A 47-year-old man pleaded guilty Friday and was sentenced to four years in prison for killing a former Miss Tustin in what prosecutors characterized as a deadly street race in Irvine.
Jurors deadlocked 11-1 for acquittal on a charge of second-degree murder for Patrick Le in February, prompting a plea deal for the defendant on Friday in the July 3, 2018, death of 43-year-old Carmella Van. Le pleaded guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter and was given credit for 1,000 days spent in custody.
Le apologized to the victim’s family in a statement read by his attorney, Brian Gurwitz.
“This is a difficult letter to write and I’m sure it’s even harder to receive, but I have to tell you how deeply sorry I am for the death of Carmella Vann,” Le said in the letter. “I wanted to let you know that I deeply regret the tragic event that took place on July 3, 2018, when Carmella Vann went to be with her Lord in heaven.
“Although nothing can change what had happened, I wanted you to know that I always regret and wish this tragic event never happened. I do not ask for forgiveness, but please know that I feel a lot of pain and remorse.”
Le vowed to spend “the rest of my remaining days to do good deeds in the name of Carmella.”
The victim’s father, Presley Vann, said in his victim impact statement in court that he forgave the defendant.
“Every day became a struggle more and more” since his daughter’s death, Presley Vann said. “But here’s the joy of the thing. Carmella was a born-again Christian and she is with her Lord and one day I will see her.
“I can’t deal with the bitterness and anger so I… want to extend to the defendant don’t worry about being forgiven. I forgive you. You did something that was wrong that day and along with Carmella you fell into the cracks of this broken world. I hope you move on with your life.”
Presley Vann said his daughter had a knack of picking up multiple languages through the years and won a few beauty contests, including Miss Tustin. She graduated from UC Irvine, he said.
The victim’s husband, Jonathan Chance, described how they bonded over an affinity for 1980s songs. Once when they were driving together and singing to an ’80s song on the radio they got to a shopping mall and immediately heard the same song, prompting Carmella Vann to tell her future husband, “I think I’m in trouble,” he said.
“The world is definitely not the same without her, without her humor and grace of heart,” Chance said. “She was an extraordinary human being. I felt so lucky that I was going to be with this person for the rest of my life.”
The two led a life that was like a “romantic comedy,” Chance said, adding, “And we didn’t even like romantic comedies. We preferred horror movies. It was an unintentional heaven-sent story.”
Chance said the last thing she looked up on her cellphone was the Jim James song, “Here in Spirit.”
“It was like a precognitive message to me from the beyond to say, `I’m here,’ ” Chance said, adding that when he saw that, “I cried and cried.”
Chance also recounted how difficult it was to “tell our 3 1/2-year-old son, Christopher, his mother was gone… Gone away forever in heaven. I didn’t even know how to tell him. That was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.”
Chance said his wife would leave love notes to him on his coffee cup in the morning and he would leave love notes to her on the bathroom mirror.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Janine Madera said in a trial brief in the case that it was not known how the street race began just after 3 p.m. on July 3, 2018.
Le was driving an Acura RL and co-defendant Anthony Gabriel Valenzuela was driving a Hyundai Veloster on Main Street and Red Hill Avenue in Irvine where the speed limit is 50 mph when a shuttle bus driver adjacent to Le heard the revving of engines, Madera said.
“When the light turns green, Le and Valenzuela take off from the limit line quickly and accelerate quickly, as is clearly shown in the video from the shuttle bus,” Madera wrote in the trial brief.
Another video from a business at 18071 Fitch shows the alleged race continuing, Madera alleged.
“Far from having the street to themselves, Le and Valenzuela are clearly going faster than the other vehicles,” Madera wrote.
“Valenzuela then moves into the No. 2 lane while Le chooses to move into the No. 1 lane rather than slow down and allow Valenzuela to take the lead. The front of Valenzuela’s vehicle stays slightly ahead of Le’s vehicle as he moves from the No. 2 lane into the No. 1 lane.”
Le did not slow down to let Valenzuela pass, but kept pace and veered over the double yellow divider and into oncoming traffic, Madera alleged. The cars were going 60 mph to 63 mph, she added.
The victim slammed on the brakes of her vehicle, but Le “never brakes,” Madera alleged.
The defendant “never turns his wheel to avoid a crash,” Madera wrote. “Le’s car shows no sign of loss of control. Instead, he drives straight into the victim’s vehicle, hitting her head on, forcing her backwards. Her insides were ripped apart by the force of the crash and she died instantly.”
Gurwitz argued that Le was forced out of his lane by Valenzuela, who is awaiting trial on charge of second-degree murder.
Gurwitz said Valenzuela has a lengthy history of driving violations dating back to running a red light in Santa Ana in May 2009 through a speeding ticket in Fountain Valley in November 2017. In all, Valenzuela has racked up eight speeding tickets, Gurwitz said.
Also, on Nov. 4, 2019, he was involved in a crash in Fountain Valley, Gurwitz said.