A Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy was ordered Thursday to stand trial on murder and reckless driving charges stemming from an off-duty crash in Torrance last year that killed his 23-year-old passenger and seriously injured two other people in the vehicle.
After a hearing that stretched over portions of two days, Superior Court Judge Alan B. Honeycutt denied the defense’s motion to dismiss the case against Daniel Manuel Auner, who is now 24 and on unpaid leave from his job with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Auner was allegedly driving 116 mph when his Dodge Charger struck the center median, and the vehicle was traveling at least 71 mph when it struck a traffic pole at the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and 190th Street just after midnight on July 8, 2020, according to stipulations between the prosecution and the defense.
The victim, Ashley Wells, died from multiple traumatic injuries, and two other people in the vehicle suffered multiple injuries that resulted in one of them being hospitalized for 22 days and the other being hospitalized for 10 days, according to the stipulations.
“It was a pretty chaotic scene,” Torrance police Officer Brooks Wing, who responded to the crash scene, told the judge.
The officer said he spoke with Auner, who told him that he slammed on his brakes and lost control of the vehicle after being caught off-guard by the curve of the road ahead. The defendant — who had a gash on his forehead — said he wasn’t sure how fast he was driving, according to Wing.
The officer said he didn’t smell any alcohol, and was concentrating his efforts on getting medical assistance for those who needed it.
Torrance police Det. Robert Schuffman, who investigated the collision, testified that he observed 398 feet of skid marks and subsequently concluded that the vehicle had been traveling at an “unsafe speed” on the street that has a posted speed limit of 45 mph.
A test performed of Auner’s blood-alcohol content about 1 1/2 hours after the crash measured .077, according to a stipulation between the prosecution and the defense. That is just under the amount considered legally impaired.
One of Auner’s attorneys, Pat Carey, told the judge that there was evidence of drinking but “no evidence of intoxication,” adding that two officers concluded that the cause of the crash was “unsafe speed and unsafe speed only.”
Deputy District Attorney Stephanie Miyata countered that Auner had a “heightened knowledge” of the dangers of drinking and speeding because of his work and had been “drinking alcohol all evening.”
The judge noted that a law enforcement officer would have specialized training about alcohol and speeding and said the evidence suggested that the defendant was “racing another vehicle.”
Honeycutt added that testimony indicated that Auner had disengaged the safety systems of his “muscle” car — something the detective said would take away the ability to help control the vehicle.
Auner was charged May 26 with one count each of murder and reckless driving, along with allegations that he caused great bodily injury.
He was initially jailed in lieu of $1 million bail after his May 25 arrest by Torrance police, but was released on bond June 11 within hours after Superior Court Judge Thomas Sokolov lowered his bail to $100,000.
The conditions of his bail include undergoing electronic monitoring and alcohol testing and not to drive a motor vehicle or consume any alcohol.
Honeycutt declined a request by an attorney representing the victims to raise Auner’s bail amount at the end of the latest hearing, saying that there was no change in the information that was presented during the June 11 hearing.
Outside court, family members said it was “gut-wrenching” and “emotional” to listen to the testimony. They said they had worried that Auner’s law enforcement affiliation would influence the case, with the mother of one of the injured victims saying she had worried that the criminal justice system wasn’t “going to take care of us.”
“We waited so long for this … That’s all I want — justice for my daughter,” said Wells’ father, Duane Alan Wells, who wore a “Justice for Ashley” face mask.
Auner is due back in a Torrance courtroom Jan. 3 for arraignment.
He is one of three Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies to be charged within about a two-week period.
A day after the case against Auner was filed, Kevin Honea was charged with a felony count of perjury for allegedly lying about finding a gun in a vehicle parked at a Gardena motel in May 2019. Honea, now 34, is due in court for a pretrial hearing Jan. 19.
Nicole Bell, 27, was charged was charged June 4 with one count each of assault by a peace officer, accessing and altering computer data without permission and altering, planting or concealing evidence as a peace officer in connection with a 2019 arrest in Lancaster. She pleaded not guilty last week and is due in court Feb. 9, when a date is scheduled to be set for a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to allow the case against her to proceed to trial.