LOS ANGELES >> A jury acquitted two men of murder but convicted them of drunken driving-related charges Friday in connection with an alleged street racing crash that left a 90-year-old West Covina woman dead on Christmas Day in 2012, authorities said.
Vincent Lopez, 31, and Victor Hugo Sanchez, 36, both of Rialto, were each charged with murder, along with DUI, in connection with the crash at Lark Ellen and Merced avenues that claimed the life of Celia La Torre, who was riding as a passenger in a van driven by her son after picking her up from a local hospital. La Torre, who was sitting in a wheelchair in the can being driven by her son, was thrown from the vehicle and pronounced dead at the scene, West Covina police officials said.
Lopez and Sanchez were believed to be racing each other when a Mitsubishi Eclipse being driven by Lopez went through a red light and slammed broadside into the van containing La Torre and her son. The son suffered non-life-threatening injuries.
The jury Friday found both defendants not guilty of murder, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Sarah Ardalani said.
But they jury convicted Lopez of drunken driving causing injury or death, as well as driving with a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit of .08 percent, Ardalani said.
He was ordered back to Los Angeles Superior Court Nov. 17 for sentencing, she said. Under state law, Lopez faces a maximum sentence of nine years in state prison.
After finding Sanchez guilty of a misdemeanor count of drunken driving, the judge immediately sentenced him to 730 days in jail, Ardalani said. He has already served the time and was expected to be released Friday afternoon.
Both defendants were being held in lieu of $1 million bail pending the trial process.
Lopez, who suffered a broken leg in the crash, was arrested at the scene, officials said. Sanchez, who was driving the Ford Escort Lopez was racing, fled the scene and was arrested early the following morning in Pomona.
WEST COVINA >> A man escaped injury in a shooting in a residential neighborhood early Saturday, police said.
The attack took place just after 1 a.m. in the 1700 block of West Eldred Avenue, West Covina police Lt. Dennis Patton said.
The victim had just dropped off two friends in the neighborhood when a car drove past slowly and came to a stop just in front of the victim’s car, the lieutenant said. The suspect vehicle was described as a black, older-model car similar to a Ford Crown Victoria.
A passenger got out of the black car and walked toward the victim while racking the slide of a handgun to chamber a round, Patton said.
The victim abandoned his car and ran to an adjacent street, where he asked residents to call the police, Patton said. He heard gunshots as he ran, but was not struck by gunfire.
Police found bullet casings in the area, however the suspects were not located.
The motive in the shooting remained under investigation.
COVINA >> An Azusa man was allegedly drunk when he struck two pedestrians, then another car, in two separate hit-and-run crashes late Saturday.
Police booked Maximo Miguel Sarco, 37, on suspicion of felony drunken driving, felony hit-and-run and misdemeanor hit-and-run after he was ultimately arrested about following the series of crashes, which began about 9:45 p.m., Covina police Sgt. Gregg Peterson said.
A 17-year-old West Covina girl and 19-year-old Covina woman were crossing Citrus Street at Puente Street, within a crosswalk, when they were struck by a Ford Mustang that had run a red light on southbound Citrus Street, the sergeant said.
The young women were hospitalized with injuries not believed to be life-threatening, Peterson said. Their exact conditions were unclear.
But the driver of the Mustang, later identified as Sarco, continued driving after striking the pedestrians, he said.
Minutes later, Sarco rear-ended a car being driven by a Hacienda Heights man at Citrus Street and Garvey Avenue South in West Covina, Peterson said. Again, Sarco fled the scene, but the driver of the car he crashed into followed him and called the police.
The Hacienda Heights man followed the Mustang to the 500 block of South Montezuma Way in West Covina, where he parked in a driveway and went inside a house.
Police found Sarco inside the home, which was determined to be that of his in-laws, Peterson said. Officers arrested him without a struggle, and he was treated for minor injuries suffered in the second crash prior to booking.
Sarco was being held in lieu of $50,000 bail pending his initial court appearance, scheduled Tuesday in West Covina Superior Court, according to Los Angeles County booking records.
WEST COVINA >> Dozens of San Gabriel Valley first responders took part in a large-scale active shooter training scenario simulating a terrorist attack on a West Covina shopping mall Sunday.
Six local law enforcement agencies, federal officials and firefighters took part in the mock terror attack at the Plaza West Covina shopping mall, which was held early in the morning, before mall business opened for the day.
“We take the safety of our visitors and our residents very seriously,” West Covina Police Chief David Faulkner said. “There have been several incidents that have happened on the east coast — one happened last week — that certainly have raised our awareness that we need to be prepared. And in my view, we need to be ready for something and hope it never happens, (rather) than to respond to something we weren’t prepared for.”
A blast from a flash-bang grenade intended to simulate a bomb detonation signalled the beginning of the intensive drill at the mall, where three West Covina police officers played the role of heavily armed gunmen bent on creating carnage. Within minutes, the sounds of simulated gunshots echoed through the mall as police engaged the mock terrorists in a gunfight.
Two of the pseudo suspects carried assault rifles, while the third carried a shotgun.
Participating first responders were not told ahead of time what they would be facing in the drill, West Covina police Cpl. Rudy Lopez explained.
“Each officer involved in this has to determine how to best handle the situation,” he said.
Police simultaneously hunted for the gunmen and rescued mock victims who wore makeup to simulate injuries. Some officers carried their standard duty sidearms, while others were armed with rifles.
Patrol officers called in a SWAT team after the attack turned into a hostage situation.
Practicing a technique known as “fast-roping,” West Covina police SWAT members slid down a rope from a hovering Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department helicopter to join in the operation.
The West Covina Police Department’s recently acquired rescue vehicle, a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle acquired from the U.S. Department of Defense, was used to evacuate victims.
After a scenario that lasted about an hour, the three suspects had been killed in shoot-outs with officers. Three civilians had also been killed during the scenario, and many more wounded.
Police officers from West Covina, Covina, Baldwin Park and Irwindale police departments were joined by California Highway Patrol officers, Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials, FBI agents, West Covina firefighters and mall security officials in responding to the mock attack, Lopez said. While West Covina has hosted similar training scenarios in the past, Sunday’s training session was their biggest.
About 75 law enforcement officers participated, along with about 60 volunteers playing the part of victims or bystanders, officials said. The volunteers were primarily police Explorers from the West Covina, Glendora and Ontario police departments.
“Whether this incident happens in West Covina, or happens in Irwindale or Covina, we’re familiar with working with each others’ team,” the chief said. “We might be in different uniforms, but in the end, we’re all in one uniform when it comes time to deal with a critical incident.”
After watching the exercise unfold at the mall, West Covina City Councilman Fred Sykes said he approved.
“A place this large, it’s unfathomable for us not to look at what to do in this type of situation,” he said.
The costs and planning associated with massive drill is a wise investment, as it may help save lives down the road, Sykes said.
“This is extremely important for our community,” the councilman said.
Just like in sports, he added, “The battles are won in practice.”
WEST COVINA >> A West Covina man died early Thursday morning when he apparently lost control of his motorcycle and hit a chain link fence.
Joseph Louis Surita, 25, was pronounced dead at 1:53 a.m. at the scene of the crash at Barranca Street and Cameron Avenue, Los Angeles County Department of Coroner Chief of Operations Craig Harvey said.
The fatal, solo-vehicle crash was first reported at 1:43 a.m. by a passerby who spotted Surita and his motorcycle lying on the ground, West Covina police Sgt. Keith Shishido said. No witnesses to the crash had been found Thursday afternoon, and police were seeking anyone who saw what happened.
Police said Surita was riding a Suzuki GSX-R south on Barranca Avenue at “a high rate of speed” prior to the crash.
“As he approached the intersection with Cameron Avenue, he somehow lost control of the motorcycle,” Shishido said.
The sergeant said the motorcycle tipped over and slid, along with the rider, through the T-intersection, the sergeant said. He struck a the curb along the south side of Cameron Avenue, then a chain link fence bordering the South Hills Country Club.
“He was ejected at some point and time,” Shishido said.
Coroner’s Assistant Chief of Operations Ed Winter said the coroner’s office took the body away before students arrived at nearby South Hills High School.
Police are looking for witnesses to the crash. Though it was unclear exactly what time the crash took place, Shishida said because the intersection where the crash occurred is heavily travelled, the crash likely did not go unreported for long.
Anyone with information about the case is asked to call Cpl. Mike Weathermon of the West Covina Traffic Department at 626-939-8589.
- Ruby Gonzales and Brian Day
WEST COVINA >> A man who agreed to give a woman a ride in West Covina Tuesday ended up face to face with an armed man who demanded his wallet and car, police said.
The incident began shortly before 5:10 a.m. when the victim was approached by a woman in the parking lot of a gas station at Cameron and Glendora avenues, West Covina police Lt. Dave Lee said.
The woman asked the man for a ride, and he agreed, the lieutenant said. He drove the woman a short distance to the 1100 block of Wescove Place.
Once they arrives, the victim was approached by a man who brandished a handgun, demanded his wallet and ordered him out of his car, Lee said.
The victim refused, Lee said. “He was able to accelerate the vehicle away from the suspect.”
Police described the female suspect as a white woman between 35 and 40 years old, with blonde hair and blue eyes. The gunman was described as a black man between 40 and 50 years old, about 6 feet tall and 210 pounds.
BALDWIN PARK >> A robbed a Baldwin Park bank branch Saturday before quickly being captured by police, officials said
Todd Edward Campbell, 48, of West Covina was arrested within minutes of the 11:14 a.m. bank robbery at a U.S. Bank branch inside a Walmart store, 3250 Big Dalton Avenue, Baldwin Park police Lt. Doug Parnell said.
Campbell approached a female teller at the bank and displayed a note demanding money, the lieutenant said. The teller handed over about $2,000 and the suspect fled, running north from the bank, Parnell said. A bank employee triggered a silent alarm during the robbery.
An officer rushing to the scene of the crime spotted Campbell, who matched the description of the robber, at Merced and Puente avenues, Parnell said.
Though he had discarded is shirt in an attempt to change his appearance, Campbell was found carrying a bag containing the stolen money, and the note used in the robbery was found in his pocket, Parnell said.
The suspect, who has a lengthy criminal history out of state,admitted to the robbery, Parnell said. Campbell told police he committed the robbery because he needed money for drugs.
The FBI was assisting Baldwin Park police in the investigation.
According to Los Angeles County Booking records, Campbell was being held in lieu of $50,000 bail pending his initial court appearance Tuesday in West Covina Superior Court.
WEST COVINA >> West Covina police arrested a wanted parolee Saturday after she led officers on a brief car chase that ended in Covina, officials said.
Rebecca Wechter, 32, of Ventura, was ultimately arrested on suspicion of felony evading of police, as well as violating parole, West Covina police Lt. Dennis Patton said.
The incident began when an officer spotted Wechter driving erratically in a Toyota Camry and tried to pull her over in the area of Garvey Avenue South and Barranca Street, the lieutenant said.
Wechter initially appeared as if she was pulling over before the sped away, initiating a pursuit, he said.
Police chased the Camry to the area of Barranca Avenue and Navilla Place in Covina, where she surrendered to police, Patton said.
Officers quickly determined that Wechter had an arrest warrant for a parole violation, he said.
She was being held without bail pending her initial court appearance, Patton added.
WEST COVINA >> A man was stabbed during a fight near Gingrich Park in West Covina Thursday afternoon, officials said.
A 27-year-old man was hospitalized in unknown condition following the 5:45 p.m. incident near the park in the 1800 block of Woodgate Drive, West Covina police Lt. Pat Cirrito said.
Witnesses first called police to report a fight among five male combatants, Lt. Dennis Patton said. As officers were en route, they received a second call reporting that someone had been stabbed.
The victim was taken to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center for treatment, Patton said. The extent of the injuries was not clear.
Police found four suspects on foot several blocks away and arrested them in connection with the stabbing, Cirrito said
Detectives continued investigating what role the men may have played in the attack Thursday night.
WEST COVINA >> A man suffered a wound to his leg in a shooting at a West Covina shopping center Thursday afternoon, authorities said.
Police received multiple calls about 5:30 p.m. reporting gunshots heard at the Woodside Village Shopping Center in the 1500 block of East Amar Road, West Covina police Lt. Dennis Patton said.
“Our officers arrived on-scene and came upon a subject found to have sustained a gunshot wound,” the lieutenant said.
The victim, initially described only as male, was found to the rear of the business complex with a leg wound, he said. Paramedics took him to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center for treatment.
The victim, a man estimated to be 40 years old, as well as several witnesses at the scene did not cooperate with investigators, Lt. Pat Cirrito said.
No further details were available.