A 29-year-old woman drank “an unfathomable amount” of alcohol during a night of bar-hopping before rear-ending another car in Huntington Beach, killing three Las Vegas teens on spring break and injuring a fourth youth, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday.
Bani Marcela Duarte’s attorney countered that she “made a stupid decision that cost three people their lives,” but said prosecutors would fail to prove the San Clemente resident is guilty of three counts of second-degree murder.
Duarte is also charged with driving under the influence of alcohol causing bodily injury, with a sentencing enhancement for inflicting great bodily injury, stemming from the March 29, 2018, crash that killed the other driver, 17-year-old Brooke Hawley, and passengers 18-year-old Dylan Mack and 17-year-old Albert Rossi.
A fourth high school classmate, Alexis Vargas, managed to get out of the burning Toyota Camry, but sustained second-degree burns to one arm.
Duarte had gone out drinking in several bars and clubs throughout Orange County, ending up at Baja Sharkeez in Newport Beach early that morning, said Senior Deputy District Attorney Dan Feldman.
“There she consumed an unfathomable amount of alcohol,” he said, telling jurors that a post-crash blood test showed her blood-alcohol level was .28%, well above the legal limit of .08.
Duarte was heading north, but was so drunk she thought she was driving south toward home when she left the restaurant, Feldman said. Three men in a Jeep spotted her erratic driving and called 911, he said.
While making a left-hand turn onto Pacific Coast Highway “she swung so wide she struck the curb with the passenger side of her car,” Feldman said.
Duarte got out of the Hyundai she was driving to “inspect the damage,” and then got back into the car and kept driving, he said.
“She ignored that warning about her ability to drive,” Feldman said.
The three witnesses said she appeared to be “beyond intoxicated,” and that she was “burping, staggering,” he said. They were still on the line with a 911 dispatcher when the Hyundai slammed into the Camry as the car idled at a red light at Magnolia Street about 1 a.m., Feldman said.
“They see her speed up to catch the light” before the collision, he said.
Duarte’s car was going 79 mph in a 45 mph zone when it slammed into the rear of the Camry, which “burst into flames,” Feldman said.
“She ignored what she knew about the dangers of drinking and driving,” Feldman said. “She rolled the dice and gambled on the lives of these young people, and three of them died.”
Duarte was arrested in San Clemente by an Orange County sheriff’s deputy on June 22, 2016, on suspicion of DUI. A breathalyzer test indicated her blood-alcohol level was .17 % on that occasion, according to court records.
“Due to a clerical error, the police report was never submitted for review by the District Attorney’s Office and no charges were filed,” Feldman said in court papers.
Duarte phoned a friend from her Huntington Beach jail cell following the crash, and after he admonished her for drinking and driving, she conceded, “I know I shouldn’t have … It was just a stupid decision,” according to Feldman.
He said she told police investigating the crash that she had wanted to call an Uber driver to get home.
The prosecutor said Duarte once responded to a friend’s posts on Instagram about a drunken driving crash that injured his sister and niece by saying that she had taken an Uber when she went out drinking because she would “rather be safe than sorry.”
After Duarte’s arrest on suspicion of DUI in 2016, she pleaded with the deputy to let her go, saying, “Please, I have four kids, don’t do this,” according to Feldman, who added her license was suspended for a year.
Duarte’s attorney, Justin Glenn of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, told jurors, “I don’t disagree with most of what Mr. Feldman said … She broke the law and made a stupid decision that cost three people their lives.” But “we have a distinction as to whether her acts constituted murder.”
Glenn told the jury, “You’re not going to hear that Ms. Duarte was ever given a Watson advisement,” referring to the warning defendants are given after a DUI conviction: that if they are in an alcohol- or drug-fueled deadly accident, they would face a murder charge instead of voluntary manslaughter.
“You’re going to have to make the determination what was going on in her mind” at the time of the collision, Glenn said. “When it is all said and done, Mr. Feldman is going to come up short… and I’m going to have to ask you to make a difficult decision… and that is to find Ms. Duarte not guilty.”