A 29-year-old San Clemente woman was convicted Tuesday of second-degree murder for an alcohol-fueled crash in Huntington Beach last year that killed three Las Vegas teens on spring break.
Bani Marcela Duarte faces up to 51 years to life in prison, with sentencing scheduled for Oct. 30.
Jurors deliberated for about 90 minutes before convicting Duarte of three counts of second-degree murder, as well as driving under the influence of alcohol causing bodily injury, for causing the March 29, 2018, pre-dawn 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, where “she consumed an unfathomable amount of alcohol,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Dan Feldman told jurors.
Feldman said that a post-crash blood test showed her blood-alcohol level was .28%; far 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, telling the jury that 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.”
“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 his client “broke the law and made a stupid decision that cost three people their lives,” but argued “we have a distinction as to whether her acts constituted murder.”