A former Los Angeles Police Department officer pleaded not guilty Monday to murder and other charges stemming from an alleged DUI crash that killed a young man and his parents on the 605 Freeway in Santa Fe Springs nearly two years ago.
Edgar Verduzco, 28, was off-duty at the time of the Sept. 26, 2017, crash and has remained jailed on $6.1 million bail since he was arrested in April 2018.
On Aug. 1, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge M.L. Villar found sufficient evidence to order Verduzco to stand trial on three counts each of murder and vehicular manslaughter, as well as one count each of driving under the influence and driving with a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content causing injury, in connection with the deaths of Riverside residents Mario Davila, 60, Maribel Davila, 52, and their 19-year-old son, Oscar Davila.
The former officer, who is due back in court on Oct. 10 for a pretrial hearing, faces a possible life prison sentence if convicted as charged.
Verduzco allegedly was speeding in his 2016 Chevrolet Camaro in a carpool lane on the freeway when the car smashed into a 2014 Nissan containing the Davilas and then into a 2010 Toyota Scion. The Davilas' vehicle struck a center divider and burst into flames, while the occupants of the other car suffered minor injuries.
During a preliminary hearing that lasted just over a day, the judge heard testimony from nearly a dozen witnesses, including a California Highway Patrol officer who testified that he used data from Verduzco's Camaro to determine that the driver began braking within one second of the collision with the Nissan and that the sports car was traveling at an estimated 151 mph at the time of the crash.
A motorist who was on the freeway that night, Javier Omar Quintanilla, choked back tears as he recalled seeing the Camaro at a "speed I've never seen before'' through his rear-view mirror and saying to himself that the driver was going to kill himself or someone else.
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Quintanilla said he didn't see or hear the collision, but subsequently came upon the wreck and parked to try to help the crash victims before the Nissan caught fire. He said that he smelled alcohol on Verduzco's breath following the crash.
Berly Alvarado, who was in the Scion with her 1-year-old son, said she panicked and screamed after the collision, which sent her car spinning. She said her son, who was in a car seat, suffered cuts, but she called the injury she suffered to her wrist nothing "compared to what was happening to the other people."
Alvarado said she saw Verduzco approach the Nissan after he managed to get out of his damaged Camaro, but that he had to retreat toward his own car after the Nissan burst into flames.
CHP Officer Gersain Chavez described a "pretty chaotic'' crash scene, in which three bodies were found inside the Nissan, which had fully burned.
The CHP officer said he smelled alcohol on Verduzco, who informed him that he was an off-duty LAPD officer and denied having consumed alcohol that evening.
Subsequent blood testing done at a local hospital showed Verduzco's blood-alcohol content to be 0.13 percent, according to a stipulation by attorneys from both sides.
Under cross-examination by Deputy Public Defender Robin Ginsburg, the CHP officer said Verduzco broke down after being told that three people had died as a result of the collision.
CHP Officer Emmanuel DaSilva, who was assigned to conduct a criminal investigation into the crash, testified that he found an Instagram account that he believed belonged to Verduzco which featured an Instagram Story that included an animated man and a car in which the airbag deployed that was superimposed on a bar with the hashtag "dontdrinkanddrive'' that had been posted just under four hours before the deadly collision. Another Instagram Story allowed him to determine the bar in Whittier where the video was filmed, according to DaSilva.
An unidentified female companion who was with Verduzco at the bar used a credit card belonging to the defendant to spend nearly $73 at the establishment in three separate transactions in just over three hours, according to the CHP officer.
Verduzco's attorney argued that the prosecution had not proven the murder charges, adding that her client "tried to render aid'' and didn't try to flee from the crash scene.
Deputy District Attorney Kaveh Faturechi countered that the first Instagram post indicated that Verduzco appreciated the dangers of drinking and driving while he was drinking at the bar. The prosecutor said the defendant was traveling at "unbelievably high speeds'' and was "flooring it even five seconds before this collision'' before applying his brakes within the last second.
The judge noted that murder cases stemming from deadly DUI crashes typically involve defendants who have previously been convicted of DUI and been warned that they could face murder charges if they are involved in a fatal DUI crash, but Verduzco's case was "different'' because he was "in a unique position to understand the gravity of drinking and driving'' as a result of his work as a police officer. She called the accident "horrific,'' and said Verduzco "drove at a speed that I didn't even know was possible.''
According to a GoFundMe page created on the family's behalf, the Davilas were "members of Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine Church, volunteers of the Riverside community, supporters of the arts, and all three of them had positive influences on those around them.''
Verduzco "separated from service with the department'' on July 21, 2018, according to the LAPD's Media Relations Section.