Follow our live coverage of UCLA vs. No. 19 Utah

Police frustrated by witnesses' silence in fatal Valley race

Police are frustrated by lack of witnesses to an illicit Valley street race where two spectators were killed

In the hours after a high-speed crash killed two men on a wide Chatsworth street known for illegal racing, social media lit up with posts, from tributes to the dead to vigorous debates about the San Fernando Valley ritual of racing.

While police searched for the suspected driver of a Ford Mustang that spun out of control and plowed into a crowd gathered on the sidewalk for the predawn race, some online commenters admonished witnesses to keep quiet.

"Regardless of the fact that there was a race, nobody should even be putting up videos or nobody should cooperate with the cops," one person wrote on the popular Instagram account 818_1320, which uses the name Valley Racing.

Others posted screen shots of a spectator who spoke to television news outlets about the fatal crash. Though news crews only showed his torso and did not name him, commenters threatened him for talking openly about the illicit race.

The effort to black out information about the race has been frustrating police as they seek the drivers of the cars and the estimated 60 bystanders who watched the race early Thursday near Canoga Avenue and Plummer Street — an area known informally as the Canoga Speedway. By the time police arrived after the crash, the crowd had scattered.

The driver of the Mustang fled. On Friday, police were still searching for Henry Michael Gevorgyan, 21, who they said was driving the powerful car. The identity of the second driver in the race remains unclear.

Authorities have identified one of the fatally injured spectators as Eric Siguenza, 26. The name of the second person killed was not released. A third person, Luis Antonio Gonzalez, 21, was injured.

On Friday, a memorial of white carnations and candles grew at the foot of a light pole on Plummer Street, not far from where the men were struck.

"We'll miss you, friend," someone had written on one of the burning candles. "See you on the other side."

Although the cat-and-mouse game of organizing speed contests has changed with the advent of social media, street races have been a staple in the Valley for decades, LAPD West Valley Traffic Capt. John McMahon said. All racers need is a wide-open street free of traffic — making the desolate commercial and industrial zones across the city prime speedways.

The deadly crash also renewed calls for opening legal speedways, where racers could compete in a safe and controlled environment off city streets. Many of the once-poplar drag strips have vanished.

"The problem we're having these days is that with land development and zoning, we're losing our drag strips," said Jeffrey "Moldy Marvin" Hillinger, who has led an effort to reopen the Los Angeles County Raceway in Palmdale. The raceway was a popular drag strip frequented by racers from the San Fernando and Antelope valleys before it shut down in 2007.

"The whole idea is to get kids off the street and into an environment where it was safe and you could have crews, safety inspections and an ambulance and fire crew on hand in case someone does crash," he said.

Hillinger, the executive vice president of the Brotherhood of Street Racers' Antelope Valley Hot Rod Division, said longtime racers are angered by the street races and the dangerous stunts glamorized online and in movies such as "The Fast and the Furious."

Others, though, said the allure of street racing is driven in part by the danger and the freedom to race down city boulevards in cars that aren't necessarily street legal.

Still, Doug Stokes, the spokesman for the Irwindale Speedway, said an advantage of a controlled drag strip is that spectators don't have to drive to remote locations in the middle of the night and be prepared to scatter at a moment's notice when police show up.

"It's better than watching for a few minutes and running when the cops come at 3 in the morning," he said.



Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times