A former Los Angeles Police Department officer was ordered Thursday to stand trial on murder and other charges stemming from an alleged high-speed DUI crash that killed three people on the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway in Santa Fe Springs while he was off-duty almost two years ago.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge M.L. Villar rejected a defense motion to dismiss the case against Edgar Verduzco, 28, who has remained jailed on $6.1 million bail since he was arrested in April 2018 after the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office filed the case against him.
Verduzco — whose body visibly shook during some of the hearing in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom — is facing 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 Sept. 26, 2017, crash that killed Mario Davila, 60, Maribel Davila, 52, and their 19-year-old son, Oscar Davila.
Verduzco allegedly was speeding in his 2016 Chevrolet Camaro in a carpool lane on the freeway when the vehicle smashed into a 2014 Nissan containing the Davilas and then into a 2010 Toyota Scion, authorities said shortly after the crash.
The vehicle containing the Davila family struck a center divider and burst into flames, while the occupants in the other vehicle suffered minor injuries, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
During a 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 vehicle began braking within one second of the collision with the Nissan and that it 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.
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.”
The woman said that 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.
California Highway Patrol 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 the odor of alcohol emitting from 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. Chavez testified that a preliminary alcohol screening that was completed by Verduzco before he was taken to the hospital registered at 0.12 percent. It is illegal under state law to drive with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or above.
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.
Three of Verduzco’s training officers from the LAPD testified that he was with them when DUI arrests were made, and that the police union offers Uber rides twice a year for up to $40 so officers don’t drink and drive.
CHP Officer Emmanuel DaSilva, who was assigned to conduct a criminal investigation after 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 that bar 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. He had been crying during the court hearing, the defense lawyer said.
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 said that 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.”
The crash and the ensuing investigation resulted in the southbound lanes of the freeway in the area being closed for nearly six hours.
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 was initially arrested by the California Highway Patrol shortly after the crash and then released two days later while CHP officials awaited the results of lab tests, authorities said. He was arrested again by the CHP in April 2018 in Long Beach, authorities said.
He was subsequently “separated from service with the department” on July 21, 2018, according to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Media Relations Section.
Verduzco is due back in court for arraignment Aug. 19.
If convicted as charged, the former officer could face a possible maximum sentence of life in prison, according to the District Attorney’s Office.