal crash because he pleaded guilty to driving under the influence back in 2012 and was given the Watson advisement. He faces a maximum sentence of 21 years to life in state prison if convicted as charged.
“An illegal street race and a repeat drunk driver who had been warned about the dangers of driving under the influence collided in the middle of the day on a Santa Ana street, resulting in a tragedy that didn’t have to happen,” O.C. District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in a statement. “Because of the selfish actions of two strangers, a wife will never see her husband again and many more lost a treasured friend and colleague.”
The driver he was racing with, 24-year-old Ricardo Tolento of Santa Ana, was charged with vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence while engaging in a street race, and hit-and-run causing permanent injury or death, authorities said.
Tolento faces up to 11 years in prison if convicted of all charges.
The two men started racing with each other, Villa in a BMW and Tolento in an Infiniti, at the intersection of 17th Street and Bristol Street late Thursday morning, according to the Santa Ana Police Department.
Orange County Register editor Eugene Harbrecht, 67, was driving to lunch, making a turn in his pickup truck at Santa Clara Avenue and 17th Street when the BMW slammed into his vehicle.
The crash was so powerful it propelled Harbrecht’s truck at least 50 feet, and it landed on its side and caught fire, Santa Ana police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said at the time.
Good Samaritans rushed to Harbrecht’s aid and pulled him out of the vehicle, but he succumbed to his injuries and was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Harbrecht had been with the Register since 1984, most recently serving as the national and international news editor for its parent company, Southern California News Group. His colleagues described him as a “newsman to his core,” who had a heart of gold.
Villa was injured in the crash and taken from the scene to a hospital, where he remained Monday. Tolento drove away from the scene of the crash without trying to render aid, but was found and arrested a short time later, police said.
“The decision to get behind the wheel after drinking or using drugs is a selfish one that unnecessarily endangers lives and all too often takes the lives of innocent bystanders,” Spitzer said.