A convicted drunk driver who killed three Las Vegas teenagers in a fiery crash along the Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach was sentenced Thursday to 51 years to life in prison.
Bani Marcela Duarte, 29, was driving with a blood alcohol content of more than three times the legal limit the morning of the deadly March 29, 2018, collision, according to prosecutors. Dylan Mack, 18, and two 17-year-olds in the vehicle, Brooke Hawley and Albert “A.J.” Rossi, died at the scene.
On Oct. 1, 2019, a jury found the San Clemente woman guilty of three felony counts of murder and one felony count of driving under the influence of alcohol causing bodily injury. The convictions also include a sentencing enhancement for causing great bodily injury.
The victims and another teen were inside a red Toyota driving along the northbound lanes of the PCH when they stopped at a red light around 1 a.m. at the intersection with Magnolia Street, where the highway runs directly alongside the beach.
Duarte slammed into the rear end of the Toyota while driving a white Hyundai Sonata, throwing the Toyota through the intersection and into a pole.
“The vehicle was pushed up into the pole and then the car immediately started smoking,” Huntington Beach Police Department Angela Bassett later said.
Amid the wreckage, one of the teenagers managed to escape. Bassett said officers were trying to rescue the others but were “unable to because the car burst into flames.” Firefighting crews later found the vehicle ablaze.
Prosecutors said the surviving victim suffered a concussion and serious burn wounds.
Officers arrested Duarte at the scene on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and driving under the influence. But she posted bond just days later.
She was rearrested about a month later on a $5 million warrant.
The four teenagers were students at Centennial High School visiting Orange County for spring break. Several hours after the crash, friends of theirs told KTLA that they were all part of a larger group on vacation, and that they had split apart following a bonfire the night before.
“We said ‘bye’ to them, like ‘have a safe drive home.’ They went a different way from us,” said one of the friends, Nikko Cuevas.
During Duarte’s Thursday sentencing hearing inside a Santa Ana courtroom, family members of the victims delivered emotional statements on how they have been affected by the teens’ deaths, according to a DA’s office news release.
Renee Mack, the mother of 18-year-old Dylan, said she would “give anything to hear his laugh and feel his hugs again.”
“I keep waiting for him to walk through our door again – and he never will,” Mack said.
Albert J. Rossi, father of 17-year-old Albert, addressed Duarte directly in his statement before the court.
“Ms. Duarte, you will be able to see your children through glass in jail,” Rossi said. “If I want to see my son, I have to go to a cemetery. That’s thanks to you Ms. Duarte.”
Prosecutors said she lost her license for a year following another arrest on suspicion of DUI two years before the deadly crash.