A 31-year-old man was sentenced Friday to 15 years to life in prison for an alcohol-fueled crash that killed a veteran newspaper editor near his Santa Ana home two years ago.
Louie Robert Villa was convicted in August of second-degree murder, driving under the influence of alcohol causing injury, and DUI with a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit of 0.08% causing injury, all felonies. Jurors, who deliberated for about an hour, found true sentencing enhancements for inflicting great bodily injury.
Jurors deadlocked 10-2 in favor of guilt on a misdemeanor count of engaging in a speed contest. But Villa pleaded guilty to that county Friday and received a 90-day sentence, which will run concurrent to the life sentence.
Villa was convicted of killing 67-year-old Eugene Harbrecht, an Orange County Register editor, at Bristol Street and Santa Clara Avenue on July 30, 2020.
Co-defendant Ricardo Tolento Navarro, 26, who was allegedly racing with Villa prior to the crash, is awaiting trial.
Villa tearfully apologized to the victim’s widow and his family as well as a best friend who gave a victim impact statement to Orange County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Menninger.
“I want to say how truly sorry I am,” Villa said. “I am truly sorry to the family. … I just want to keep them in my prayers. … I hope one day they could have forgiveness.”
Villa said he wanted to take responsibility for his “bad choices” and be a better person while in prison.
“I want to take this time to be the person I need to be,” he said. “I know the sentence today is what I have coming.”
Senior Deputy District Attorney Brian Orue and Menninger acknowledged Villa’s contrition.
“I do respect tremendously his choice to speak today. Apologies go a long way,” Orue said. “And he is sincere in his desire to change.”
But Orue noted, “This was not a one-off choice. … This was an unfortunate pattern of bad decisions compounded by bad decisions that ended with a loss of life.”
Menninger noted that Villa had been driving on a suspended license due to a prior conviction for drunken driving.
“That’s the danger, that’s how this all started,” Menninger said.
Villa was on probation at the time of the crash and had repeatedly violated the terms of probation, Menninger said. She noted that Villa had a difficult childhood with a mother who had substance abuse issues and that one of his supporters said he drank to “numb the pain” of the traumatic childhood.
“I wish you luck in state prison,” Menninger said of Villa’s goal to better himself.
“I’ll do my best, your honor,” Villa replied.
Harbrecht’s close friend, Brian Rokos, told Menninger, “I worked with Gene Harbrecht at the Orange County Register for several years, but more than that, Gene was a close friend, someone I counted on being a life-long friend.”
Rokos recalled going to a USC football game with Harbrecht and how his friend saved him from an incident. Rokos said he saw some fans of the opposing team “taunting” USC fans, prompting him to “chase them down,” but just as he nearly caught up, “I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and it was Gene, coming to my `rescue.’ That’s the kind of friend Gene was.”
A witness to the crash, Adam Bendig, caught the alleged street race before the crash on dash-cam video, Orue said. Navarro was going an average of 77 mph in an Infiniti sedan in a 45 mph zone on Bristol from 17th Street, Orue alleged. Villa’s speed behind the wheel of a borrowed BMW was calculated by experts as 86 mph, according to the prosecutor.
When the collision occurred between the BMW and Harbrecht’s 2011 Ford Ranger pickup, a good Samaritan who saw or heard the explosive crash ran to the scene, Orue said.
One man ran from his home nearby and got a backyard hose to douse Harbrecht’s pickup “so it wouldn’t explode,” Orue said in his opening statement of the trial. Another neighbor pounded the vehicle’s window to help get Harbrecht out before the truck burst into flames, Orue said.
Villa “made some ridiculously bad choices” before the crash, Orue said.
Villa pleaded guilty in April 2012 to driving under the influence of alcohol, Orue said. At that time he was warned that if he got into another DUI collision that led to a death, he could face charges upgraded from manslaughter to murder.
As part of Villa’s sentence, he had to participate in a meeting with Mothers Against Drunk Driving members to hear more about the dangers of intoxicated driving, Orue said.
Following the 2020 crash, the first blood-draw from Villa at UC Irvine Medical Center, where Harbrecht was pronounced dead, showed the defendant’s blood-alcohol level at 0.19, Orue said. The second blood-draw showed it was about 0.25, more than three times the legal limit, Orue said. Four hours later it was at 0.15, nearly twice the limit, he added.
Harbrecht “did not have to die … if not for the adrenaline rush of speeding,” Orue said.
Villa’s attorney, Stacy Kelly of the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, said her client was driving to talk to a former boss about getting re-hired to his job.
Villa was “waiting at red light when a black Infiniti pulled up next to him,” Kelly said.
When the light turned green, Navarro veered in front of Villa, who “did everything he could to avoid that black Infiniti,” Kelly said.
“He slammed on his brakes and did everything he could to avoid” the crash, Kelly said.
She added that “No one disputes Mr. Harbrecht’s death was devastating … but it was not murder.”